With its economy, cities and morale in ruins after World War II, Italy turned to artists and designers to rebuild and rebrand itself as a source of luxury goods.
By 1951 it was well on its way. Fashion shows in a Florentine palace set the world abuzz. As cameras whirred, a dozen young designers sent gorgeous young women sashaying through a Renaissance salon in sleek satin gowns, silk day dresses, saucy toreador pants and smart beachwear. Buyers from New York, Montreal, San Francisco and elsewhere were agog. Italy was back in business.
Gowns from that signature event, and a lively archival film clip, set the tone for “Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945,” the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ gorgeous new show opening Sunday.
Elegant and informative, “Italian Style” is about clothes and much more — handicraft and industry, designers and matriarchs, aristocrats at work, the economics of luxury. Plus history, politics, tailoring, Hollywood and Vespas.
Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, it features more than 100 garments spanning 70 years, from lavish 1950s gowns and innovative 1970s ready-to-wear, to new outfits from Valentino couture and Miu Miu’s spring 2014 line. Period photos and film clips, plus video interviews with contemporary designers, amplify the show. It will travel to museums in Portland, Ore., and Nashville after it closes in Minneapolis on Jan. 4.
Hollywood on the Tiber
Though the focus is on the post-World War II era, “Italian Style” begins in Fascist times with two 1939 women’s suits, beautifully tailored of cotton shantung and rayon. The Italian-made fabrics were innovative and inexpensive but designed to look luxe at a time when Italy was politically isolated and prepping for war. Italian fabrics — especially silks and wools — had set the world’s quality standards for centuries, and even the Fascists did not want to lose that edge.
The beauty of the early gowns is breathtaking, especially a 1951 gold-and-black-lace sheath by a now largely forgotten woman, Vita Noberasco, that would still dazzle on any red carpet.
Then Hollywood invaded, lured by the opportunity to shoot films on location. A “Hollywood on the Tiber” gallery suggests the glamour of the time including a gauzy, Empire-style gown that Audrey Hepburn wore in the 1956 film “War and Peace,” and a black-crepe evening number that Sorelle Fontana produced for Ava Gardner in the 1960s. Plus a sample of Bulgari jewelry that once belonged to Elizabeth Taylor.
It’s hard to concentrate on the clothes, however, when fun film clips are running continuously in their midst. There’s Gardner putting on and taking off more Fontana gowns in “The Barefoot Contessa,” and Audrey Hepburn zipping around Rome on a Vespa in “Roman Holiday.” And there’s Audrey’s Vespa itself, or one just like it, perched nearby amid a gaggle of leggy mannequins winsomely clad in psychedelic swimwear by Emilio Pucci, a Florentine aristocrat whose own improbable life story begs for cinematic treatment.
The Hollywood glamour is augmented by stunning gowns worn by socialites of the day: a silver sequined evening tunic with a white silk coat that Lee Radziwill wore to Truman Capote’s famous “Black and White” ball in 1966, and a companion piece, also by designer Mila Schön, that Marella Agnelli wore to the same party. In case visitors can’t quite recall the B&W ball, the show footnotes it all with copies of Vogue and other magazines in which it was dubbed the social event of the decade, if not the century.
Aristocrats at work
A lot of titled Italians, especially women, put their pedigrees to work after the war by opening fashion houses. Heirs to millennia-old dynasties (Colonna, Caracciolo), they included Irene Galitzine, a Rome-based Russian princess who invented a chic tunic-and-slacks outfit known as the “palazzo pajama” that was popularized by Jackie Kennedy among others. Note the lavishly bejeweled neckline on the show’s pretty pink set.
Among the aristocrats, however, Pucci was in a league of his own as a bon vivant and innovator in knitwear, manufacturing, color chemistry and textile engineering.
His close association with the United States is typical of the most successful postwar Italian designers. An Olympic skier, he revolutionized American ski clothes while in grad school at Reed College in Oregon, was drafted into the Italian Air Force as a fighter pilot, turned against Mussolini, was imprisoned and tortured by the Gestapo, escaped to Switzerland, and after the war started producing his colorful clothing and geometric textiles in the family palace. He also served in the Italian Parliament and eventually grew his company into an upmarket juggernaut whose designs were sold in boutiques and department stores worldwide and worn by — among others — Marilyn Monroe and most recently Beyoncé.
Unfolding in loosely chronological order, there are galleries of menswear, ready-to-wear, leather and furs. The latter include a stunning sheared-mink coat designed in 2000 by Karl Lagerfeld for Fendi. A marvel of Italian artistry, it is patched together from inch-square checkerboards and circles of soft fur dyed pink, gold, lilac, teal and other colors. Other delights range from a sequined 1987 Valentino couture cocktail dress with a fox-fur ruff at the hem, to fringed, black-leather leggings by Gianni Versace.
In a video, contemporary Italian designers fret that hand labor, materials, marketing and other production costs threaten their future. Perhaps, but the delicious clothes in the final “Cult of the Designer” gallery prove that they’re not yet cutting any corners. All the big and newer names — Armani, Prada, Valentino, Fausto Puglisi et al. — are represented with elegant and witty garments that cleverly embrace international styles and materials ranging from American letter jackets to African textiles, English tailoring and Renaissance-era artistry.
Most notably, the versatile young designers at Valentino paid homage in 2013 to two very different bits of English history. First they gave a shout-out to traditional English tailoring in a classy men’s suit made of blackwatch plaid. Then, as the MIA’s keen-eyed assistant textile curator, Nicole LaBouff, explained, they saluted England’s Queen Elizabeth I in a breathtaking gold-lace couture gown inset with silk panels garnished with exotic flora and fauna (coral, snakes, insects, sea horse) derived from the shimmering petticoat Q.E. I wore in her famous “Hardwick Portrait” of 1590.
Only in Italy! Bravissimo!