The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 V&A - exhibition review

image (c) Gideon Hall 2014

The other night I watched the film 'I am Love' with Tilda Swinton. Refined, exquisitely dressed, and with the greatest attention to detail. These same attributes could be applied to the V&A's latest exhibition ' The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014', which runs from the 5th of April to the 27th of July.

The reason I mention it is that I saw the DVD for sale in the gift shop after the show; appropriate viewing material in terms of both form and flavour. This exhibition showcases the post war rise and rise of modern Italian fashion, drawing on original research and documenting the motivations, mechanisms and most significantly, demonstrating the creative flair that saw the Italians conquer the world.

Curator Sonnet Stanfill weaves the complex story together; emphasising the historical, geographical and political reasons why Florence, Rome and Milan in particular, became the centre for fashion in post war Italy: 'A viable alternative to Paris'. This isn't an easy task.

The show examines how Italian designers and organisations developed their ideas, as well as reflecting and responding to subtle shifts in style, taste and ultimately consumption. How the traditional culture of couture; that intimate connection between the 'dressmaker' and client, was influential on the emergent scene. The exhibition goes on to describe the rise of Milan and the 'stilista' (figures like Walter Albini in the 1970s, promoting the 'perfect style' as opposed to the 'perfect outfit') and considers the 'Cult of the Designer' with which we are familiar today.

All of this unfolds within the kind of multimedia format the V&A do well; most of the projections and backdrops are well thought out and add detail, flavour and sparkle to proceedings. That said, certain examples towards the end of the show are a bit ponderous and only act as advertising wallpaper.

As to the outfits and accessories themselves, one marvels at what's to be seen here. They are simply stunning in their innovation, tailoring and workmanship; as well as being beautifully presented and lit. On display are both female and male attire.

Significant names and events are identified in the wider context, as the exhibition examines how seminal catwalk shows from the 50s like 'Sala Bianca' in Florence established an international platform for emerging talent like Simonetta and the Fontana Sisters. Also, how influential films like 'La Dolce Vita' were on popular perceptions of and aspirations to, Italian style. How sharp dressed actors like Marcello Mastroianni promoted refined tailoring and influenced the world in both bespoke and ready-made suits.

The exhibition also shows the industry was a beneficiary of the Marshall Plan, and how by drawing on the skills and traditions of local craftspeople, often regionally based, forged a reputation for quality with clients all over the world. Certain defining elements of Italian fashion had long been established- the best materials, refined work and crafting, dramatic impact- and designers used and adapted these to develop a reputation for luxury. Missoni being an example from the early 70s.

We see how incredibly inventive individuals like Roberto Capucci actually were in terms of expanding the sculptural and chromatic possibilities opened up by new structural techniques and developments in fabric. A glorious new world of form and colour opened up. Another earlier example of originality that really struck me was Carosa's 1958-59 Quilted Cocktail Dress, that had both the nostalgia of the old, combined with a futurism that 'anticipates the... designs of the 1960s'.

The Hollywood connection is there of course; amply demonstrated with some of the most famous clothes and accessories of the 20th century. Dresses worn by the likes of Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn in the films that made their names. A real scoop too is having the Bulgari Diamonds and Emeralds that Richard Burton gave to Elizabeth Taylor on their engagement. (It really doesn't get much more glamorous than that, does it?)

This relationship was of course reciprocal. Through choosing to wear the work of Bulgari (the shows' lead sponsor), Salvatore Ferragamo and other designers, the big names of the silver screen became ambassadors for Italian fashion and design; promoting their work to a global, celebrity hungry audience.

With the rise of ready to wear fashion, we see the establishment of household names like Versace and Armani. Such designers, through their success, became global brands; and as a consequence, significant contributors to the Italian economy. Surprisingly, as certain contemporary players complain, the fashion industry is not supported that much by the Italian government. The final part of the exhibition considers many of the issues facing Italian fashion today. Things like the difficulties involved in providing opportunities for the development of new talent in a highly competitive and crowded industry.

All in all a very good show and a real 'event'. Despite the inevitable crowds, my advice is to take your time absorbing the subtleties of the show, which will take a good few hours if you are not familiar with the subject. Or of course, you could just take in the glamour of the designs themselves.

Wish I'd worn something more worthy now instead of jeans and tee shirt.

(C) Gideon Hall 2014

Rating: 4 stars

Author's review: 
No rating