Most people would agree that Italian Americans have a style all their own. Simone Cinotto’s edited volume of fourteen essays puts this distinctive relationship with consumption into historical perspective. Making Italian America is not the first study of racial or ethnic consumption practices, but it stands out as an ambitious endeavour that extends the framework across four generations, multiple American cities and locales, transnational networks, and a variety of consumer goods, behaviours, and styles. This feat is accomplished, in part, by the editor’s decision to categorize the essays into three connected historical-thematic periods—namely, Shaping Identities through Commodities and Commercial Leisure (1910-1930), the Politics and Style of Italian American Consumerism (1930-1980), and Consuming Italian American identities in the Multicultural Age (1980-present). The articles themselves reveal a continuous, multi-generational Italian American response to the emerging culture of high consumption in American society. Their own type of consumption prioritized real and anticipated forms of prosperity, democratic freedoms, and individualized style. The latter priority created an Italian American aesthetic continually distinguishable from mainstream, white Protestant America, as well as from Italians’ black and Latino subaltern urban neighbours.
Contributors to the volume are careful not to draw a historical straight line from Ellis Island and New York tenement flats to more recent cases, such as mtv’s controversial show, Jersey Shore, and Italian-theme chain restaurants such as the Olive Garden. We find out, surprisingly, that the gritty Lower East Side and later flight to the suburbs are part of the same consumer heritage as television persona Michael «The Situation» Sorrentino. The Italian American saga moved from scarcity to relative abundance, and Italians rose in the mainstream imaginary from unwelcome newcomers and what Thomas Guglielmo elsewhere calls «probationary whites» to economic success stories and ideal white ethnics. Buoyed with increasing cultural capital in matters of food, fashion, and film, they navigated America’s changing social and political climates with an enduring set of values, motivations, and transnational orientations. The first, as mentioned, linked the American Dream with selective consumption. Home ownership was the first priority, but at all stages there were post-migration re-workings of la bella figura—typically defined as the value and practice of presenting one’s self in a positive light before others. Self-styling and improvisation are key components of the Italian American body culture and body sculpture analyzed within a number of chapters. These include: early twentieth-century women’s embrace of ready-made American fashions, 1950s Italian Doo Wop ensembles, the modelling and fitness entrepreneurship of bodybuilder Charles Atlas, the appeal of Italian American basketball coaches, and post-disco age Guido subculture. La bella figura materializes on the Italian American body where aspirations for upward mobility confront economic realities. The result in some, typically working-class cases, is flashy pretension and excessive adornment, signs that the mainstream middle-class and well-heeled Italian Americans interpret as a subset of Italian Americans who perpetuate negative stereotypes and «ill-suited» for mainstream status. Contributor Donald Tricarico rightfully points out that denunciations and dismissals miss the point that arriviste, low-brow appropriations of consumer fashions are important strategies for working-class Italian Americans engaged in local place-making and aspirational living. On a related note, selective consumption of commodified culture meets the domestic environment in Maddalena Tirabassi’s essay on early Italian American domestic material culture, where middle-class Anglo reformers discovered an interior décor merging vestiges of rural Italy with manufactured made-in-America embellishments.
The last theme weaves transnational connections, real and imagined, between the United States and Italy itself. There is Courtney Ritter’s superb essay on the Made in Italy fashion movement that targeted upper-middle-class Americans – but not Italian ethnics – with high-end suits. The campaign succeeded, in large part, because of a marketing campaign that associated these fabrics with the artisanal heritage and modern sophistication of northern Italy. In other essays, we find the high-brow vision of Italy juxtaposed, yet co-terminus, with the «backward,» emotionally unpredictable and family-centered class of southern Italians populating America’s original Little Italies. The interaction between an imagined Italy and constructed American Little Italy is a key feature of the papers studying interwar Italian ethnic press advertisements of «authentic» Italian food products, the introduction and screening of Italian films in New York movie houses, marketing and decoration in Italian-themed chain restaurants, and the transformation of New York’s older Italian enclaves into commercial destinations for the non-Italian tourist. The reader also finds a reflexive self-image of Italian America in Stefano Luconi’s interwar politics of consumption and Danielle Battisti’s investigation into letters sent to relatives in Italy that extolled the entwined virtues of democracy, consumption, and accumulation in the early Cold War period, when many feared that Italy was slipping into the Soviet Union’s orbit.
This collection of papers should be recognized first and foremost for its innovation and discursive strength, but a point of criticism might be helpful. This concerns the near-silence about religious consumption, which is surprising given how embedded the Roman Catholic Church is within the Italian American experience and the wide range of responses it has evoked, from devotion to revulsion. Religion is given some consideration, most of all with Ervin Kosta’s investigation of the decline of religious processions in New York boroughs and Maddalena Tirabassi’s inclusion of religious curios and prayer cards in pre-war domestic material culture. The reason that religion is otherwise almost absent might be that compelling studies of Italian American religiosity have already been written, notably by authors Robert Orsi, Jordan Stanger-Ross, and Sabina Magliocco. But perhaps the editor’s extensive and masterful introductory summary could have given more than a brief nod to the forms of modern consumption that, ironically, emerge from the ancient practice of consuming the Eucharist rite at Mass.
This minor criticism aside, Making Italian America is a ground-breaking contribution to the fields of ethnic and cultural studies and a handbook for anyone seeking to understand both the Italian American experience and America’s history as consumed by one of its largest minorities.
Stephen Fielding (University of Victoria)