Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Fendi, Gianfranco Ferre, Gucci, Missoni, Prada, Pucci, Versace: why does Italy consistently produce the world’s top fashion designers? A label stitched with “Made In Italy” has become a sign of luxury, expert tailoring, and impeccable taste, favored by literal princesses and Hollywood royalty.
The Glamour of Italian Fashion: 1945-2014, opening Saturday at the Victoria and Albert Museum London, is the first major exhibit to celebrate the ritz and glitz of Italy’s best-made garments. It features 120 ensembles and accessories from the end of World War II to the present, from Bulgari jewelry once owned by Elizabeth Taylor to a sequined gown worn by Princess Lee Radziwill to gold-encrusted boots from the country appropriately shaped like a boot.
For hundreds of years, Italy boasted strong traditions in industries like spinning, dyeing, weaving, cutting, and stitching. Such skills were often passed down from generation to generation, and laid the foundation for Italy’s rise to the top of the world fashion food chain. The beauty of Italian tailoring was in the details: thinner lapels, crisper lines, and lighter fabrics. Italian fashion made its debut on the world stage in 1951, when businessman Giovanni Battista Giorgini hosted the country’s first internationally recognized catwalk show, the “Sala Bianca,” in Florence. Giorgini’s goal was to make Italy rival France as the trendsetting capital of the world.
Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Elizabeth Taylor aided this mission with impossibly glamorous performances in ‘50s films shot in Italy. Anthony and Cleopatra, War and Peace, and Roman Holiday made Milan and Rome synonymous with style and luxury. These actresses became style ambassadors for the Eternal City, with designers feverishly publicizing the stars’ visits to their boutiques. One classic shot from 1954 features Hepburn visiting Salvatore Ferragamo, a designer who began his career working for a shoe factory in the U.S., where he racked up a collection of celebrity clients. They stayed loyal when he opened his own business back home.
What’s next for Italian fashion? “The exhibition is opening at a time when Italy is going through a period of self-questioning–anxiety about the next generation as it seeks a volume of young talent to grow the industry once more,” curator Sonnet Stanfill tells Vogue. The glamorous designs by young talent on view, from Fausto Puglisi (a favorite of Madonna) to Valentino’s new designer duo Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, suggest the industry doesn’t have too much to worry about.
The Glamour of Italian Fashion: 1945-2014 is on view at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum from April 5th to July 27th.