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Feature: The Glamour of Italian Fashion, 1945-2014

9 April 2014 | Charlie Kenber

“If the Americans hadn’t come we wouldn’t be standing here today!”

Today if you think of fashion, where does your mind go: Paris? London? How about Milan! Fashion and Italy seem somehow intrinsically linked, as if it’s at the very core of Italian nature. Just thinking of ‘the boot’ brings to mind sharp suits and glamorous dresses gracing the world’s catwalks.

But this wasn’t always the case. Take yourself back to 1945 and Italy was a country deep in poverty. Shattered by a disastrous war and Mussolini’s regime, it seemed entirely unfeasible that it would be a powerhouse of anything any time soon – least of all fashion.

As a new exhibition at the V&A, The Glamour of Italian Fashion, artfully demonstrates however, it was from amongst this rubble that the remarkable heritage of design and localised production emerged. With a fantastic array of garments and images, the exhibition explores how although the National Fashion Board had sought to reform a fragmented nationhood through design identity throughout World War II, it was only after – thanks to an injection of American money – that a real hunger for glamour took hold.

As production grew, the remarkable Giovanni Battista Giorgini put together a famous series of fashion shows from 1951 that attracted an international audience. Exhibition curator Sonnet Stanfill tells me, “he was responsible for transforming the Italian fashion industry, by convincing buyers and press from all around the world to come for the first time to see Italian fashion shown on a catwalk in his house. Within a few years Giorgini had convinced Florence to allow him to use the Sala Bianca. The rest is history.”

The shows caught the eyes of wealthy Americans: at the time only Hollywood stars could afford the high end Parisian products, so it’s no surprise that many were attracted to the slightly more affordable – and more unique – Italian designs. In 1952 Carmel Snow even wrote wistfully in the New York Journal-American that, “if there were no other reason to go to Florence and Rome just when spring begins to whisper, Italian fashion would fully justify our going.” As Sonnet surmises, “If the Americans hadn’t come we wouldn’t be standing here today!”

The exhibition continues, following the quick growth of the Italian industry, especially focussing on the increasing influence of more industrialised manufacturing. “If the first half of the exhibition is about couture, and the trace of the hand and bespoke tailoring,” Sonnet continues, “the second half of this project is really about manufactured ready-to-wear…Italian fashion has been able to harness these very high-quality factory-produced garments.”

Similarly, the image of Italian design exploded onto the international stage, with stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor becoming ambassadors for the designs. By 1970 Milan had eclipsed Florence and Rome as Italy’s fashion capital, and in the fifteen years until 1985 international exports increased by 300%, a reflection of the success of the ‘ready-to-wear’ styles.

Coming full circle, a final room capped by beautiful silk drapery and a mock-catwalk brings us firmly back to the present: a time when designers become more famous than the celebrities who wear their clothes. The displays bring us right up-to-date, even featuring dresses from the most recent London Fashion Week.

However, as Sonnet puts it, “the story doesn’t end here. With questions of foreign investment, overseas production, emerging market consumption and economic tensions facing Italy’s fashion design houses, in the final room of this show we’ve featured a series of filmed interviews with protagonists from the industry. Their comments and opinions bring the current debate about the future of Made in Italy within the four walls of the V&A.”

Interestingly, it is London itself that is one of the challengers for Italy’s crown. Combined with the V&A’s mission to inspire young creatives, it perhaps becomes apparent that this exhibition itself is an expression of the threats that Italian design faces. “The V&A is the home of fashion, and we have one of the largest and most comprehensive collections in the world,” Sonnet says. “We are proud that the collections have been – and continue to be – a source of inspiration and reference for numerous designers, fashion students and researchers.”

In many ways, although endangered once again, Italian fashion continues to be one of few shining lights in a country in disarray.

The Glamour of Italian Fashion continues at the V&A until 27th July 2014. Tickets cost £12 (concessions apply), available here.

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