Italy seduces the senses through its art and architecture, design, fashion, food and language. Everything is so voluptuous, so desirable and so utterly Italian. The style is understated yet glamorous, summed up by the wonderful Italian word, Sprezzatura, which roughly translates to a question of attitude, a mood, a certain nonchalance and ‘a sense of easy elegance in action’, notes Sonnet Standfill, curator of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014.
The exhibition that’s just opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is the story of Italian fashion, tracing its history from war-torn Italy through the glamorous 50s and 60s, and the fashion powerhouse that it has evolved into today.
It isn’t easy curating a fashion exhibition as such. The costumes inevitably lose much of their vibrancy once pinned to a static mannequin. Fabric needs movement, it needs flesh and a body, and perhaps a bit of Sprezzatura. Here the curators have breathed life into the costumes by giving clothes a place, a history, a narrative – at times serious – and by juxtaposing the static exhibits with moving images from films and catwalks.
Writing this from Milan, where the annual design week is in full swing, it is easy to forget the austere Italy of post war years when it wasn’t so much fashion but their expertise in textile design, in leather craftsmanship that steered them on. The V&A exhibition, packed on its opening day, reveals this pride in craftsmanship, in material knowhow – yet walking through the streets of Milan today it is obvious that fashion is so instinctive a part of Italian culture.
The story begins with the landmark Sala Bianca catwalks that were organised by Giovanni Battista Giorgini and held in Florence from the early 50s, introducing Italian fashion to the world stage at the time dominated by Paris.
The exhibition examines the impact of Hollywood and films like Roman Holiday shot on location in Italy in propelling this popularity. Hollywood stars Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor became style ambassadors for Italian fashion, fuelling a keen international appetite for luxurious clothing made in Italy. Italian stars such as Sophia Lorena, Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida became style symbols.
On display at the V&A are around 100 ensembles and accessories by leading Italian fashion houses including Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani, Fendi, Gianfranco Ferré, Gucci, Missoni, Prada, Pucci and Versace, through to the next generation of talent including couture by Giambattista Valli, bold ready-to-wear from Fausto Puglisi and work from Valentino’s new designers duo Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli.
A poignant concluding video examines the role of Italy in future fashion with some honest contributions by some of these contemporary designers.
The Glamour of Italian Fashion really does capture the dynamism of Italian fashion. It draws out the defining factors unique to the Italian fashion industry – the use of luxurious materials, expert textile production, specialist, regional manufacturing, and its strength as a source of both dynamic menswear and glamorous womenswear.
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