Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

The Glamour of Italian Fashion, 1945-2014 at the V&A (part 2)

In my first part on the exhibition The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 at the V&A it was neccessary to set the scene for postwar Italy: impoverished, the funding it received through the Marshall Plan for regional industries provided high quality material that could fuel a fashion industry about to break through onto the international scene. Following Giorgini’s efforts to showcase the best of Italian production in the 50s, a potent market was found in North America for exquisite and hand-sewn pieces strengthened by a blend of quality and tradition. The 60s saw the emergence of a cultural fascination with Italy that went hand in hand with its fashion, creating an attitude and attractiveness that only grew throughout the years.

So far the main concern had been the creation of the “perfect outfit” – made for a maker’s loyal and exacting clients, every detail curtailed to his or her desire. Yet the late 60s and early 70s called for a new approach. Just as Florence and Rome were being replaced by Milan as the new capital of Italian fashion, ready-to-wear fashion was on the rise, where the concern was not so much the perfect outfit, but the perfect “style”.

On that note, the exhibition leads us seamlessly into this second part, where the outfits on display are now almost all left unprotected by glass; this allows for more observation of the textures but is also intentionally reminiscent of shop display rather than a traditional  museum collection.

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Indeed, proudly displayed at the entrance of the room, Elio Fiorucci and Walter Albini have become the epitome of the new designer that have embraced the ready-to-wear market branching out into clothes stores. They eclipse the traditional dressmaker with the more modern notion of “Lo Stilista”: the designer, stylist and mediator in terms of brand image and clothing. This new creator is concerned as much with the marketing image and wide-range accessibility of his products…while retaining an impeccable quality in his materials, as well as a newfound inventivity. The motto of Ferregamo mentioned at some point encapsulates this attitude: “Handmade shoes by mass production.”

This is perfectly on par with the marketing campaign “Made in Italy” that sought to increase the appeal of Italian fashion abroad. While Elio Fiorucci was definitely concerned with the branding aspect of his work, Albini, trained as an illustrator, uses his skills to produce elegant sketches that search for this sense of style and expression. Yet there is also a stronger focus, as we evoved through the display, on a more concise exploration of fashion’s relation to italian production. A video displays the regions that provide the industry with silk (Como), wool (Biella) and leather (Tuscany). The slightly dry and advert-like feel of the small video is toned down by the garments displayed on rows either side in themes corresponding to the textiles used, from Missoni’s knitwear to Karl Lagerfeld’s multicolour mink or Max Mara’s camel coat.

Women’s knitted ensemble 1972 Missoni 528 KB Missoni / Fashion in Motion at the V&A, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The last part is one that concerns itself not only with fashion but essentially with the way it is channelled throughout modern media and deified.Lo Silisto here becomes, in the year 2014, the “designer”, whose world and its superstar status is defined as such by Anne Piaggi: “a secret society, made up of pioneers, a few inventors and a few poets. They are the new phenomenon and the new elite.”

The room is large and dark, projecting a sense of covert holiness as a large dome-like structure stretches overhead and a screen shows a whirl of videos in which models stride across the catwalk as a reconstruction of one displays various haute couture designs from recent years. Almost too excessive, too showy…yet it works. Maybe the true key to displaying fashion that oscillates between elegance and brightly coloured, textured luxury.

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some are instantly known, such as Valentino or Dolce & Gabbana. Yet again, some are new arrivals, designers yet to become fashionable household names. In a sense, I wish I could have seen more of these. We see a lot of well-known fashion designers throughout the exhibition itself so giving more of the scene to a larger array of emerging designers would have been interesting. Yet this is a small point in itself…counterbalanced by a video at the end of the exhibition in which designers, editors and fashion experts are asked their opinion concerning the future of italian fashion, and encourage the presence of fresh emerging designers within the industry.

The exhibition finishes off with a greater focus on photography as not only the vehicule of a design but also of the idea and appeal behind it, sometimes drawing on lyrical, cultural and even political themes, such as the Benetton ads by its artistic director Oliviero Toscani that became revolutionary for the messages that they conveyed rather than their presentation of the clothing, making a brand image something other than its garments…making it desirable and glamorous as a concept in itself.

This exhibition left a great impression on me…and it might have been one of my favourite so far this year. It showed an immense love of the clothes and a concise eye not only on Italian fashion but on the evolution of an industry as a whole. I would have personaly loved to see more fashion sketches; there were a few dotted here and there as well but not always a clear overview concerning their contribution to the final product. However I understand the fact that the focus had to be on the Italian textiles and the way they shaped the design of the clothes, rather than the sketched idea. The sheer amount and quality of the clothes was overwhelming, although I would a few more in-depth spotlights on particular designers in certain places and maybe more historical context in terms of Italy’s political and social situation. How were other industries faring? To what extent were Italians themselves and their governement supportive in relation to international buyers, aside from the prosperity that this would inject into the country? The subject is mentioned but remains vague, perhaps reflecting the concluding video in which the need for renewal and economical support is stressed.

Another subject that would have interested me would have been the way in which Italians would express this dolce vita, nonchalant and refined way of dressing outside of the catwalk and workshops, to see a bit more of the “typical” dressers and consumers rather than having allusions to a faceless market. Yet, there was an immense width of information to cover and I think that this insighful overview was perfectly handled. On display until the 27th of July, this exhibition is one that I cannot recommend enough.

Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 at the V&A (part 1)

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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.

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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.

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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.

The Birth of Italian Fashion
Fashion show in Sala Bianca, 1955, Archivio Giorgini, Photo by G.M. Fadigati, © Giorgini Archive, Florence

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.

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 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.

Installation image of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014,Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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.

Evening dress of embroidered net and matelasse coat, 1966, Mila Schön, Courtesy Maison Mila Schön, Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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.