Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life


The Serpent – TV series review Episodes 1 & 2

The Serpent is a new 8-part TV series currently showing on the BBC in the UK. It is set in the 1970s and is based on the real-life case of the French serial killer, Charles Sobhraj. In 1975-76 Sobhraj posed as gem dealer in Thailand, Nepal and India and carried out a number murders, particularly targetting Western tourists. The drama also follows the story of Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg. He stumbled upon the case when the parents of a young Dutch tourist write to the Ambassador asking for help in locating their daughter and her boyfriend, who had seemingly disappeared. He spends many months trying to uncover the truth behind their disappearance, despite the disapproval of his superiors.

Episode 1 opens with scenes from a party in Bangkok. Scenes of revelers are juxtaposed with scenes showing the host and hostess attending a sick party-goer and also rifling though his bags for his passport and money.

Going by the names, Alain and Montique, Sobhraj and his girlfriend, Marie-Andree appear as a supremely glamorous couple. They are chic, they have a beautiful house with a pool and their invitations are seemingly generous and warm.

Seventies sophistication?

Seventies sophistication?

There is a blend of vintage footage interspersed with the story, which helps immerse the viewer in the period setting and location. I particularly love the seventies airport scenes.

The next part of the episode introduces young back-packer, Willem shopping for an engagement ring. He falls hook, line and sinker for the suave “Alain” and sophisticated “Monique”, as they persuade Willem that they can make up a sapphire engagement ring at a fraction of the price of those in the  shop window.

Wowza- this orange shirt and the scarf!

Wowza- this orange shirt and the scarf!

Finally, we also get to see the other main protagonist in this series, Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, running late for a social event. He has just been sent a letter from anxious parents, worried that their daughter and her boyfriend have not been in contact for over two months.

A cool seventies tennis outfit

A cool seventies tennis outfit

Unfortunately, in this first episode there is a lot of jumping between different time frames which can be a little confusing. We also get a little back-story involving two back-packers, Celia and soon-to-be Buddhist nun Teresa. They too get swept into the Bangkok party scene and find themselves at the Sobhraj house.

A very glamorous green party dress

A very glamorous green party dress

The episode ends with Herman’s investigation taking an unexpected turn when he gets some interesting information from the Australian embassy.

In Episode 2 we go right back to the start. We see Marie-Andree meeting Sobhraj for the first time. Even at this point Sobraj’s modus operandi appears to be well-developed. Taking a liking to Marie-Andree, and wanting her then boyfriend out of the picture, we see the boyfriend becoming “ill” and retching in the bathroom after the couple accept a drink with Sobhraj.

Then, it’s back to Herman’s investigation. The Thai police seem unable to devote any resource to the case so Herman Knippenberg doggedly continues with his investigations alone.

Oh Mrs Knippenberg you're not as glam as Marie-Andree, but when I finally sure the whole length of this dress I was much more impressed with your elegant style

Oh Mrs Knippenberg you’re not as glam as Marie-Andree, but when I finally saw the whole length of this dress I was much more impressed with your elegant style

He receives a bundle of letters previously written by the young Dutch couple and they mention a “French gem dealer”. Herman quickly follows up on this lead and gets to hear about a woman who has reported “wild accusations” about a French gem dealer to various embassies.

We also see the early days of the romance between Sobhraj and Marie-Andree. Clearly, Marie-Andree is infatuated, but he isn’t quite the attentive boyfriend she desires.

At the beach

At the beach

In this episode we are introduced to Dominique, who Sobhraj brings back to the house because he is “ill”. We’ll get to hear more from him in the next episode.

Fantastic denim skirt with a white belt

Fantastic denim skirt with a white belt

Obviously, being a real case we can all google what happened, so I wasn’t sure how the plot could be developed from here in an exciting way. If you’ve been watching this series so far, you’ll note that I am already a little behind and episode 3 has already aired….but just to let you know, it gets much more interesting….


Bath Museum: No1 Royal Crescent

One of the (many) things I’ve missed this year has been my trips to Bath and a visit to the Bath Fashion Museum. Their collection is absolutely huge and they hold a differently themed exhibition each year, as well as their permanent exhibition. Unfortunately, the Bath Fashion Museum has been closed since the start of the lock-down, but we (Mr Steely and myself) decided to visit one of the other museums in the city, which we’d never visited before, No 1 Royal Crescent.

First of all, a word about visiting the museum this year: you need to book online and attend at the pre-booked time. There is a one-way system when you walk around, but because there aren’t many people around in each time-slot, we didn’t feel inhibited by it and were able to take our time. You have to make sure each room is empty of other visitors before you can enter it, but with the time-slots this didn’t present a problem.

No 1 Royal Crescent has been decorated and furnished just as it might have been during the period 1776-1796. The refurbishment was only finished in 2013 and previously the house had fallen into disrepair, being at one time a student house. In fact, until 2013, the house had been split into two properties. When the Bath Preservation Trust acquired both 1 and 1A Royal Crescent, it reunited the two parts of the house.

The house was built by John Wood, the Younger between 1767 and 1774. The crescent forms the top part of the question mark with Brock Street and The Circus (which incidentally was built by John Wood’s father).

The Georgian neo-classical architecture with its large windows, high celings and emphasis on symmetry took as its inspiration the classical architecture of Greece and Rome. One of the things that is so noticeable about the rooms is just how light and airy they are.

The first room is a dining room where guests would be entertained.

No 1 Royal Crescent: The Dining Room

No 1 Royal Crescent: The Dining Room

A pineapple was proudly displayed on the table (sorry I didn’t manage to get it in the photo above). This fruit was a precious commodity in the Georgian era. In fact, it was known for pineapples to be passed around neighbours, just to be placed as a centre-piece on the dining room table.

The ladies bedroom, has a selection of clothes laid out on the bed. There is a gown with lace cuffs, pink stays and an embroidered pocket. Beside the bed is a wig and a wig-scratcher. The wig-scratcher looked a little like back-scratcher!

No 1 Royal Crescent: Ladies bedroom

No 1 Royal Crescent: Ladies bedroom

I love the embroidered pocket shown here. In this era, pockets were like little begs that were tied around the waist and hidden under the skirts of the gown.

The Withdrawing room: for after dinner pursuits – music, gambling

After dinner, guests would have “withdrawn” to the Withdrawing room. There is a harpsichord, ready for a young lady of “accomplishments” to play!

There’s a brilliant demonstration of this very harpischord being played here.

The Withdrawing room: tea is served!

The Withdrawing room: tea is served!

You may just notice in this photo that the tea caddy next to the tea pot has a key hole, tea being so precious that it had to be kept under lock and key. After the tea was brewed and served upstairs, the tea would be taken downstairs to the servants and used another time.

On the staircase are a number of fun Georgian prints.

No 1 Royal Crescent Staircase: The gentleman on the right looks completely exhausted!

I’m not sure who the characters are in this cartoon, does anyone know? Obviously, some references to the French Revolution and the British royalty there.

No 1 Royal Crescent Staircase:

No 1 Royal Crescent Staircase: Begone thou narrow-minded lout nor dare to look again upon the face of Heaven……

Finally, we enter the servant’s quarters. The average consumption of sugar in Britain “rose from four pounds (1.8 kg) per head in 1700 to eighteen pounds (8.2 kg) in 1800. Most sugar in Britain went into tea, but towards the end of the eighteenth century, confectionery, jams and chocolates became extremely popular. There’s a cone of sugar shown on the table in the photo.

I wonder how much thought these fashionable ladies and gentlemen gave to the exploitation of slave labour and the slave-trade origins of the sugar in their tea. In the Victorian era, a group of ladies formed a society for the protection of birds and boycotted the wearing of feathers in their hats. I did find a reference to the Free Produce Movement, an international boycott of goods produced by slave labour. It is one of the earliest examples of consumer activism. But turning a blind eye to the horrific reality of slavery or even endorsing it was far more common: in the novel Mansfield Park, by one-time Bath resident Jane Austen, the wealthy Bertram family own plantations in Antigua, and it seems the characters accept this as common-place. There has been much speculation about the views of Jane Austen herself; the references to the slave trade in her books are few and oblique. For a more in-depth look at Jane Austen and a thorough discussion of her likely opinions of the slave trade, this post is particularly interesting.

Kitchen: Note the cone of sugar on the table.

The housekeeper would have had here own room in the house, where she could quietly do the household accounts and even invite guests for tea.

The final room on the tour is the servant’s hall. There’s a huge table in the middle of the room, where the servants would have eaten. and performed tasks such as mending, and polishing. This post contains details about the servant’s quarters and includes a photo of the kitchen in No 1 Royal Crescent before it was restored.

On the wall there is a little treadmill installed. Apparently, in Georgian times it was quite common to employ a small dog to turn the spit. These turn-spit dogs were described as “long-bodied, crooked-legged and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them” – I’m not surprised about that “unhappy look”.

Servants Quarters: the poor dog....

Servants Quarters: the poor dog….



#Blacklivesmatter: Silence, then think, then listen, then act…..

Empty plinth where Colston statue stood

Last Tuesday, like everyone else, I had an Instagram feed filled with black squares. I liked a few, and a few more appeared. I liked a few more, then more appeared again. Then I began to wonder what I was doing. Was this the best way to support #BlackLivesMatter? It wasn’t long before a backlash appeared. And then I wasn’t sure what to do. So, I took to the internet and had a think.

And whilst I read and thought, something happened, locally. On Sunday afternoon, the statue of Edward Colston in the centre of Bristol was toppled and thrown into the docks.  This statue has been in the centre of Bristol since 1895 and commemorates Edward Colston, an 18th century merchant, who bequeathed his wealth to the city. All that wealth came from human suffering; the transatlantic slave trade.

There have been many attempts, over the years (for more information, see the Countering Colston campaign), to have the statue peacefully removed. Campaigners have also tried to add a plaque to the plinth to recognise and acknowledge the people Colston and others in the city enslaved. However, there has always been opposition from the Society of Merchant Venturers.

There are other buildings and streets that commemorate Colston too. The author and historian, Phillipa Gregory attended the Colston Girls School in Bristol. Her book, A Respectable Trade is a novel about the devastating consequences of the slave trade set in 18th-century Bristol. She wrote it after researching the history that her old school had blanked out. The school has steadfastly refused to drop its name, although this week the replica of the Colston’s statue has been removed from the school’s reception. Colston Hall, Bristol’s premier music venue, has also removed its name from the building’s facade today, but a decision had already been made in 2017, that they would use another name when they re-open following building works.

For more reading on the slave trade and Bristol’s past, I would recommend this article by David Olusoga. He has also broadcast a recent programme that follows the history of a single house in Bristol.

Like many others, I have passed the Colston statue on the way to work, several times a week for twenty years. I’ve passed it and known, with discomfort, its history for years.

Discomfort. And Silence. These are the words that has come up again and again in what I have been reading over the last few days. To be someone without racist views is not enough. To be anti-racist is to be someone who speaks up too. I think in this city, the Colston statue is symbolic of this. Letting those few with racist views, “get away with it”, because the conversations are difficult.

I have a relative who gets carried away by conspiracy theories online. I like the way my son talks to him about his views. He challenges him, but always manages to continue to engage with him, making sure that differences in opinion don’t shut down the conversation. It probably helps that my son comes across as a young person wanting to question the world about him. I would do well to bear this in mind when I come across racist views; to have conversations with patience, care and diligence in a way that can influence the listener.

And, of course, I need to be a listener too. There’s always more to learn.  I’m the next chooser for my book group (fiction only). I keep a reading wish list so that I always have a something to suggest when it is my turn. I haven’t pinned down my choice yet, but I have been considering one Andrea Levy‘s or Ngozi Adichie‘s books.

I’ve been looking around for some book lists to share with my group too, which could include non-fiction too. So far, I’ve seen, the Guardian reading list, the Vogue reading list and Pink Mimosa by Jacinta has posted a great reading list, which has a fashion angle to it.

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Swipe left! Welcome to the PinkMimosabyJacinta book club! I’m no professor, but I am ready to share my knowledge with you (in addition to whatever knowledge I’ve been dropping in my stories lately) in this book club. Just for context, I have a degree in African and African American Studies with minors in history and art history from Duke University. I took classes in public policy, philosophy, cultural anthropology, and economics while a student. I’m a wide reader of history (as any of my long time friends will tell you) who favors Medieval history, 18th century French and Russian history, African American and comparative Caribbean history, and 20th century European history- specifically focusing on women’s roles before, during, and after World War II. So let’s do this! The first book is Liberated Threads by Dr. Tanisha Ford @soulistaphd (published by the UNC University Press) about Black women’s clothing during periods of unrest and protest, so basically all of the 20th and 21st centuries and the intentional symbolism behind their (our) choices. I’m shooting for July 11th so please pick up the book from a local bookstore (if your local bookstore doesn’t have it they can order it) and let’s get ready to discuss. I’ve included future selections because this won’t be your average book club. Politics welcome here because it informs and influences everything we do. See you July 11th on live and zoom! Dm me for questions! Also I recognize I have a misspelling somewhere but the horse is out of the barn at this point lol! #bookclubs #bookclubsofinstagram #virtualbookclub #bookclubpick #fashionhistory #historyoffashion #africanamericanhistory #happysunday #nationalmuseumofafricanamericanhistoryandculture #blackhistory #blacklivesmatter #blackmakersmatter #nonfiction #sundayvibes #liberatedthreads

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If anyone has any more recommendations I would be very grateful.

I’ve also been thinking about how it is possible to provide more support for #BlackLivesMatter. First of all, I’m so glad the Sewing Weekender has chosen the Stephen Lawrence Trust as one of its charities and this is a list of ten anti-racist charities in the UK.

In the UK we have the Black Book, which is a directory of black-owned businesses. I also regularly browse through Kick Starter, which is a great way to fund and support start-ups. I often turn to it to support local businesses.

Black Makers Matter is great new initiative for supporting those who love to craft and make and affecting change in the sewing community.

Recent events should be just a catalyst for change and the small actions I’ve done in the last week are nowhere near enough. This won’t be my last post on this topic. So here’s to the future and to change.

Thank you for listening.


Seventies Fashion: The Mafia Only Kills in Summer TV series Episodes 5 & 6

I’ve got a review of two more episodes from The Mafia Only Kills in Summer, still showing on 4OD.

Episode 5 – Even mafiosos go to heaven

After Lorenzo’s boss, known as “un bravo cristiano” (a good Christian) dies suddenly, Lorenzo has the possibility of promotion. However, Lorenzo’s conscience continues to bother him. On the one hand, he abhors the use of “favours” to advance in Sicilian society, but at the same time is worried that his scruples are holding his family back.

Pia invites Lorenzo to pick her up from work. She hopes that when he turns up at the school, he’ll see how far she has to travel each day by bus and also show her romantically-inclined colleague, Antonio that her husband exists.

Salvatore is troubled by questions that no-one seems to be able to answer for him; do Mafiosi go to heaven? What are good favours and what are bad ones? He writes them all down in his red notebook. When Salvatore leaves his red notebook in the car, Lorenzo reads through it and is most troubled by question 560 – Who is the man who drives Mum home?

Angela wants to go to a Patti Smith concert in up North in Florence, but she needs to convince her parents to let her go.

The Giammarresi family at the beach

The Giammarresi family at the beach

Pia wears a couple of absolutely fantastic jackets (or are they coats?) in this episode too. The white coat above and this blue jacket. It was difficult to find a modern pattern with those big lapels, but the vintage Simplicity 6175 is a very good match.

Pia's blue jacket

Pia’s blue jacket


Clockwise from top left: Pia’s jacket on set, vintage pattern Simplicity 6175, vintage pattern Style 015, Bamboo coat from Waffle Patterns.

Episode 6 – Liggio Plus Two

For the Giammarresi family love is in the air. Angela appears to have a new admirer, who spoils her with flowers and an invitation to a gala. Meanwhile, her school-friend Torino, who is hopelessly in love with her, agonises over the creation of a compilation tape.

Giammarresi family introductions

Giammarresi family introductions, I love the glasses on the coffee table

Salvatore, still in love with Alice, finds out that she has broken up with his friend, Fofo. Could this leave the coast clear for Salvatore? He hopes to impress her by taking her sailing in Torino’s boat.

Pia thinks she has finally secured her much promised permanent post as a teacher, but can she trust her colleague Antonio?

For this episode I have to include the dress that Angela wears to the Gala. Even though it doesn’t exactly scream seventies style, it is very elegant and perfect for the occasion. I think it has a more sixties vibe, which reflects in the vintage choices I found online. The Wear Lemonade pattern is actually a rather good match for the neckline and skirt.

Angela at the gala

Angela at the gala


Simplicity 6653, Vintage pattern Vogue 5624, Gloria dress by Wear Lemonade

Clockwise from top left: Angela’s Gala dress on set, vintage pattern Simplicity 6653, Vintage pattern Vogue 5624, Gloria dress by Wear Lemonade

One of my favourite garments appears in this episode too; Pia’s front pleat skirt. Pia wears a lot of great work outfits, mixing and matching skirts with colourful blouses and jumpers. It’s not easy to see, but it is actually made from corduroy.

Clockwise from left: Pia's front pleat skirt on set, vintage pattern Style 2025, vintage pattern Simplicity 7625, Hepburn Riding skirt from Style Arc

Clockwise from left: Pia’s front pleat skirt on set, vintage pattern Style 2025, vintage pattern Simplicity 7625, Hepburn Riding skirt from Style Arc



Links to sewing patterns:

Pia’s jacket

Bamboo Coat

Angela’s Gala Dress

Gloria Dress

Pia’s skirt

Hepburn Riding Skirt

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Bath Fashion Museum 2019: Collection Stories and Little and Large

I recently visited the Bath Fashion Museum for what is now turning out to be my annual appointment. Each year the musuem launches a new exhibition and of course there is the main section of the Museum featuring the “History of Fashion through 100 Objects”. This year the Collection Stories exhibit focuses on their collection of nineteenth century clothing and accessories. Here are some of the highlights of the exhibition.

Seventeenth century gloves

Seventeenth century gloves

Hats and Bonnets

The collection displays straw poke bonnets from the mid-nineteenth century. When they were worn the bonnets were tied with silk ribbons and there were often colourful silk trimmings added to the crown or the rim.

The poke bonnet came into fashion at the beginning of the 19th century. With its wide, rounded front brim which typically juts out beyond the wearer’s face, it complemented the fashionable hairstyles of the day where hair was worn up at the back with loops or ringlets at the sides. The name may refer to the way the brim “pokes” out or may be a reference to how the wearer’s hair can be contained within the bonnet.


Straw bonnet, 1840s

Straw bonnet, 1840s

The most desirable straw came from Tuscany. In fact, this article claims that there are still fifteen Florentine companies manufacturing straw hats to this day. In these hats each braid is plaited into the next so that the fabric of the bonnet appears continuous.

However, towards the end of the 18th century the French Revolution slowed imports, so most of the straw hats were manufacture in Britain. The initial plaiting of the straw was carried out as a cottage industry. The plaited braids were then sewn together. The hats were made up by milliners in cities and towns.

Some of the hats on display had the original label still visible. One of them showed that the hat was made by “Mrs Prout’s Straw and Tuscan Establishment, Totnes”. Just thought I’d add that labels in clothes, by contrast, were not seen until the 1870s

Lace and Whitework

In the early 19th century, collars and cuffs were separate items of dress. They would have been carefully tacked onto dresses and then removed when the dress was washed. The 1820s and 30s saw a fashion for large collars almost like small capes.

The collar below on the right features whitework, rather than lace. The white embroidery on white fabric was quicker to produce than lace and therefore not as costly; it was used almost as a lace substitute in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Lace collars

On the right, triple layered cream embroidered net pelerine collar with pendant squared ends, about 1827

Wedding Dresses

This dress made for the wedding of Emily Poor on June 30th 1900 and it was made by a New York dressmaker, O’Donovan. It came to the Museum complete with matching accessories and many items of the bride’s trousseau, including underclothes and nightwear. The dress is made of silk satin, with a separate bodice. There is a high collar and cuffs made from needle lace.

Wedding Dress, 1900

Wedding Dress, 1900


Bride's trousseau, 1900

Bride’s trousseau, 1900

Little and Large

This section of the display featured fashion dolls, also called “poupée de la mode” or moppets from the eighteenth century. These were dolls that replicated the fashions of the time, allowing the buying to view a particular outfit before it was made up into a full-sized dress.

I found a good description of their use in The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grisson, which I read recently:

I have been assured that these moppets are wearing the very latest in London fashion. I am having both of these copied for you by an excellent dressmaker here in Williamsburg, and I will bring the finished product to you in the spring. It is my heart’s desire to see you wear them in Philadelphia. I am hopeful that you approve of the fabric and colour selection.”

The moppets were wooden dolls with painted faces, and their human hair was done up in elaborate curls. Their dresses were of a gossamer fabric: one was an empire style in blue, the body and train trimmed in elegant silver embroidery; the other, similar in style was a pale cream trimmed with white embroidery and ivory ribbons.”

This doll was donated by Mrs Mary Taylor and had belonged to one of her aunts, whose father had been rector of Bath Abbey.

This doll was donated by Mrs Mary Taylor and had belonged to one of her aunts, whose father had been rector of Bath Abbey.

Wax was a popular material in Britain for making dolls in the mid to late 19th century. Many makers were from Italian families who had settled in Britain and adapted the tradition for creating figures for the “presepe” (nativity scenes). The clothes the dolls were dressed in, were often made in Paris.

Fashion doll, circa 1880s. Princess line silk bodice and skirt, 1880s

Fashion doll, circa 1880s. Princess line silk bodice and skirt, 1880s

Fashionable accessories completed the look: the doll below in plum coloured satin came with earrings and pearl necklace, ribbons in her hair, shoes that perfectly matched her dress and all the layers of underwear that helped to form the fashionable outline.

Good quality dolls of this type with realistic body shapes designed to show off the latest fashions were popular from the 1860s to the 1880s. They would have been expensive to buy. The various parts – including the porcelain head, arms and legs and kid leather body were often made in Germany and assembled by French doll makers such as Jumeau or Gaultier.

Fashion dolls, circa 1870s. Plum coloured satin dress trimmed with ecru lace.

Fashion dolls, circa 1870s. Plum coloured satin dress trimmed with ecru lace.

When the doll was given to the Musuem in 1968, she was so precious and fragile that she travelled in a box and was met by Museum staff from Bath Spa train station.

More "mauve measles"

More “mauve measles”


Plums and purples were a very popular colour in the 1860s – 70s. The first synthetic purple dyestuff, was discovered in 1856 by William Henry Perkin. William made his discovery whilst experimenting in a makeshift home laboratory. He named his product Mauveine. It was made from aniline, an oily liquid found in coal tar. Unlike previous natural dyes, the new aniline dye was colour fast and could be produced in industrial quantities. It was a huge commercial success and became so popular that the craze for purple was called “the mauve measles” by Punch magazine:

One of the first symptoms by which the malady declares itself consists in the eruption of  a measly rash of ribbons, about the head and neck of the person who has caught it“ [1]

Men’s Hats and Waistcoats

During the 19th century, men who were members of the aristocracy, the armed forces or the Cabinet could attend the royal court by invitation, either to be presented themselves to the king or queen or to attend the presentations of wives and daughters.

There was a strict dress code for such occasions. Men attending court wore either their military uniform or a court suit. This included a coat with tails, waistcoat, knee breeches, cream silk stockings, lace cuffs, cravat, a bicorn hat and a sword.

The dress code was based on eighteenth century fashions and had remained unchanged for during most of the 19th century. Precise descriptions of the dress code were published by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. [2]

The waistcoat below was part of such an ensemble. It is embroidered with flowers and leaves and has points at the front as stipulated by the codes of formal court dress.

Court Dress Waistcoat

Court Dress Waistcoat

[1] “The Mauve Measles”, Punch, Saturday, August 20, 1851, p. 81

[2] Dress and Insignia worn at His Majesty’s Court, 1921


Sewing The Seventies: 1979 in Italy

We’ve come the end of the 1970s in Italy. It’s been quite a task to write about all the events of this decade, mostly because of the difficulty of presenting what occurred in a simple coherent way. The politics of the era are complex, and unlike the politics in the UK, the mafia, the Church and extremism all play their part and are intricately interwoven.

The last two years of the 70s saw two governments formed by Giulio Andreotti.  He was a right-wing politician in the Democrazia Cristiana (DC) party. He staunchly supported the Vatican and opposed the Italian Communist Party. He has often been portrayed as a Machiavellian character, managing to survive politically (and literally) in an era where corruption changes (and sometimes assassination) claimed many senior figures in Italian politics.

I was re-watching the film, “Il Divo“, directed by Paolo Sorrentino yesterday. The film covers the life of Andreotti from just after the murder of Aldo Moro through to the nineties. The title of the film comes from the nickname coined by the journalist Mino Pecorelli, “Divo Giulio” – the Divine Julius after Julius Caesar. Sadly “Il Divo” is not an easy film to watch and understand. To quote The Guardian newspaper, it is “traumatised with its own information overload”. I wasn’t sure if I understood much more than when I’ve watched it previously, but at least all the political figures were fresh in my mind this time!

Il Divo film.

An investigation in 1992, uncovered endemic corruption practices at the highest levels and several mafia investigations notably touched Andreotti. His faction in the DC party included the politician Salvatore Lima, who was strongly associated with the mafia in Sicily. (Incidentally in 1979 Lima was elected as an MEP in the first European elections that were held in Italy.) At the trial one mafia informer, sensationally claimed that Andreotti had been initiated, receiving the pinprick to his index finger in an initiation ceremony. Another claimed that there had been a meeting between Andreotti and mafia boss, Toto Riina, (mentioned previously here) exchanging a kiss as a gesture of respect. Neither of these two claims, however, could be confirmed.

Andreotti cartoon

Andreotti portrayed, as ever, with his Yoda-like ears. “The name of Andreotti comes up in the State – Mafia negotiations. Andreotti: No personal involvement, I meet them at home, it’s convenient, so that we can meet half-way.”

Over the period of the next year Pecorelli investigated the many links between politics, terrorism, the mafia and finance. He became known as “l’uomo che sapevo troppo” (the man who knew too much).

“They’re not skeletons, they’re relics”

Andreotti was tried on charges of complicity in the murder of journalist Mino Pecorelli. The case was circumstantial and based on the word of a mafia informant. He declared that the murder had been commissioned by the Salvo cousins as a favour to Andreotti. Andreotti was later acquitted along with his mafia co-defendants. Was Andreotti culpable?  We’ll probably never get to the truth, but Andreotti himself summed it up in these words: “Apart from the Punic Wars, for which I was too young, I have been blamed for everything that’s happened in Italy.”

1979 saw inflation top 22 percent. The value of the lira had plummetted during the 1970s and virtually any price label sported multiple zeros. I took a look at some figures for a typical Italian shopping basket. A coffee would have cost 250 Lira (about 30 (US) cents at the time), a litre of wine 660 L (80 cents), a kilogram of pasta cost 725 L (88 cents) and a kilogram of sugar 750 L (90 cents). Well, it is an Italian shopping basket, so of course, there would be coffee and pasta!

Just before Italy changed over to the Euro, virtually nothing could be bought with coins and even small purchases required a handful of 1000 Lira bank notes. You could even be a (Lira) millionaire!

[1] Il divo film review in The Guardian

[2] Mino Pecorelli Mystery (in Italian)

[3] Uncomfortable truths for the powerful (in Italian)

[4] Giulio Andreotti quotes (in Italian)



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Sewing The Seventies: 1978 in Italy

This year is an unusual and disturbing year in Italian history. Two things stand out in particular; the tragic case of Aldo Moro and the investiture of two popes.

At this time the United States and the church continued to have significant political influence. Both were concerned about the potential of communists entering government. Aldo Moro as president of the DC (Democrazia Cristiana) party proposed a cabinet supported by the Italian Communist Party.

On 16th March, the new government of Giulio Andreotti was about due to announce the legislation for the next parliament. Aldo Moro, president of the DC (Democrazia Cristiana) party, expected in cabinet that morning, was collected from his home a little before 9.00 in the morning by his police escort. As usual, Moro sat in the back of one car. A second car followed carrying armed officers. As the cars entered Via Fani, they pass a parked car with two men sat inside. They suspected nothing. Then, at the junction with Via Stresa, a white car with a diplomatic number plate suddenly reversed and hit the car behind which was carrying Moro. Other cars blocked any escape for the politician and four armed terrorists appeared from the side of the street. Many shots were fired, carefully avoiding the rear window next to Moro. All the armed guards were killed. Moro was forced into waiting car and kidnapped.

Just after 10.00 the kidnappers sent a message to Rome, Genova, Milano and Torino “We are the Red Brigades. This morning we kidnapped the president of the DC party, Aldo Moro, and assassinated his escort and special branch officers. A public announcement will follow”

The first communication from the kidnappers with a photo of Aldo Moro, looking dishevelled but otherwise unharmed. Ten days passed and the investigation didn’t seem to be making much progress, when on 25th March a communication was received simultaneously in four cities that Moro would be killed. The Red Brigades had initiated a secret trial where Moro was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Photo taken on Aldo Moro in captivity

It wasn’t until the third communication was received five days later that the kidnappers demands were revealed. They wanted a prisoner exchange. The communication also included three letters written by Moro; the first to his family, the second to his secretary and the third to Francesco Cossiga, the Interior Minister. This letter was published in the newspapers.

From hereon in, every few days there was a communication from the kidnappers, accompanied by letters that Moro had written. These letters included desperate and increasingly bitter appeals to his fellow party members to meet the kidnappers demands.

The government immediately took a hard line position: the “State must not bend” to “terrorist demands”.

In all, Moro wrote 88 letters. Some of those letters were very critical of Andreotti, the prime minister, and the pope. Many were kept secret for more than a decade. In his letters, Moro said that the state’s primary objective should be saving lives, and that the government should comply with his kidnappers’ demands.

From Moro’s last letter to his wife:

Everything is useless, when they don’t want to open the door.

The pope has done very little, perhaps he doesn’t have any scruples….

Moro’s body was left in the trunk of a red Renault 4 on Via Michelangelo Caetani after 55 days in captivity. Cardinal Siri, one of the most powerful figures in the Vatican, when he heard of the Aldo Moro’s fate, responded: “He got what he deserved”.

Letter from Aldo Moro whilst he was in captivity

On 6th August, Pope Paul VI died after 15 years as the pontif. On 26th August, Albino Luciani was elected pope. He chose the name John Paul I, becoming the first pope to have a double name.

Albino Luciani was born in Canale d’Agordo in the Veneto region. Many of my relatives talk about him as being “nostro papa” (our pope). He is the last pope of Italian nationality. He was known as a warm, gentle and kind man and this image was immediately formed when he was presented to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square following his election. In Italy he was known as the “Papa del Sorriso” (smiling pope).

However, Pope John Paul I has one of the shortest papacies in the history of the Catholic Church, only 33 days. In fact, Time magazine labelled him “The September Pope”.

The “Smiling Pope”, Pope John Paul I

It was said that around 10:00 on the night of his death, the pope learned that several neo-Fascists had fired upon a group of young people, outside one of the Communist party’s offices in Rome.  One young man was killed and another seriously wounded. Shortly before he retired for the night, he lamented that “Even the young are killing each other.” Pope John Paul I died of a heart attack between 11:00 pm 28th September and 5:00 am the next morning in his private apartment.

A few months later various alternative theories started circulating about his death. Discrepancies in the Vatican’s account of the events surrounding John Paul I’s death – its inaccurate statements about who found the body and when, where, and whether an autopsy could be carried out. The most sensational account was a theory by the David Yallop in his best seller “In God’s name”. He speculated that John Paul I had been in potential danger because of the programme of reforms he wished to make to the Vatican Bank and that he had been murdered. The corruption was real and is known to have involved the bank’s head Bishop Paul Marcinkus and Roberto Calvi of the Banco Ambrosiano. Calvi had ties with the mafia and an illegal masonic lodge, P2.

Calvi was found dead in London in 1982 after disappearing just before the corruption became public. His death was initially ruled suicide and a second inquest – ordered by his family – then returned an open verdict. The Vatican Bank lost about a quarter of a billion dollars. The theory has been debunked by various authors. On 16th October, Karol Wojtyle was elected pope. He took the name John Paul II.

[1] The Moro Case – Rai podcast (in Italian)

[2] The Moro Case on wikipedia

[3] My Dear Noretta – Aldo Moro Letter (in Italian)

[3] Roberto Calvi – The Guardian (in English)

[4] Debunking four myths about John Paul I (in English)


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Sewing The Seventies: 1977 in Italy

This year saw a series of rallies and protests, often ending in violence. These included the clash at the La Sapienza university in Rome in February and violent street skirmishes in Bologna in March which affected the entire city for two days  [1]. One of the most memorable and frightening images of the decade is from 1977. An image so striking that it has become a symbol for the anni di piombo (The Years of Lead). The photo was taken on 14th May in Milan. It shows a man, arms extended, aiming a pistol down a busy shopping street [2].

On 12th May, the Partito Radicale (Radical Party), a political party, organised a rally to celebrate the anniversary of the referendum on divorce. Groups of students and supporters joined the event. Some disturbances prompted the police to intervene and during an exchange of fire, a 19 year old student, Giorgiana Masi, was shot.

Two days later in Milan protests and a solidarity march were held. The police though, blocked the advance of the march in via De Amicis and this degenerated into an armed confrontation. A young police officer, Antonio Custra, was shot dead. The photo here was taken as these events unfolded [3].

14th May 1977, via De Amicis, Milan

In February the state broadcaster, RAI broadcasts for the first time in colour. Unbelievably this is a full ten years after the BBC started broadcasting programmes in colour. (The first colour broadcast in the UK was in 1967!) Even more private TV stations appeared, transmitting to their local communities.

I think this photo is taken in 1977 and I’m the girl in the middle. You might notice that us kids are all wearing traditional costume. England doesn’t have any sort of national costume, but it’s quite common in Italy to dress up for local events; many towns have an event that ties in with their history or traditions. Whenever this festival occurs, the town will dress up. Sometimes it is medieval costume like in Feltre, other times it can just whatever you feel inspired to wear, like at the Venice Carnival. In the mountains, parents just think it is cute to dress their children up like this, but I’ve also seen people wear traditional dress for activities such as walking in the mountains or housework (yes, really!)

I thought I was alone in the UK with this experience of national dress, but when I happen to mention it to someone who is Welsh or Scottish they often understand, having worn traditional dress in their childhood.

Traditional Dress in Cortina d’Ampezzo

The costume itself consists of a gathered skirt, a white shirt and a little laced bolero. Being near to Austria, Bavaria and Sud Tirol, I suppose it is similar to the dirndls that often feature in the September editions of BurdaStyle magazine [4].

Classic Dirndl Burdastyle 09/2016 #129


[1] The 77 Movement on wikipedia

[2] The story of a photo (Rai Storia) (Video in Italian)

[3] Thirty years ago I shot your father (in Italian)

[4] Burdastyle Traditional Dirndl

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Sewing The Seventies: 1976 in Italy

At the beginning of the year the Italian government was embroiled in scandal. On 5th February the newspapers revealed a series of bribes and contributions made by officials of US aerospace company Lockheed to members of the DC (Democrazia Cristiana) party. The Lockheed scandal, as it became known, showed that these bribes were made to favour the purchase by the Italian Air Force of Hercules transport planes. Former cabinet ministers and also the former prime-minister Mariano Rumor were involved [1].

On 6th May, a seismic shock with a magnitude of 6.5 was felt to the north of the city of Udine in North-East Italy. The epicentre was located between the towns of Gemona and Artegna in the Friuli region. The earthquake is generally regarded as one of the worst eartquakes that has ever affected Italy; 965 were killed, 3000 injured and 45,000 were left homeless. Seventy-seven villages in the Friuli region were affected.

Friuli Earthquake

The tremor was felt as far afield as Venice as well as neighboring Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia (in the former Yugoslavia). My grandmother was in Italy at the time and the quake made her fall out of bed. However, she was in a reasonably newly built apartment, which had earthquake protection features. Relatives in older buildings felt more and experienced paintings falling off walls and furniture moving [2].

On 11th and 15th September further shocks were felt which reached a magnitude of 6.0. Ten billion Lira was earmarked immediately and funds were made available to the regional government of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and the coordinator of aid efforts, Giuseppe Zamberletti. About 40,000 people spent the winter on the Adriatic coast, whilst the reconstruction was started. They returned in the spring to prefabricated buildings in their respective villages.

The reconstruction lasted 10 years. Whole villages were rebuilt. I remember visiting one of the villages some years later. I found it strange how the churches and buildings had been constructed exactly as they were before the quake. All these renaissance-looking churches in pristine new stone.

Gemona (1976-Today)

Gemona in 1976 immediately after the earthquake and today rebuilt

June saw Italians return to the polls. The DC party gained the majority of the vote (38.8%), but the PCI (the Italian communists) received an increased share of the vote (34.4%). A new government was formed with Giulio Andreotti at the helm. The Communist secretary, Enrico Berlinguer approached DC’s left-leaning members with a proposal to bring forward the so-called Historic Compromise, a political pact proposed by Aldo Moro which would see a government coalition between DC and PCI for the first time. The new cabinet, formed in July 1976, included only members of the DC party but had the indirect support of the communists.

On 2nd July, the ETR 401 train (Elettro Treno Rapido) went into service between Rome and Ancona. This train was the precursor to the “pendolino”, the leaning train that is also in service in the UK.

The ETR was developed and built in the early 70s, as a joint project between FIAT and FS (Italian State Railways). However, the economic crisis and political uncertainty reduced spending on the programme and just one ETR 401 was completed.

The idea of developing the leaning train was not just about making trains that were faster. The trains were also capable of raising the average speed of a journey on the more winding regional tracks, thus dispensing with the need to modernise these routes, which of course, would have required considerable investment.

The train service ran three days a week, cutting the time of the journey by half an hour. In time, the service was revised and an extra leg added to the journey so it finished in Rimini on the East coast. The trial was deemed positive, but it wasn’t for another ten years that further investment was made and the next generation of leaning trains entered service [3], [4].

The ETR- 401. Can really see the lean in this photo!

[1] Lockheed bribery Scandal on wikipedia (in English)

[2] The Friuli Earthquake on wikipedia (in Italian, in English)

[3] The ETR 401 Train on wikipedia (in Italian)

[4] The Pendolino on wikipedia (in Italian)



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Sewing The Seventies: 1975 in Italy

In the late sixties, Italian wages were still one of the lowest in Western Europe, even though working conditions were much better than they had been ten years previously. However, the difference between the living standards enjoyed by workers in Italy and those in the United States had grown; every worker in Italy had their eye on car ownership.

The early seventies saw much industrial action, but it wasn’t necessarily provoked by poverty, but the spread of ideological turmoil from the streets to the factories [1].

At the end of January, Confindustria (Confederation of Italian businesses) and the trade unions signed a settlement. It was decided changes would be made to the “scala mobile” (Italian for escalator). The scala mobile is a mechanism where wages are adjusted in line with inflation.[2]

In 1975 the production of the Fiat 500, the “cinquecento” was stopped. The car was an extremely popular small city car with a rear-engine and four-seats. It was made from 1957 to 1975.

This car was just ubiquitous in Italy during my childhood. Many of the Italians I knew had one and I remember in particular a couple of rather tall relatives who owned this car. Their heads grazed the roof of the car and their knees almost wrapped around the steering wheel. Not that this mattered, despite only producing 13 horsepower, these little cars were bumped up dirt-track mountain tracks and whizzed around the city regardless.

Veneto region, Italy. Volkswagen Beetle and a Fiat 128 behind?

In the seventies back seat passengers never wore seat-belts, since cars weren’t fitted with any. However, neither did the passengers in the front; often just reaching for the seat-belt was taken as a slur of the driver’s prowess, so it was often left unused. A passenger could be in for an alarming experience, without trying to reinforce any national stereotypes, I don’t think it’s incidental that so many Italians are passionate about motor-racing. I remember one hair-raising journey, where we were driven by a relative who was in such a hurry, that he was still dressing whilst driving, knees at the steering wheel, putting on his tie!

Doing a little research, I think I remember the 500 L or Lusso version of the car. Lusso being the Italian for luxury. I’m not sure that was necessarily the right adjective as the little cars were rather basic inside. There was a hard bench back seat, two doors (even as a child you had to clamber into the back) and no fuel gauge, just a fuel light came on to warn you that you were low on petrol.

Veneto region (1970s)

Veneto region, Italy. Could look the same today except for those cars. I can spot a Fiat 500, a Fiat 127 and an Alfa Romeo Giulia!

[1] Hot Autumn of 1969 on wikipedia (in Italian)

[2] History of the Federation of Italian Metalworkers (The 70s) (in Italian)

[3] The Fiat 500 on wikipedia (in Italian)