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Architecture & design

Glamorous Italian fashion: Reconstruction, La Dolce Vita and recession

— July 2014

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Valentino posing with models nearby Trevi Fountain. Rome, July 1967. Courtesy of The Art Archive / Mondadori Portfolio / Marisa Rastellini

The Italian fashion industry is an ambassador for the country, celebrated in a new book published to accompany the V&A’s current exhibition

The Glamour of Italian Fashion Since 1945 edited by Sonnet Stanfill

This is an appropriately blingy book, published to accompany the V&A's exhibition, sponsored by Bulgari. Indeed. Bulgari emeralds and diamonds given by Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor contribute one of the show's star attractions. 'For several years, Taylor and Burton defined the meaning of glamour…their lavish lifestyle caught the public imagination', commented Stephen Gundle, in his book Glamour: A History.

The exhibition features a coat worn by Maria Callas; Taylor is pictured in the book in fur with Burton, emphasizing the role of celebrities in modelling and promoting Italian clothes and accessories; jersey ensembles are suggested for international air travel; a 1976 Valentino advertisement targets the 'Supersonic Set'. The exhibition, running until 27 July 27, ranges from high couture  (Roberto Capucci), through ready-to-wear (Etro paisley and sportswear in Pucci prints) to the high street (Fiorucci and Bennetton); from the ostentatious (Versace) to the discretely understated (Bottega Veneta bags and Tod's driving moccasins). It considers the traditional association of particular regions with particular crafts and trades (silk, leather, wool) and a succession of post-war fashion 'capitals' (Florence, Rome, Milan). Media coverage (print, film, video) conveys shifts in the display and marketing of Italian fashion.

The consequence of state intervention is discussed, along with the materials used and fashion’s promotion in publicity and on screen (Hollywood as significant as Marshall Aid, American buyers and the appointment of Tom Ford by Gucci). Italian menswear is not neglected (from unstructured Armani suits and Cerruti tailoring, through Versace studded leathers, to snappy Fila new-lad 'smart casuals'). The business of fashion is also explored: designers work 'in synergy' with flexible and adaptable small and medium-sized enterprises.

As with the French and British industries, the post-war period is marked by designers' development of diffusion ranges. For instance, Emporio Armani, Prada's Miu-Miu (with its rich use of pattern and texture), Dolce and Gabbana, Romeo Gigli and Moschino's Cheap and Chic (for instance, the typically witty Milan yellow pages print jacket with telephone gettoni as buttons). Moschino sometimes appears to be homaging the trompe-l'oeil precedents of Schiaparelli and Giuliana Coen. New fibres and textiles (the foundation of Italian couture) are noted as another feature of the current Italian fashion landscape. 'Mixes such as linen with silk and nylon, chenille with wool and cashmere with silk were destined to become particular strengths'.

The rise in prominence of photographers (Oliviero Toscani, Ferdinando Scianna, Mario Testino, Paolo Roversi) is considered alongside the place of the  stilista (Anna Piaggi), a term crossing design and styling, essential to the construction of a fashion label as a brand. As the new Fendi store  in London’s Bond Street demonstrates, increasingly all forms of display are orchestrated to sell the house identity rather than simply an array of designed objects. Long-established family firms have become, or given way to, global corporations (Bulgari, founded in 1884 is now part of the LVMH group). Small-scale production has been superseded by mechanization (Missoni knitwear). A photograph in the book shows artisans working in Ferragamo's workshop in Florence in 1937. Catherine Rossi discusses the ethical and economic implications of out-sourcing craft work to India by way of Prada's 2010 ‘Made In ….’ range. While it ‘allows Prada to capitalize on the added value craft brings', she says, it does so at a lower cost, with the potential of economic advantage. The sale of imitations, manufactured abroad, of luxury Italian labels, is taken very seriously in Italy itself.

With the Italian economy faltering, the V&A show and this book may both be regarded as a boost for an industry accorded an ambassadorial role. There are also reminders of how fashions in clothing overlap those in other distinctly Italian commodities: Pucci is posed against a Vespa; the exhibition shop is selling Campari and a limited edition gold porcelain Siletti coffee pot. There is a chronological trajectory to the exhibition; the book records equally a certain circularity of concerns for the future.

The Glamour of Italian Fashion Since 1945 edited by Sonnet Stanfill is published by V&A Publishing 2014. 288 pp. 250 illus. ISBN 978-1-85177-776-1



Amy Sargeant
Tisch School of the Arts, NYU
Art historian

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