A future for everyone
“Milan Fair was a window thrown open to the future, a forerunner from the beginning, heralding the most important achievements of mankind in every field of science and technology.” It was with these words in 1970 that Dante Ferrari captured the symbolism of the Milan Fair in the collective imagination of the postwar era...
Interno del padiglione del giocattolo alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1957 (post 1957/04/12 - ante 1957/04/27) by Ancillotti & MartinottiFondazione Fiera Milano
It was with these words in 1970 that Dante Ferrari captured the symbolism of the Milan Fair in the collective imagination of the postwar era its promise of the world to come, but also the excitement of a giant amusement park for young and old alike.
Entrata di piazza Giulio Cesare alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1952 (post 1952/04/12 - ante 1952/04/29) by Ancillotti & MartinottiFondazione Fiera Milano
The gateway to this world of imagination was a low, white rectangular building hidden behind the Four Seasons Fountain in Piazzale Giulio Cesare. If after hours jammed up in traffic on Via Buonarroti—files and files of supermini cars carrying entire families—you had come this far, then you had finally made it! Just one more step and six hundred thousand square metres of fairground wonder was yours for the taking.
The world has since changed and that little white building in Piazzale Giulio Cesare is no longer there. The future has not turned out how we imagined it would be in the 1950s, but Milan has nevertheless earned its place among Europe’s greats with a skyline graced by the three City Life towers.
But let’s first wind back the clock
Archivissima is a festival promoting and celebrating the world of archives. Over the years it has attracted thousands of people into the treasure rooms storing our public and private heritage.
Servizio ricevimento visitatori stranieri alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1961 Servizio ricevimento visitatori stranieri alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1961 (12/04/1961 - 27/04/1961) by PublifotoFondazione Fiera Milano
Now in its fourth edition, the festival this year is dedicated to women in archives and as part of the theme we went back to explore the golden years of the fairgrounds through the photographic, documentary, cinematographic, and sound holdings of the Fondazione Fiera Milano archives, in search of the women who left an important mark on change and emancipation.
Folla di visitatori ai passaggi dell'entrata di porta Domodossola alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1936 (post 1936/04/12 - ante 1936/04/27) by Non identificatoFondazione Fiera Milano
Among all the many people who brought the fairgrounds to life every year, where were the women?
What did they bring to the fairgrounds and what was their role in that real yet fantastical world?
Let’s stop and take the time to dig deeper into the holdings of the Fondazione Fiera Milano archives to trace their story—a story made of progress and setbacks, as told by contemporary photographs and reports that lead us to one special woman in particular, who marked a turning point in the history of the fairgrounds.
Stopping time with words
Lighting the way for us in our archival investigation is a woman whose way with words brings colour and life to a world gone by. Mariapia Beltrami was one of few women to forge a career in the male-dominated universe of 1950s journalism.
Visitatrice straniera alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1953 (12/04/1953 - 29/04/1953) by Non identificatoFondazione Fiera Milano
Her articles for the fairgrounds’ official paper transport us directly back into the excitement of the pavilions of the time, with their spaceships, futuristic architectures, technological discoveries, and crowds of eager visitors.
From «Il Giornale della Fiera», 1952.
“Why do you think Galvani prodded those poor flayed frogs and Edison so laboriously imprisoned that little yellow coil of electricity in the glass of his first, rudimentary light bulb?"
Insegne pubblicitarie luminose alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1952 (1952) by Non identificatoFondazione Fiera Milano
"To give light to humans and life to electricity companies, perhaps? To light up homes and roads, ballrooms and attics, Buckingham Palace and the red star on the Kremlin’s pinnacle? The truth is that electricity was discovered—and variously applied by technology and then mastered by industry—so that on April nights in a certain city in a certain country people could raise to the moon...
Mostra-vendita Motta alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1952 (post 1952/04/12 - ante 1952/04/29) by Non identificatoFondazione Fiera Milano
...the shimmers of a thousand colours, the beating of a thousand incandescences, the flickers of a thousand flames without fire.”
Visitatrici su una panchina alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1941 (post 1941/04/12 - ante 1941/04/27) by Bruni FotoFondazione Fiera Milano
With the light of her torch, and unmistakeable style, we are now ready to delve into the photographs of the women who made the history of the Milan Fair and discover the stars of the microcosm that the world of the fairgrounds was of Italian society as a whole—and not only, considering the international nature of the event—in a postwar era of unprecedented change.
Gruppo di donne in costume tradizionale alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1932 (post 1932/04/12 - ante 1932/04/27) by Argo Agenzia FotograficaFondazione Fiera Milano
A folkloristic backdrop
From the 1920s until the outbreak of war, the archives show how the role of women was largely relegated to the picturesque backdrop of women in traditional costume at the service of power and wielded as a propaganda tool...
... especially after the League of Nations voted to impose sanctions on Fascist Italy in response to the regime’s invasion of Ethiopia (the sanctions were applied from November 18th, 1935 to July 14th, 1936).
Spotlight on the hostess
Women gradually emerged from the shadows into a new, less passive role that would last well into the postwar era, with the advent of the hostess. Presented as “users” of the products on show, they would become a classic fixture of stands that advertised a specific brand or product model.
Sewing machines (1959)Fondazione Fiera Milano
Casseforti PAS ditta Parma Antonio e figli alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1951 Casseforti PAS ditta Parma Antonio e figli alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1951 (12/04/1951 - 29/04/1951) by Non identificatoFondazione Fiera Milano
Particularly telling is a promotional image for PAS safes, dated 1951. In it, three ladies dressed in the sober elegance of straight knee-length skirts are enclosed in an enormous vault.
The contrast between their demure smiles and the sense of claustrophobia elicited by the heavy iron vault advertised speaks to us of a time when women were compelled to make the best of a bad bargain.
Gruppo di visitatori stranieri con interprete alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1963 Gruppo di visitatori stranieri con interprete alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1963 (12/04/1963 - 25/04/1963) by Non identificatoFondazione Fiera Milano
In the 1960s, the hostess became a crucial figure in the life of the fairgrounds. Versed in English, French, and German, they would assist foreign tourists and often escort around the stands international buyers who had come to Milan for business deals and to assess the latest advances on show.
In her military-style uniform, the interpreter in this photograph has the serious look of someone who is never caught off guard. The flags on her left sleeve, however, are not the symbols of the armies she fights for, but show the languages she speaks.
The age of the consumer
The postwar economic boom ushered in an advanced stage of capitalism in Italian society, as income levels and living standards rose and became stabilized.
Pubblicità lavastoviglie Lapibrol (marzo 1963)Fondazione Fiera Milano
In this framework, households serve the function of consumption, expressing demand for the goods supplied by the production system, in its role of balancing needs and resources.
Mostra "La Fiat per la casa" alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1965 Mostra "La Fiat per la casa" alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1965 (14/04/1965 - 25/04/1965) by Non identificatoFondazione Fiera Milano
In practice, those tasks were performed by the mother-housewife, whose work within the domestic walls constituted a full-time job, albeit one without social acknowledgement or financial reward.
Interno del padiglione forniture e impianti per la casa, il negozio e l'albergo alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1963 (12/04/1963 - 25/04/1963) by Non identificatoFondazione Fiera Milano
Housewives could be defined as household administrators and expert consumers—roles of significant privilege and meaning as they were initially performed by middle-class women, in an age when working-class women were mostly out of the home on the labour market.
Visita della first lady di Argentina Evita Peron alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1947 (post 1947/06/14 - ante 1947/06/29) by Ancillotti & MartinottiFondazione Fiera Milano
Stars and celebrities from around the world
The Milan Fair was also a red-carpet event attracting actresses, singers, and celebrities of worldwide fame to Milan.
One such appearance to have gone down in history was the 1947 visit of Argentina’s first lady, Evita Peron. The photographs held by the archive show her arriving by car in the company of the Italian foreign minister of the time, Carlo Sforza. Her complicated hair-do with its floral arrangement reveal an attention to detail proportional to the importance given to the event.
Beside her, Carlo Sforza sports a fashionable straw boater—even at Italy’s leading trade event, and one of the biggest in the world, there was space for a touch of leisurely style.
Visita dell'ambasciatrice degli Stati Uniti Clare Boothe Luce alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1954 (1954/04/22) by Ancillotti & MartinottiFondazione Fiera Milano
In 1956 the American Ambassador Clare Boot Luce is one of the international guest of the Fair: photographs portrait her while she’s walking between pavilions, turntables, crawler tractors, motorcycles.
Through all pavilions, she is always surrounded by men as far as the eye can see. Power is already a women business abroad. In Italy, more time will be needed before having a woman representing an institution.
Visita della cantante greca Nana Mouskouri alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1963 Visita della cantante greca Nana Mouskouri alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1963 (4/19/1963) by Non identificatoFondazione Fiera Milano
The famous Greek singer Nana Mouskouri—one of the best-selling artists of all times—was instead received at the fairgrounds by the Milanese fashion model Maria Grazia Bettini, where together they were UN ambassadors for the release of the “All Star Festival” long-playing album released in 1963 by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
In one snapshot of them talking, their faces are relaxed and their smiles appear sincere, as though enjoying a respite from the male gazes they constantly attracted throughout the rest of the event.
So who should we choose as the most representative female face of the Milan Fair? It is impossible to say—the voice of women is a collective voice that finds its strength in unity. Perhaps only the archive can help us find an answer that respects that premiss…
Buzzati points the way
A piece by the writer Dino Buzzati, published by the «Corriere della Sera» on April 14th, 1970, can help us unravel the mystery and put us on the right path. Curiously, it reads more like a screenplay for a film, than a newspaper article.
Centro Internazionale degli Scambi alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1961 Centro Internazionale degli Scambi alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1961 (12/04/1961 - 27/04/1961) by PublifotoFondazione Fiera Milano
It starts like this: “Outside the gates of the fairgrounds. Various crowds. Mostly male. Lots of lean men in dark suits and sunglasses carrying “executive”-style briefcases. Flags. A festive air. It is the morning of the opening day. Milan in person holds a sort of press conference".
Mostra "L'era delle materie plastiche" alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1953 (post 1953/04/12 - ante 1953/04/29) by Non identificatoFondazione Fiera Milano
"Milan speaks up:'So, dear friends, for the forty-eighth time this morning, I woke up feeling different from yesterday, more enterprising, more optimistic. Only the Fair, I must confess, gives me this joie de vivre. But, hold on, I still haven’t seen her in person… Franci! Franci!'."
Darsena per il Salone della nautica nel piazzale Milano alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1953 (post 1953/04/12 - ante 1953/04/29) by Ancillotti & MartinottiFondazione Fiera Milano
"(The secretary-general Mr Michele Franci, cavaliere del lavoro, steps up). Franci: 'I know… it’s the same story every year… it never seems possible that she’ll be ready by the scheduled day… she always keeps us on edge… but then she’s always on time… So, dear Milan, there’s nothing to fear even today'.”
"Milan: '[...] Um, listen, Franci, the authorities will be arriving soon and there’s still no sign of the Fair… there’s no way she can make it by now… You tell me how we can save face…' Franci: 'But she’s always been on time!' Milan: 'Unless she’s already here, in the crowd… Do you know what she’s wearing?'"
Albero in un'aiuola alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1940 (post 1940/04/12 - ante 1940/04/27) by Bruni FotoFondazione Fiera Milano
"Franci: 'I don’t know what she’s wearing today… Last time I saw her, last year, she was wearing a blue-grey skirt suit, very smart, with just a diamond broach on her lapel…' Milan: 'Mini-skirt?' Franci: 'Oh no. I tell you, it was a very smart suit. Times have changed since when she’d turn up dressed as a farmer’s wife...'"
Visitatori alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1935 (1935) by Stabilimento Fotografico CrimellaFondazione Fiera Milano
The dialogue continues in Buzzati’s irresistible prose until a Businessman speaks up—in the 1980s they would have called him a yuppie. He steps away from a large crowd of others like himself and approaches Milan speaking six different languages all at once to raise a precise doubt.
Interno del padiglione tessili e abbigliamento alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano del 1957 (12/04/1957 - 27/04/1957) by Non identificatoFondazione Fiera Milano
"Businessman: 'Pardon me, sirs, if I interrupt. But are you quite sure she is dressed as a lady?' Franci: 'What do you mean?' Businessman: 'I mean, are you quite sure your dear, lovely Fair is always a lady?'"
And with that specious question posed by Buzzati’s Businessman we have the enlightenment we were after: the woman we are looking for, that symbol of progress, transformation, emancipation, sisterhood, style, and strength, is none other than the Fair itself!
Italian Archive Sound Atlas
If you are a podcast fan, you can listen to this story right here (or on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Music, or Deezer), narrated by the voice of Valentina De Poli...
Interno del padiglione del giocattolo alla Fiera Campionaria di Milano de l 1965 (14/04/1965 - 25/04/1965) by Non identificatoFondazione Fiera Milano
... who has chosen to dedicate an entire episode of the first season of the Italian «Archive Sound Atlas», an on-demand audio project curated by Promemoria for Archivissima 2020, to the Fiera Milano Archive—and to the women who have helped make its fortunes.
This virtual path has been created in collaboration with Promemoria Group and Archivissima Festival.
Fondazione Fiera Milano Historical Archive: