A new show examines the impact of Italy’s postwar fashion industry on art, architecture, photography, theatre and cinema
Italian labels hold a special place in every fashionista’s heart. Brands like Gucci, Prada, Valentino, Roberto Cavalli, Fendi, Emilio Pucci and others seem to embody the dazzling creativity of the contemporary fashion scene. Around the globe, the fashion lovers are constantly observing Italian brands to understand current trends and styles and identify each season’s must-have accessories.
Italy’s reign over global fashion began in earnest after World War II, with an Italian fashion boom taking place between 1945 and 1968. Seeking to restore, strengthen and stabilise Italy’s postwar economy, the country’s leaders invested heavily into Italy’s fashion industry. Fashion designers drew on the nation’s rich cultural and artistic legacy to produce garments and accessories that were both luxurious and practical, at the same time reactivating the nation’s textile, leather and silk factories, which in turn produced jobs for Italy’s skilled craftsmen. Those very same factories were essential in reviving Italy’s economy, both by bringing skilled labour back into the workforce and by becoming big advertisers in magazines in order to promote a new stylish and creative Italy.
This winter, the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, examines those wondrous years by tracing the development of Italian high fashion, known as alta moda, and examining how the era’s fashion was instrumental in producing extraordinary art, architecture, cinema, theatre and photography.
The exhibition, entitled Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968, is presented by Bulgari and staged by Rome’s MAXXI: National Museum of the XXI Century Arts. Curators include MAXXI director Anna Mattirolo, fashion curator and critic Maria Luisa Frisa and editor-in-chief of W magazine Stefano Tonchi.
In an attempt to capture the heady glamour of the postwar era, Bellissima recreates Italy’s fashion scene, highlighting over 230 designer garments that represent Italian fashion, including the spectacular gowns to have graced ballrooms and theatres, as well as some of the period’s most stylish cocktail dresses.
“This moment in history laid the foundation for Italy’s future ready-to-wear fashion, and the exhibition traces its beginnings within the social and cultural contact,” says Stefano Tonchi. Bellissima looks at the designers who made lasting contributions to Italy’s image throughout the world, including Valentino, Simonetta, Roberto Capucci, Fendi, Sorelle Fontana, Emilio Pucci, Renato Balestra. The exhibition also examines the relationship between fashion design and art, architecture, theatre and filmmaking, while focusing on the roles that cities such as Florence, Rome, Venice and Milan played during those extraordinary times.
Rare items on display encompass dresses created specifically for 1960s Hollywood sirens, including such iconic actresses as Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Kim Novak and Ingrid Bergman, as well as accessories that came to be synonymous with “Made in Italy” know-how, like costume jewellery, hats, shoes and handbags by Gucci, Ferragamo and Fragiacomo. There is also a special section devoted to Bulgari, showcasing the Italian jeweller’s innovation and experimentation during this key era.
With its enthralling mix of Italian high fashion and unique pieces of art, all from the 20th century, Bellissima offers a dreamy, unprecedented celebration of a major aspect of Italian culture.
Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968 runs from February 7 to June 5 at the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Interventions Issue #34, on page 90-93.