In 1945, Europe was a scene of devastation. Cities lay in ruins, and swarms of refugees tried to return what remained of their homes – or countries. The horror of the Holocaust had been uncovered, and Nazism defeated, but Stalin lay in the wings, waiting to take Hitler’s place as the world’s top tyrant. Not an auspicious time for fashion, you might think.
This exhibition shows otherwise. Taking us from the early pioneers of Italy’s post-war fashion renaissance, such as Giovanni Battista Giorgini who, in the 1950s, organised the ‘Sala Bianca’ fashion shows in Florence which played a landmark role in getting international coverage of Italian fashion off the ground, we journey – via figures such as such as the design innovator Waiter Albini and couturiers the Fontana sisters and Mila SchÖn – through to present-day designers such as Stella Jean. We’re also reminded of the role played by film stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor who, during the 1950s, wore Italian fashions in their screen roles, so helping to bring them to a world-wide audience. Frederico Fellini’s 1960 film, ‘La Dolce Vita’ – which examined the rise of Rome’s glitzy, hedonistic, celebrity-spotting culture – arguably helped this process, even if it might not have intended to (Italian suits were popularised by the ones worn in it by its star Marcello Mastroianni).
The exhibition – curated by the excellent Sonnet Stanflll, curator of 20th century and contemporary fashion at the V&A and gifted contributor to its fashion-related activities – features around 100 ensembles and accessories, from leading Italian fashion houses such as Missoni, Pucci and Giorgio Armani through to more recent practitioners like Gimbattista Valli and the duo Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli (new designers at Valentino). But the exhibition doesn’t just cover the surface side of fashion, attractive though that is (catch the 2014 sequin sparkled crepe silk dress by Prada in its penultimate section). It also examines the production techniques which – allied to Italy’s long-standing industries such as spinning, dyeing, weaving, cutting and stitching (seen, for example, in traditional Italian Catholic church vestments) – contributed to its rise in the fashion world, making it noted for its production and export strengths.
The scope of the exhibition makes visible for us a remarkable story of aesthetic and economic development. On a deeper level, it also shows how the human need for beauty can never be extinguished and will assert itself, even when faced with the demoralisation and desolation of social and political breakdown.
Tickets: £12 (Concessions available)
Lead Sponsor: Bulgari
Words: Nicky Charlish