New Exhibit Showcases a History of Italian High Fashion

“Here in the US people think Italian high fashion started with Armani and Versace,” Stefano Tonchi, editor of W magazine told me recently, over the phone.

“It didn’t.” The real origin story of “altamoda” is the subject of a new exhibition, co-curated by Tonchi (along with Maria Luisa Frisa, fashion curator and professor at IUAV, University of Venice and Anna Mattirolo, art director of the National Museum of the XXI Century Arts in Rome). Called “Belissima,” the show, which opens at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale on Feb 5th, shows around ninety garments from the golden age of modern couture in Italy, 1945-1968. The postwar period, during which Italy was devastated by the war and subject to political and economic uncertainty, turned out to be one of the most productive periods in fashion history.

The exhibition traces the development of Italian high fashion and examines the textile industry, from which it was made. There is U.S. connection to the artifacts in the show, through the legacy of the Marshall Plan, which ended up funding the revival of the Italian textile and industry, and giving birth to the studios, ateliers, and small scale factories that we now hold as the standard of fashion manufacturing. “These were family-run businesses,” said Tonchi, “whose names we now know”—Valentino, Fendi, Pucci, Ferragamo, Fragiacomo, Gucci. Tonchi wanted to bring the show to the US, from Rome, to show the lineage of modern ready-to-wear fashion, and to celebrate the craft of those clothes.

Looking at the garments on view, it’s easy to see how the style of the modern woman grew out of this time. Previously, high fashion had been very creative but impractical. Designers such as Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga dominated the stage, designing fantasies for fantastical women. Around the same, Tonchi explained, Dior proposed to bring back the corset. But the war had changed too much; women, having filled spaces and jobs men had to abandon in order to fight, were empowered not to return to the way things were. Broken and poor Italian families found new energy as well. Unemployed, Italian aristocrats managed to find money in fashion, like Pucci for example. “He had knowledge of taste and beauty, but not very much else,” said Tonchi. “Italian pret-a-porter and luxury system comes from these years.” The “Palazzo Pajama,” by Irene Galitzine, for example, was comprised of silk pants and a silk tunic with an elegant line that could, in an unprecedented way, be worn day or night. And for the first time, fashion began to be designed by women. “They were luxury creations, but nonetheless practical; precious, embroidered textiles that had a certain simplicity; short cocktail dresses that allowed for movement; and warm, roomy coats accompanied by oversized handbags,” that could be carried in the street, office, and back home. If one considers what we wear today—from Phoebe Philo’s luxury daywear to Alexander Wang’s athletic wear—it’s a concept that still rules the fashion schedule today.