Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Fifties and the Rise of Italian Fashion

Behind the Scenes at a fifties fashion show
More than simply fashion, a piece of clothing emblazoned with the words 'Made in Italy' is emblematic of a certain kind of lifestyle; it is a label that has become synonymous with good taste, attention to detail and quality. Italy has always maintained a rich and multifarious affair with fashion. However, a distinctive Italian look had yet to emerge until the 1950s - a decade of pioneering experimentation and a time in which Italy's sense of fashion bloomed.

As is its want, fashion is determined by both political and social changes. From the twelfth century, right through until the early twentieth century, Italy thrived as an exporter of luxury fashion items, textiles and small leather goods. However, an insecure government structure resulted in the absence of a unified Italian fashion centre and so estranged the country's fashion artists from competing in the global market.

For the first part of the twentieth century, France monopolised the world of fashion, with Paris recognised as both the epicentre of chic and the global leader in couture culture. Italy, like much of the world, looked abroad for the latest fashions; wealthy women travelled to Paris to buy their clothes; wealthy men had their suits and shoes custom-made in London. The Italian middle classes employed dressmakers and tailors to produce copies of the latest Paris and London styles.

Christian Dior
As World War Two drew to a close, a lapse in overseas communications waylaid France's domineering fashion force. By 1950, America was gaining on France's heels, offering an alternate view of fashion as comfortable, durable and sporty as opposed to tailored and refined. From this dichotomy came the rise of ready-to-wear. French couturiers such as Christian Dior and Jacques Fath were simplifying their designs to sell to American department stores and New York boutiques alike. The post-war Italian government actively sought ways to help the nation recover from the war's economic damage. One early success was the revival of traditional craft-based products - shoes, leather goods and other accessories, for an export market aimed at the United States, which at this point was the only large country in the world with substantial post-war purchasing power. The middle-ground that lay between the French and American take on ready-to-wear was provided by Italian fashion designers, who saw the need for collections which combined accessibility and comfort with refined, elegant design.

A crucial step in bringing Italian Fashion to an international platform was the first multi-designer Italian fashion show held in Florence in 1951. Florentine business man Giovan Battista successfully organised a fashion show of Italy's most promising designers including the pioneering works of Sorelle Fontana, Contessa Visconti, Emilio Pucci, Baroness Gallotti and Bertoli. The fashion press were enthused, reporting the show using rapturous phrases such as seductive elegance and aristocratic ease. The American fashion press in particular took notice and observed too that Italian dresses were coming onto the market at prices far lower than those for French creations. High-end American department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdof Goodman, sent representatives to review the collection and consequently the designs of Capucci, Fabiani and Sorelle Fontana were transported back to the States.

Myrna Loy in That Dangerous Age
Rome's oldest and most prominent fashion house - Sorelle Fontana, is the success story of three sisters, Zoe, Micol and Giovanna who learnt dressmaking from their mother. Making the bold decision to move their dressmaking business to Rome at the beginning of the Second World War, the sister's glamorous designs were inspired by Christian Dior's New Look, which clung to the bust-line with full, swinging skirts. The three sisters had grand aspirations. Initially sought after by the Italian aristocracy, after the success of the Florence fashion show in 1951, the Fontana's developed their Italian informal but feminine style to appeal to the American market. This was a liberating moment for Italian fashion designers: for the first time they were commercially freed from foreign influence.

Sorelle Fontana design in La Dolce Vita
Hollywood began to take notice. The Fontana designs first caught the eye of Myrna Loy who bought all her costumes from the sisters for her film That Dangerous Age. The following year they made Linda Christian's wedding dress when she married Tyrone Power. The cassock dress, based on robes worn by Roman Catholic priests and worn by Ava Gardner, and the infamous dress worn by Anita Ekberg in the La Dolce Vita fountain scene, catapulted the Fontana designs into the most exclusive wardrobes of the era. Gardner and Ekberg were the perfect Fontana client and model - unashamedly and voluptuously sexy and already known for their alluring and elegant dressing.

Audrey Hepburn in Sorelle Fontana

Glamorous and sophisticated evening gowns and cocktail dresses designed by Pucci, Contessa Visconit and Sorelle Fontana were worn by both Italian and Hollywood movie stars both on and off-screen, most notably by Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. First ladies soon took their cue and Jackie Kennedy and Mamie Eisenhower continued to display Italian design in the public eye. In addition to breathtaking cocktail dresses, throughout the 1950s, competing fashion shows in Florence and Rome solidified Italy's reputation for Capri pants, 'palazzo pyjamas,' and other youthful, elegant sportswear.

The continuing unity between life and film brought worldwide recognition to Italy and propelled Rome into the running for most glamorous international city. During the fifties, Italy created an empire of post-war fashion, and enjoyed an influential and unforgettable decade of style sovereignty.

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