Italian fashion is a universal symbol of excellent taste and elegance. Its legacy and enduring influence on what we wear and the attitude we aspire to is infinite. But now more than ever, fashion is uprooted from the places it originates from. Influences from different countries and cultures merge, further encouraged by the internet, press and media. For this reason, this exhibition and its return to the geographical and cultural roots of Italian postwar fashion is essential, showing us how the fashion industry changed and thrived through regional industries that, with funding through the Marshall plan, managed to provide high-quality materials for the fashion industry.
While showing its national tradition and international flourishing the exhibition shows the way in which the relation to craft and presentation of a garment changed drastically, from seamstresses creating custom-made wardrobes to fashion designers creating ready-to-wear creations encouraged by shops and an increasing fashion media. Finally, we are projected into today’s Italian fashion and the way it both learns from the past and transcends it.
The exhibition divides itself into three sections, in chronological order, each of them possessing a particular design and atmosphere that makes our travelling through the space as viewers organized yet far from forced.
The first part introduces us to the Italy of the early 1950s, in the context of economic peril and reconstruction, receiving funding through the Marshall plan in order to revitalise regional industries. At the time, the idea of ready-to-wear clothes is not yet in place. The clothes that are displayed were made to order and made to measure – a testimony to the skill and tradition of the seamstress. The dim lighting soften the atmosphere and highlighted the intricate details on the ball gowns encased in glass; far from reduced to a clinical, documentary-like display, they are still stealing the show. After a quick glance at everyday wear, luxurious dresses are quickly in the spolight – a good contrast, but one that was almost too hasty. A more homogeneous glance would have given a good overview of fashion on all levels of society at the time.
Sartoria, or dresswear, came in many different colours and textures – silk, chiffon, satin, chantilly lace…and 80% of it was hand-sewn.The pink dress below, by Schuberth, demonstrates a stunning use of sfumatura, a gradation of colour from pale to dark, one amongst many examples of the technique and quality involved.
An immense array of skilled creators that lead the workshops creating these pieces, usually for a loyal clientele that is accustomed to a particular style or cut. The names are as numerous as the gowns are glamorous, with their richness and inventivity despite shapes that remain for the most part conservative and impractical, reserved for special events. Amongst them, Roberto Cappucci (the silk purple gown above), Alberto Fabiani and the Sorelle Fontana. The relation to WWII is often more intense for these creators than a concern with economy and clientele. Indeed Simonetta, whose exquisite satin and silk cream gown can be seen below, was imprisoned in the 40s due to her antifacist involvement.
She was one of the participants in Italy’s first internationally recognised fashion show, at the Sala Bianca in Florence, organized by Giovanni Battista Giorgini. An Italian buisnessman, his concern was to promote Italian fashion to an international audience, and draw the attention from Paris, the “couture capital” at the time. The documentation through letters and invitations as well as rare photographs and footage provided are testimonies to the rousing sucess of his first shows from 1951 onwards, showing the quality and variety of fabrics that would set the scene for the “Made in Italy” cultural trademark.
Giorgini’s fashion shows were an immense success and the audience, first a select circle of press and clients, became larger and larger every year. He also drew heavily on the elements that made Italy Florence, a place that appeared attractive and glamorous to its American visitors – its history and culture. For this reason, a Botticelli was once on display in his show to create a clear relation between Italy’s past artistic success and its present.
These would have attracted more clients that had the means and elegance to satisfy their taste with lasting and loyal collaborations. One of these collaborations can be cristallized through the display of Margaret Abegg’s wardrobe, whose pieces were exclusively created by Maria Grimaldi, a dressmaker from Turin. Margaret Abegg herself was the wife of an American textile industrial and represented the exact clientele that Italy wanted to attract. She donated these clothes to the V&A and mentioned the fact that they had been widely admired in Paris and London: an international collaboration for an international woman. The clothes, both formal and casual, reflected perfectly the idea of the Total Look: a palette-specific, carefully coordinated wardrobe that was the result of discussions, readjustements and above all immense trust between the client and the dressmaker.
Once this first image of glamour and culture was established for an american audience, the american audience and its own cultural icons were quick to demonstrate a clear attraction towards Italy and its clothing, projecting a fantasy image of it through Hollywood films, such as Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn.
The dress worn by Audrey Hepburn during War and Peace, shown above at the centre, was designed by Fernanda Gattinoni, who launched a whole line specifically adapted from Empire fashion. Other films such as Cleopatra, starring Liz Taylor, launched more casual trends, such as the palazzo pyjama, for semi-formal occaisions, coined by Princess Irene Galitzine and made famous by Jackie Kennedy. Despite the obvious glamour of these, the subtle arrival to a more casual style of dress is evident throughout the 60s and 70s as we progress through the room.
The glamour that Hollywood drew from Italy was that of leisure and comfort associated with elegance, distancing itself slowly but surely from the weighty gowns of the 50s. This epitome of dolce vita was reflected in fashion for both women and men, whose suits were becoming more elegantly casual and nonchalant with the notion of spezzato (mismatching suit vests and trousers).
The transition can perhaps best be noted in Mila Schön’s matelassé gown, worn by Princess Lee Radziwi at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. The craft is unique, each sequin hand-stiched, yet the traditional cuts and waistlines of the 50s have been replaced by a less restrictive, playful linear form, emblematic of the 60s.
Fashion as well as its image, its clients and their needs were quickly evolving, gaining momentum through the reputation that Italian craftsmanship was gaining on an international level. The tradition of made-for-custom dressmaking that established Italian fashion would create its own downfall, and give way to the ready-to-wear industry that could cater to a larger audience by the 70s.
This exhibition was rich and extensive; in order to avoid cutting too much out of it and for the sake of experimentation with my posts, I will let you discover the rest of it in a second part tomorrow, along with my own personal conclusions. In the meanwhile…enjoy a glamorous Sunday while celebrating Audrey Hepburn’s anniversary. Watching War and Peace and admiring the way she wears Gattinoni’s gown may be in order.