The enduring glamour of Italian fashion
My initiation into Italian culture was by way of pasta—as is with most other people in Asia—circa 1978. The movies came later, as did the fashion. More accurately, the fashion came in the form of a movie, American Gigolo, that ’80s paean to Italian menswear and the Hollywood vehicle that made Giorgio Armani a household name. The fashion outshone the movie and taught a generation of men how to dress—and a generation of women how to dress their men. For its lasting influence and Armani’s following success in Hollywood and America, rumour has it that till this day, the film’s star Richard Gere can walk into any Armani store and take whatever he wants—for free.
If this story is true, few would begrudge Gere, for he burned into our minds that image of the effortlessly well-dressed lover who embodied the insouciance of Italian style in how to live, how to move and how to seduce. That studied nonchalance is, in Italian culture-speak, sprezzatura—a term created and defined by Baldassare Castiglione, a 15th century Italian courtier and Renaissance author. The essence of sprezzatura can be found in the light creases of a silk shirt, slightly wrinkled linen trousers that say quality over practicality; in the abandon with which Anita Ekberg’s character in La Dolce Vita cavorted, dressed in full evening gown, in the Trevi Fountain; and in the joyful abandon that Audrey Hepburn’s princess exuded while riding a Vespa incognito around town with a newsman in Roman Holiday.
Fashion, like sprezzatura, is the Italian way of life. Since the 11th century, cities such as Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan had begun to produce textiles, jewellery, shoes and ornaments. Through its art, literature and fashion, Italy became the cradle and birthplace of the Renaissance. With the flourish of its culture, Italy’s fashion became widely popular. The Medicis in Florence were especially celebrated for the rich fabrics and fine dressing. By the 15th and 16th centuries, the art of Raphael, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci wielded much influence over Italian fashion, especially among the powerful, wealthy families, whose fashion in turn inpsired the dress styles of the European royal courts. But from the 17th century, French fashion took over. Even Elsa Schiaparelli, pre-war Italy’s foremost designer, became renowned only after setting up shop in Paris.
Despite the founding of major fashion houses such as Ferragamo, Gucci, Bulgari and Prada in the late 19th and 20th centuries, it was not till after 1945 that Italian style truly regained its allure. A weakened economy and spirit under the fascist rule saw the country lose its industries, among them fashion. After World War II, aid to Europe came in the form of the Marshall Plan, the American initiative to help postwar Europe. Leather goods, shoes and accessories that the Italians had previously been well known for were being produced and exported again. In 1951, Battista Giorgini, an entrepreneur and fashion buyer, managed the feat of organising an unprecedented fashion show where he pulled off the first “fashion week” of sorts in Florence, showcasing a group of notable Italian designers of that time—Emilio Pucci, Fontana, Contessa Visconti and the like—with an international audience in attendance. The American press took notice and Italy’s reputation as a fashion capital was promptly revived.
Fashion shows took place with increasing frequency during the ’50s, giving us elegant sportswear in the form of capri and palazzo pants. But Italy’s “comeback” was more than sartorial. The film industry’s fascination with the resurgence of Rome as a city of glamour and romance gave the world two movies that reflected the zeitgeist of the ’50s and ’60s—Roman Holiday and Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Rome was portrayed as an exciting city of freedom and abandon in both films, the characters and lifestyle the picture of throwaway chic. Michelangelo Antonioni, who directed Blow-up and L’Avventura, showed the noir side of the culture—a tad darker and more mysterious, like the Italy depicted in the film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. The lush images of late ’50s Italy from Mongibello to San Remo, from Rome to Venice, were complemented with equally dreamy costumes of that era.
By the ’70s and ’80s, Milan had taken over Rome and Florence as the country’s fashion venue. Designers like Armani, Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni, Gucci, Moschino and the like ruled those decades and Milan Fashion Week had joined Paris, London and New York as an important stop for buyers, press and clients. Meanwhile, Italian menswear stepped into the spotlight with Armani, Zegna and Brioni suits gaining as much renown as Savile Row tailoring. Ferragmo and Gucci shoes were the ultimate ’80s status accessories for men. Italian tailoring influence also seeped into women’s business attire. Armani, however, was in a league of his own. Although the decade was notorious for the heavily shoulder-padded jackets, the designer removed the paddings and gave his jackets a more relaxed and elegant look that has lasted till today. Armani singlehandedly made power look easy and sexy.
The power of Italian fashion came from the varied styles that their designers offered. Much like the old days when artisans and family-run businesses clustered in specific locations, such as Tuscany for leather, Como for silk, Valencia for gold. Dressing also differed from region to region—north Italy had a more austere and minimalist aesthetic due to its colder climate while the central and south had more exuberant and feminine looks. Similarly, the designers and their labels ran the gamut of sensibilities: Prada is intellectual and conceptual, Pucci is feminine allure personified, while Versace is flamboyant sexuality.
Since the turn of the millennium, years of recession and changes in the fashion industry, especially in its supply chain and production, have seen the rise of “instant” fashion. While Italy thrived under the world of designer cult and exquisite textiles, the “fast fashion” ethos of today leaves fashion houses busy playing catch-up. Fortunately in our 21st century, as markets have become more sophisticated, fashion made in its provenance have become more in demand. As the world revisits luxury, one hopes that “Made in Italy” labels and the sprezzatura that comes with it will relive its ’80s and ’90s glory.
This spring, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum stages an exhibition of Italian fashion, showcasing its history and highlights. Among the exhibitions are Elizabeth Taylor’s Bulgari diamond-and-emerald piece given to her as a wedding present by Richard Burton; a collection by Emilio Pucci (when Marilyn Monroe died, she was buried in her favourite Pucci dress); and a Mila Schön gown worn by Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s sister) at Truman Capote’s 1966 ball at The Plaza hotel in New York City. This exhibition at the V&A, titled The Glamour Of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 will run through the end of July.