Richard Burton once said that in the nine months Elizabeth Taylor spent in Rome filming Cleopatra, she learned just one word of Italian: “Bulgari”, the jewellers.
The extraordinary glamour and craftsmanship of Italian fashion in the second half of the 20th century – and how the fashion industry helped to transform the fortunes and image of a country devastated by the second world war – are to be the focus of The Glamour of Italian Fashion, a new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in April 2014.
The exhibition will deliver a feelgood fillip to an Italian fashion industry currently in crisis. The fashion industry’s appetite for newness has led to Italian designer fashion, dominated for decades by the same names – Armani, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana – finding itself overshadowed by exciting new design talent in London, Paris and New York. The level of concern in Italy about the status of its fashion industry was shown during the most recent Milan fashion week, when the city’s mayor took the unusual step of co-hosting a gala opera evening at La Scala with Jonathan Newhouse, of magazine powerhouse Condé Nast. The purpose of the event was to sprinkle a little much-needed sparkle onto Milan fashion week, which has found itself squeezed out of the limelight by the resurgence of the London shows that immediately precede it.
Fashion emerges in the exhibition as a hero of Italy’s postwar resurgence. The “Sala Bianca” fashion shows of the early 1950s were the first to bring together the previously disparate worlds of fashion and tailoring in Rome, Florence, Milan and Naples, creating a new notion of Italian style as a unified concept that played a crucial role in boosting the image of Italy abroad. The exhibition will include the Bulgari diamond and emerald jewellery given by Richard Burton as a wedding present to Elizabeth Taylor; a Mila Schön gown worn by Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie Kennedy, at Truman Capote’s 1966 ball at the Plaza hotel; and several pieces by Emilio Pucci, whose label was instrumental in introducing Italian fashion to the American market. (When Marilyn Monroe died in 1962, she was buried in her favourite Pucci dress.)
In the postwar era, Italian fashion successfully navigated the transition of fashion from the craft of dressmaking to machine-made high-fashion, becoming the ready-to-wear capital of Europe. Italy also led the field in the shift from an industry modelled around family businesses to one in which the cult of individual designer personality became paramount. The exhibition celebrates how, in this era, Italian fashion proved adept at moving with the times – a skill it seems to have lost a grip on during the 21st century.
Speaking after the launch, curator Sonnet Stanfill said the exhibition could not be simply characterised as a story of rise and fall. “I don’t think fall is the right word. There is no doubt that Italian fashion faces challenges, particularly from production in China. But as the emerging markets become more sophisticated, they offer more and more opportunity to Italy. Increasingly, the new consumers value the ‘Made in Italy’ label, which they see as both a souvenir and a guarantee of quality.”
The last room of the exhibition will feature a series of filmed interviews with Italian fashion designers discussing the future of their industry. “The question of the future of Italian fashion is one that we need to face squarely,” Stanfill said.
The show is the first of three fashion exhibitions the V&A will stage during 2014, as it asserts its positioning as “the home of fashion” in an era when museums are increasingly turning to the mass appeal of fashion to pull in audiences. After the Italian Fashion show, which runs from April to July, the museum will stage an exhibition of the history of wedding dresses, and a retrospective of the work of the fashion photographer Horst.