To talk about Jean Cocteau is to talk about a cultured, brave and cosmopolitan world that probably no longer exists. And, since I’m writing from my house in the center of Rome, I decided to start from this magical city, which in 1917 hosted Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso.The two artists settled in at the Hotel de Russie, to work on Parade; Cocteau’s ballet based on Satie‘s music that was performed in Paris in May of the same year. With his irresistible, intellectual verve, Cocteau, had “seduced” and convinced, the thirty-five-year-old and already famous Picasso, to travel with him to Italy across the bloodied Europe in the midst of the fury and the tragedy of World War I. Being Spanish but living in Paris, Picasso had avoided the enrolment, and could now escape the dread of the French capital, traveling with Cocteau in Rome. There, with Diaghilev, the genius impresario who founded the ballet company Ballets Russes, Picasso created the Cubist costumes and the scenic backdrop for the Parade ballet. An introductory premise is necessary, for a character as complex as Jean Cocteau, who in Parade blended painting, sculpture, music, and dance, preceding by decades the hybridization experiments typical of the avant-garde art scene of the 60s and 70s.

Another important facet is fashion. We would not have this extraordinary ballet if a young French couturier of humble origins who grew up in an orphanage and worked as singer and entraîneuse; Mademoiselle Gabrielle Chanel, had not funded the project. The blue-violet fabric on which Picasso painted the spiral columns of the stage backdrop, was her idea, as was the metaphysical-surrealist touch of arranging, in a niche on the stage, some white carnival masks, the same color she used for the dancer’s maquillage. Cocteau, Picasso, Chanel, Diaghilev; a world of exceptional protagonists who merged their talents creating new landscapes for the artistic expression.

Jean Cocteau was not only a multifaceted artist: poet, writer, director, screenwriter, actor, and playwright, he was also a revolutionary. In the early decades of the twentieth century, when being openly gay, was not an easy thing, Jean Cocteau had the courage to express his ‘other side’, not only through poetry and drawing but also in 1927 with ‘The White Book’, the poetic tale of the discovery of his homosexuality during his teenage years. His erotic drawings dedicated to his many and often very young lovers, like Raymond Radiguet; despite their explicit nature which leaves nothing to the imagination, are incredibly delicate in their fine and continuous trait.  Despite the openness of the French cultural environment, especially the avant-garde scene in which he gravitated, Cocteau, was particularly bold for his time. Many twentieth-century gay artists such as David Hockney, have manifested their attraction and love for male beauty in their works, but Cocteau, challenging the false moralisms of the time and following his unconventional, flamboyant nature, went even further. He imbued his art with a greater sexual thrust; depicting passionate and powerful copulations, robust erections, confessing his passion for those young sculpted and inviting bodies, without ever falling into vulgar and banal pornography.

The blending of Art and Fashion returns in the work through the talent and sensitivity of Ludovica Amati, an influential Roman stylist, who in her latest ’T-shirts collection’ has paid tribute to Cocteau and his sophisticated eroticism. At a time of apparent great expressive freedom, in which some achievements are taken for granted, it is important that fashion reaffirms, even with what might appear to be scabrous images, the freedom of individuals to love beyond religious, social and political creeds. As winds of disquieting reformism blow tumultuously from the shores of not so distant countries, it is a good thing that creative people actively use their vision to defend the values ​​of freedom that are the foundation of our Western society.

Paola Ugolini