The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has created a buzz with its recently-opened show, The Glamour of Italian Fashion. The exhibition tells the story of Italy’s revival following the Second World War, its struggle against Paris, the then capital of fashion and its creation of a distinctive fashion culture of its own.
The 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of Italian fashion. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita showed Italian style and high life, while Audrey Hepburn took a Roman Holiday, and Elizabeth Taylor turned up to film on location in Italy and ended up addicted to Bulgari jewellery. Even motorbikes were famous: the Vespa, launched in 1946, became a craze, and Charlton Heston swapped his Ben Hur chariot for one between takes.
Italian fashion of this period was all about easy elegance. Menswear, for instance, featured tailoring that was sleek, less structured than the somewhat rigid style of English suiting, using softer fabrics and a lighter touch. As an aside, I’ve got two jackets hanging in my wardrobe, one Harris tweed and the other Italian ‘tweed': the Harris tweed jacket is thick, smartly tailored, rigid and I wear it for country walks; the Italian one is soft, more patterned, looser, more chic and I wear it to go to the coffee bar. That’s the difference between English and Italian fashion in a nutshell.
The above reflects typical northern Italian style, from Florence or Milan; more recently, in the 1980s and onwards, we’ve seen a more southern Italian influence, the over-the-top exuberance of Versace’s colourful, busy patterning. But whether north or south, Italian style is all about the bella figura – instead of the dour traditional English view that you wear clothes because you can’t go about naked, Italian clothes are all about self-expression.
You’d expect this exhibition to have some marvellous exhibits and it does. For instance, there’s a beautiful pair of boots from Dolce & Gabbana – black leather with pink, pearl, and gold jewels and braid tracing twisty designs all over them, and heels surely far too slim to support a human body! Even the way they’re displayed, with the toes sticking out and up, has a certain stylish devil-may-care attitude.
More practical perhaps but equally stylish are the Tods driving moccasins which the museum ordered online for the exhibition. Little rubber studs underneath, deep purple suede on top, they’re completely the reverse of Crocs: while Crocs aggressively reject style in favour of practicality, Tods addresses functionality and then amps up the style.
Another pair of exhibits show contrasting trends in Italian fashion. A Roberto Capucci dress from the 1980s is massively simple in its form, like an upswept cloak in a single great curve, but makes its effect through the contrast of swathes of fuchsia and green silk. The striking colour clash grabs the attention but doesn’t detract from the overall simplicity of the gesture.
On the other hand a Versace men’s suit restricts itself to monochrome, but mixes stripes, checks, fringes and spots in a way my mother would definitely have disapproved of (“Never wear checks and stripes together”).The fantasy happens almost on a subliminal level.
The exhibition isn’t just a dress display though. There are photographs of fashion shows and film stars; there are adverts and press cuttings; and there’s a fascinating mass of ephemera from the first few shows that Giovanni Battista Georgini hosted in Florence to kick-start Italian fashion on the international scene. There are invitations, contact sheets, photographs, press cuttings,thank-you letters, telegrams , all collected by this inveterate hoarder and scrapbooker and giving an unforgettable view into the actual business of creating a fashion brand for an entire country. And there’s a massive photo of the Sala Bianca at the Pitti Palace where his third show was held, in which the Murano chandeliers absolutely steal the show.
Italian fashion isn’t just about style. It’s also about fine techniques, fine materials, and incredible expertise. The area around Como, for instance, was renowned for its silk production, while Tuscany had expert tanners (for example in the town of Fucecchio) and leatherworkers (in Florence). Embroidery, tapestry weaves, brocades, and the use of sequins and beading, all contributed to a sense of luxury. I wish there was a bit more in this exhibition about the manufacturing process – how, for instance, was the amazing gilt filigree crown of a 2014 Dolce & Gabbana outfit put together?
Where this exhibition scores particularly highly is that it’s completely up to date, and not just in featuring clothes from the latest collections. It asks the question; where is Italian fashion going?
It is clear that there are challenges. Paris has taken its revenge on upstart Italy by buying up much of Italy’s fashion industry through its luxury goods conglomerates; Bulgari, Fendi, and Gucci are all now French-owned. And while Italian manufacturing has a fine tradition, many ‘Italian’ labels are now made overseas. The challenge for Italian fashion is this: will it be able to remain authentic?
On the other hand, there are now some talented young designers coming through. Armani offered young designer Stella Jean, who blends African textiles with Italian cut, his own show space for her Milan show; and Fausto Puglisi has recently taken over as creative director at Ungaro, with his “super rock meets super chic” energy.
Will these young designers keep Italian fashion at the top? I’m not going to make any predictions but you wouldn’t bet against the compelling power of Italian fashion even during an economic crisis.
It’s a fascinating exhibition and not to be missed.
The above post was written by Andrea Kirkby, a freelance writer, photographer, and lover of Italy.
Photo credits: Gianfranco Ferre advert, Fall/Winter 1991. Model: Aly Dunne. Photographer: Gian Paolo Barbieri
Roberto CAPUCCI IMAGE:
Photo credits: Roberto Capucci, Evening Dress, 1987-88
Concierge tip: Visiting London for the Glamour of Italian Fashion exhibition? The Baglioni Hotel London is ideally positioned a few minutes from the V&A Museum and through the Glamour of Italian Fashion special offer you can enjoy overnight luxury accommodation and complimentary tickets for two to the exhibition with Italian aperitivo and breakfast included.