It may seem a little futile to run an exhibition on what the world knows to be the most glamorous country in the world. Many of the world’s biggest fashion houses call Italy home – Armani, Versace and Prada to name a few – and anyone who’s visited returns in awe of the easy and effortless style that seems to come naturally to every Italian.
But it wasn’t always this way. The story of Italian glamour is fairly recent history, brought to light by the V&A’s knack for telling stories through fashion.
Massive post-war investment in Italian artisan production, coupled with the fervent efforts of one Giovanni Battista Giorgini in persuading American buyers to view his collections, gave life to an industry that emerged from the tatters of the Second World War. Every Italian designer owes a great deal to Giogini, who even persuaded Florence’s Palazzo Pitti to let him use their ‘Sala Bianci’ (white room) for shows.
…the scope of Italian design is beautifully diverse…
Over 100 ensembles are on display, from the early 1940s through to 2014’s Spring/Summer collections, and they couldn’t be more different. From a 1952 Simonetta evening gown made for the girl of tiny waist and wide hips, to a Pucci print playsuit and Versace black corset dress, the scope of Italian design is beautifully diverse.
Through the chronologically-ordered rooms, the V&A deftly highlights what the exhibition is really all about: simple, understated yet glamorous Italian style. Sure, there are fur details and embellishments galore, but it never seems too much, there is really very little “bling” apart from a certain pair of Prada heels in the last room.
…there’s no denying their luxurious glamour…
Everything oozed sprezzatura – dressing with a stylish nonchalance – and if, like me, this is something you aim to do every day, it’s heart-wrenchingly perfect when you see several rooms of it in quick succession.
Sponsored by Bulgari, the centrepiece of the middle room is the stunning emerald and diamond necklace, brooch and ring set given to Elizabeth Taylor by Richard Burton as they fell in love while filming ‘Cleopatra’. Perhaps not the best example of sprezzatura, there’s no denying their luxurious glamour.
…more could have been made of the accessories…
A smaller room is dedicated to tailoring and celebrating the quintessential Italian style – for both sexes – of wearing suits slightly looser than their British counterparts. Some attention was paid to the specialised regional producers and artisans, but more could have been made of the accessories, a market that has made Italian designs wearable and transferable across the world. The essentials were there – Fendi Baguette, Bottega Veneta, Tod’s moccasins – but I would have liked to see more of the rich Italian heritage of shoemaking and hand-made bags.
The V&A has conveyed Italian glamour in all its ease and beauty, down to the mannequins who seem to be dancing in their evening gowns. Curator Sonnet Standfill emphasised that this was not intended to be a comprehensive review – and certainly it was not – but it shed light on the history of a fashion industry that seems centuries old but has only really taken off in the past 60 years. Newer designers were given space in the last room, closing an exhibition that immerses you in effortless luxury and gives a small glimpse of the country whose fashion the world simply couldn’t live without.