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Italian Fashion

An exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

It’s a rare fashionista who has not rubbed shoulders with Italian style. From Missoni knitwear to Pucci prints to the unstructured tailoring that whispers “Armani”, the impact that a host of magnifico Italian names have had on our wardrobes is indisputable.

Opening April 5 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945–2014 is the first major show to take a hat-to-heels look at Italy’s transformation from post-Second World War ruin to present-day luxe. The story behind the 100 or so ensembles and accessories on display starts in an era when stylish women relied on talented local dressmakers. Select few know the name of the seamstress who tailored a capsule wardrobe once owned by Margaret Abegg, the American wife of a prominent textile manufacturer and art collector. It was Turin dressmaker Maria Grimaldi, and the collection spans evening gowns, a suit, a coat, shoes, and gloves—all the accoutrements needed by its globetrotting owner.

The early 1950s introduced Italian fashion to the world with collections by, among others, Simonetta, a label represented by a gorgeous evening gown of embroidered silk. Lights, camera, action! Next came the movies shot in Rome’s Cinecittà studios during the 1950s and 1960s, with Hollywood names doubling as ambassadors for Italian style. Remember Roman Holiday? Check out the photo of its luminous star, Audrey Hepburn, talking shoes with Salvatore Ferragamo. Some years later, the exquisitely tailored men’s suits in La Dolce Vita made “the Italian cut” the most wanted. A dazzling souvenir of the era’s hottest romance is the diamond and emerald necklace by Bulgari, the exhibition’s lead sponsor, that Richard Burton gave to Elizabeth Taylor, and which she wore on her wedding day.

Part of the pleasure of viewing the exhibit is picturing the life these exquisite pieces have led. A nostalgic look back to 1960s glamour is the silver sequin evening dress and matelasse coat by Mila Schön that Lee Radziwill wore to Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball. Also high in the glamour ratings are Dolce & Gabbana’s black leather stiletto ankle boots from the millennium. Flamboyant, yes, with their gold, white, and pink embroidery, garnished with sequins and crystals, but something that even today a shoe lover might crave.

The exhibit highlights the exceptional quality of techniques, materials, and expertise while a digital map shows the networks of mills, workshops, and related industries across Italy. The display also looks at how Italian fashion is changing, and includes work by the new generation of designers.

Can’t make it to London this summer? Logging on to the museum’s website lets you view a series of short movies on Gucci, Valentino, and more.

The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945–2014 runs until July 27 at the Victoria and Albert Museum.