‘Italian Style’: How fashion design made it cool to be Italian

The Portland Art Museum show celebrates the world of Gucci, Pucci, Versace and Prada


The world of fashion is often considered a frivolity, a trifle, a sideshow of ‘serious’ history. But as evidenced by “Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945,” a delightful exhibit on display at the Portland Art Museum until May 3, a close examination of clothing can be a path to a deeper understanding of culture, history, economics, and even geopolitics.

The show, which was created at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and stopped for a spell in Minneapolis on its way to Portland, compiles more than 150 items in a survey of a half-century-plus of fashion history, telling the story of how a nation redefined itself in the world and recovered from the devastation of war through the somewhat fanciful vehicle of its apparel industry.

Gucci, bamboo-handled pigskin bag, early 1960s. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Gucci, bamboo-handled pigskin
bag, early 1960s. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Italy that’s on display at PAM isn’t the Italy of the Caesars or the Popes or Mussolini’s blackshirts but, rather, the Italy of Valentino gowns, Armani suits, Ferragamo shoes, of movie stars dodging paparazzi on the Via Veneto and chic boutiques on Madison Ave., of haute couture and ordinary swimwear, of Gucci, Pucci, Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and many, many more. The clothes in the exhibit, most of which have never been seen outside of Europe, demonstrate remarkable inventiveness in design coupled with the impeccable craft for which Italian artisans have always been known. And they make the case that Italy has provided the world with its style for several decades on the trot.

Walking through the rooms is like a history lesson, taking you from the hardscrabble days after World War II, when Italian fashion was more or less invented as a global phenomenon by a single tenacious salesman, through the Dolce Vita era of the ’50s and ’60s, when Italian style was embraced by the world, to the current era, starting in the early ’80s, when Italian clothes became a global standard for both high fashion and everyday wear and fashion designers became Italy’s most famous export.

There’s a ton to discuss – I heartily recommend the exhibition catalog, written and edited by Sonnet Stanfill, who curated the exhibit for the V&A. But I’d like to focus on the timeline of the 20 or so years just after World War II, with a nod to the boom of the ’80s and a special note about Portland’s (inevitable) connection to the history of Italian fashion.

The Sala Bianca Era

After World War II, with Italy’s economy and infrastructure in ruins, an inventive entrepreneur had the thought that fashion might be a way for the country to rise above the rubble.

Prior to the war, Giovanni Battista Giorgini had been a key figure in creating a market for high-quality Italian crafts in the United States, bringing shoes, hats, leather goods, housewares, and similar items to American departments stores and specialty shops under the rubric Made In Italy.

With the fighting over (and it’s worth remembering that Italy experienced WWII as virtually a civil war in addition to serving as a battleground for the Germans and Allies), Giorgini found that a number of significant designers had not only survived but had continued to produce work that could rival that being done in Paris, the longstanding capital of high fashion, which was also facing the task of reconstituting itself to something like its pre-war state.

Sfilata (fashion show) in Sala Bianca, 1955, Archivio Giorgini. Photo by: G.M. Fadigati – Copyright: Giorgini Archive, Florence.

Sfilata (fashion show) in Sala
Bianca, 1955, Archivio Giorgini.
Photo by: G.M. Fadigati – Copyright:
Giorgini Archive, Florence.

In 1950, aware that the American fashion press (and fashion buyers from America’s top stores) would be in Paris for winter shows, Giorgini hit upon the idea of bringing together some established Italian couture designers and some up-and-comers he’d encountered and holding a show of his own in his home in Florence. He drew up a list of critics and buyers whom he knew from his many visits to the US and invited them to piggyback a trip to Italy onto their excursions to Paris in February of the following year.

A couple dozen of them, curious as to what could be happening south of the Alps, took him up on the invitation, and found wonders. Italian couture – by the likes of the Fontana sisters, Simonetta, Fabiani, Roberto Capucci, and Emilio Schuberth – was not only competitive with the gold-standard French clothing in terms of craftsmanship, but it had a lightness of style that contrasted with the stodgier French look in a way that felt particularly homey to American eyes. To underscore that, a second show – held nearby at the home (okay, palazzo) of the designer Emilio Pucci – revealed that Italians were applying the same high level of craft and style to sports and leisurewear, clothing categories that French designers ignored but which, again, meshed very well with American sensibilities.

The following year, Giorgini reprised his show, drawing more and more critics and buyers to Florence (and, cunningly, bringing the sports and casual categories under his umbrella). But word about the exciting new work being done in Italy had spread, and his own home would no longer be large enough. Giorgini was able to secure the Sala Bianca, a dazzling white ballroom in the Palazzo Pitti, for the show. That event, covered in daily newspapers throughout the U.S., truly established post-war Italian fashion as an international force.

In “Italian Style,” the story of the first Sala Bianca show – and the many which followed it – is told in a room filled with gorgeous high-end gowns by Italy’s most famous couture designers of the era. Personal favorites: the lilac-color Capucci gown that blooms like a ranunculus and the black, pouffy Simonetta gown of similar vintage. This is catwalk stuff, worn mainly by the wealthy women who could afford one-of-a-kind items, but, in the way of fashion, it found its way to the closets of ordinary folks through lower-priced imitations sold in department stores all over the world. For women, Italian clothes became as chic as French, while men everywhere were soon wearing suits and such cut along Italian lines even if they didn’t know the first thing about fashion.

Hollywood on the Tiber

At the same time that Giorgini was launching Italian couture as a serious rival to French (and, in the case of menswear, English) fashion, Italian moviemaking was experiencing an upswell that would result in a robust and lauded native cinema and, almost by accident, the advent of an entirely new filmic phenomenon.

For the former, consider the immediate post-war rise of Neorealism, a deeply influential Italian film genre dedicated to stories about human suffering and struggle, shot on actual locations, and often featuring non-actors in lead roles. The first such film seen outside of Italy, Roberto Rossellini’s Nazi-occupation drama “Rome: Open City” (made in 1945 but not screened in the US until the following year), truly revolutionized moviemaking all over the world, and another pair of Neorealist films – “Shoeshine” and “The Bicycle Thief,” tales of poverty and shattered hope directed by Vittorio De Sica – won the first- and third-ever Academy Awards for Best Foreign-Language Film, in 1947 and 1949, respectively.

But while this pair of directors, along with their coevals Luchino Visconti, Alessandro Blasetti, and Mario Monicelli and such younger talents as Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini, pushed Italy into the vanguard of global cinema, they all had to make room on their own home soil for, of all things, Hollywood and all that came along with it.

As part of the Marshall Plan to reconstitute European economies and infrastructure, Hollywood movie studios, whose productions were the most popular in the world, were made to reinvest profits they made on ticket sales in Europe in productions made in Europe. That is, every dollar that, say, MGM made in, say, Italy on a new release had to be spent by the studio in Italy, leading Hollywood moneymen to devise a new filmmaking stream: productions made with American crews and stars in European locations.

Audrey Hepburn examining Ferragamo shoe. Foto Locchi; courtesy Banca Dali dell’Archivio Storico Foto Locchi Firenze.

Audrey Hepburn examining Ferragamo shoe. Foto Locchi; courtesy Banca Dali dell’Archivio Storico Foto Locchi Firenze.

American movie companies recognized that Italian productions created at the famed Cinecittá studio, built in the 1930 by Mussolini, were competitive with American epics in their craft, scale and accomplishment. So they saved up their profits from foreign ticket sales and parlayed them into huge made-in-Italy extravaganzas, with the occasional small drama to keep up with the vogue for European travel and culture that arose after the war. Starting in 1950 with Mervyn LeRoy’s “Quo Vadis,” a regular stream of Hollywood filmmakers and performers make the trek to Rome, creating such films as “Roman Holiday,” “The Barefoot Contessa,” “War and Peace,” “Helen of Troy,” “Ben Hur,” and, most expensively and clamorously, “Cleopatra.” The stars made the Via Veneto, a previously unnoted stretch of road lined with hotels and cafes too pricey for the locals, into one of the most famous boulevards in the world. And they turned Italian fashion into a global sensation.

Such superstars as Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Elizabeth Taylor were regular visitors to Rome’s film studios and chic spots, which included the ateliers of its best clothiers. The spectacle of such famed beauties wearing their creations made international successes of a number of Italian designers. The Fontana sisters did Gardner’s wardrobe for “The Barefoot Contessa,” and their work was clearly an inspiration for Piero Gherardi’s Oscar-winning costumes for Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (including the black numbers Anita Ekberg wore in the Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Basilica). The couturier Fernanda Gattinoni dressed Ingrid Bergman in several of her made-in-Italy films and Audrey Hepburn in “War and Peace,” the costumes for which were nominated for an Oscar. In 1963, when Academy Awards for costume design were still given out in two categories – color and black-and-white – both prizes went to films made in Rome: “Cleopatra” and “8 ½.” Much of this trove of finery was far too outre for daily wear, of course, but it influence couture fashion everywhere, and some of its inventions trickled down into street fashion almost immediately.

More obviously, Italian casual wear (palazzo pants, capri shorts), menswear (Brioni suits, Zegna sports coats), shoes, hats, and leather goods all segued easily from the Roman boutiques where movie stars bought them to the American Main St., where they seemed so much more liveable than French or English clothes. Just as movie audiences looked to movie stars for dreams of how they might dress if they were princesses or kings, so did they look to the stars in their off-duty hours to set the trends for daily clothes. And from the mid-’50s through the mid-’60s, those trends more often than not had their seeds in Italy.

Mila Schon sequinned evening dress and silk coat . Worn and given by Princess Stanislaus Radziwill. Worn to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, 1966. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Mila Schon sequinned evening dress and silk coat . Worn and
given by Princess Stanislaus Radziwill. Worn to Truman
Capote’s Black and White Ball, 1966. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Plenty of pieces from this era are to be found in “Italian Style,” but none feels more historic to me than the glittering sheath dress which Milanese designer Mila Schön made for Princess Lee Radziwill to wear to Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball – widely known as the Party of the Century. At the time, Radziwill was a perennial nominee for the title of world’s best-dressed woman, and the idea that she would choose an Italian designer to outfit her for such a grand event was proof that Giorgini’s inspiration had succeeded.

The Triumph of the Italian Look

In the later ’60s, though, and through much of the ’70s, Italian fashion lost (so sorry) the thread and seemed often to revert into parody and desperation (a New York Times review of Milan fashion shows in the late ’60s compared them to bad ethnic jokes). There were still some Italian designers whose work would always merit special attention – in particular Emilio Pucci and Valentino Garavani (known simply and imperially as Valentino). By and large, though, the era when Italian fashion ruled the world both in couture and in casual wear had, seemingly, ended.

Fabio de Benedettis, Germana Marucelli dress, 1950, Chromogenic print, Collezione Enrico Quinto e Paolo Tinarelli.

Fabio de Benedettis, Germana Marucelli dress, 1950, Chromogenic print, Collezione Enrico Quinto e Paolo Tinarelli.

But, as so often happens in a volatile sphere such as fashion, a salvation and even a triumph was soon to come. In the late 1970s, a new wave of young Italian designers, mainly based in Milan, brought a new energy to the catwalk and the sidewalk. Led by Giorgio Armani, whose menswear in particular was celebrated for its casual elegance, the likes of Gianni Versace, Dolce and Gabbana, Miuccia Prada, Moschino, and Gianfranco Ferre established a new taste for Italian fashion throughout the world – with an increasing emphasis on selling through their own boutiques rather than relying on department stores. By the mid-’80s, and through to today, the most expensive retail spaces in the US (Manhattan’s Fifth Ave., Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Dr., and the casino shops in Las Vegas, for instance) were dominated by storefronts bearing Italian designers’ names.

Once again, celebrities and movies played a part. Armani, in particular, was a groundbreaker, influentially providing the wardrobe for the 1980 film “American Gigolo” and creating new tastes in men’s style – in this case, for the so-called ‘unstructured suit,’ with its sophisticated but relaxed vibe, all over the world. Decades later, the idea that Italian clothing is the most stylish and best made still feels true.

A Portland Connection

Finally, and to bring it all back home to the neighborhood in which “Italian Style” is currently housed (in a museum, by the way, designed by the Italian-born architect Pietro Belluschi), we have the special case of Emilio Pucci, the Florentine marchese who invented whole new categories of fashion, applying playful color and patterns to beachwear, skiwear and resortwear, categories of clothing that were usually seen as utilitarian rather than fashionable.

Pucci was a true Renaissance man, an athlete and scholar (a fine collegiate skier, he held a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Florence), he flew planes for the Italian Air Force in World War II and managed his family’s vast historical holdings for his entire life. In 1935, at the age of 20, he came to Portland to get his master’s degree at Reed College and to ski (he had an athletic scholarship). Two years later, he delivered his first commissioned clothing design: uniforms for the Reed ski team. A decade later, he was still tinkering on skiwear when a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar noticed his work in Zermatt, Switzerland, leading Pucci to decide to focus on fashion as a career. He moved to Capri, designed swimsuits and beach clothes, and spent the rest of his life near the center of world fashion.

At “Italian Style,” Pucci is represented by a lovely selection of work, including a 1951 sun suit with a bold design that would’ve been equally at home in pre-volcano Pompeii or pre-rainstorm Woodstock, a nightie covered with tiny poodles, and a large glass window decorated by the museum in echt Pucci style: big, loud, vibrant colors.

But you suspect that the good marchese would be happiest with the tribute that stands to him on Mt. Hood: the Pucci chairlift at Timberline Lodge.

Shawn Levy is a Portland writer and critic whose most recent book is “De Niro: A Life.” He is at work on a cultural history of Rome in the years after World War II. He’ll speak on the subject of “The Real Dolce Vita” at the Portland Art Museum on Sunday, March 8 at 2 pm.

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