Story of the Splendour of the Italian Fashion

written by Cristiana Raffa

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Industrial architecture serves as the catwalk for the setup of the exhibition that celebrates clothing, placing it in different correlations with the observer. A static fashion show, as if frozen in time, like a multidimensional Polaroid photograph. Bellissima, L’Italia dell’alta moda 1945–68 is an exhibition about fashion, and the history of fashion and costumes at the maxxi Museum in Rome. The exhibition will be on view through 3 May. This is the first time that the magnificent building by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid has hosted that particular type of project, and thus ranked alongside those of the largest museums of contemporary art like the Moma in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


It is the exhibition that focuses the spotlight on the world worthy to be remembered, and to be the guiding star for the future of Italy that carries in itself the potential to once again become the world’s role model for style, design and high quality craftsmanship. The mannequins at the Bellissima exhibition wear history; the clothes tell the story of the glory of Italian fashion in relation to Parisian ateliers during the post-World War ii economic boom, of the influence it had, entering the closets of millions of women throughout the Western world.


The setup by architect Maria Giuseppina Grasso Cannizzo displays a selection of 80 outfits, the fruits of the extraordinary creativity of great designers. The creations that lit up the glamorous balls and theater premieres held—Hollywood on the Tiber was living the dolce vita in which the ateliers of the couturiers also took part—are the results of rigorous, perhaps even exaggerated formal research, inspired by journeys to the Moon that were underway at the time, a representation of the dreams for the future. Displayed in the last part of the exhibition, glittering clothes are characteristic for that 1960s aesthetic that was projected toward a future, so well described in The 10th Victim, directed by Elio Petri in 1965. References to Pop and Op Art foreshadowed the sidereal scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).


Also on display at the exhibition are the items designed for Ava Gardner, Anita Ekberg, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Kim Novak, Anna Magnani (the latter starred in Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima in 1951; it is from that film that the project has taken its name). But there are also daytime combinations, ladies’ suits, and coats that speak of the luxury of everyday life, luxury that actually frees women from their tight laced corsets and too-long skirts. A cultural revolution is achieved even with a needle and thread. The exploration of the territory started, which allowed Italian couturiers to experiment with the highest quality fashion which needn’t necessarily have anything to do with glamorous clothes. It was the path that led straight toward Prêt-à-Porter fashion, a hitherto unknown democratization of users.


In those years of extraordinary cultural turmoil, the relationships between fashion and art are very dynamic; there is a lively and continuous exchange of ideas, and their expressions became closely intertwined. As Irene Brin, one of Italy’s first fashion and costume reporters, put it, You need to understand fashion through theater, books, museums..., but the same is also true in the opposite direction. In those years, artists and creators shared common experiences, resources, and meeting places: the cafe Rosati in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, and the Jamaica Bar in Milan were common contexts for the exchange of ideas and mutual enrichment.


As explained by curator Maria Luisa Frisa at the opening of the exhibition, in Italy, there is cooperation in projects and a curiosity to explore and define a creative wellspring of ideas and the interweaving of various disciplines that took place in the post-World War ii years, If the atelier is the artist, and the artist is his/her atelier, there are places like the Obelisco gallery in Rome that become a point of encounter not just owing to the varied artistic techniques, but also thanks to the collectors and dreamers, couturiers and beautiful women, intellectuals and loafers.


MAXXI has staged a dialogue between the clothes and the works of great artists of that era, such as the works of Mila Schön, inspired by the punctures in Lucio Fontana’s canvases. Diana Vreeland called Mila Schön the Italian Coco Chanel, continues Maria Luisa Frisa, thus comparing her with the one that changed the way of dressing in accordance with the aesthetics and poetics of modernism. thanks to the great photographer Ugo Mulas, Mila Schön met and became a friend of Lucio Fontana’s, and watched as fashion transitioned from ateliers to boutiques to Prêt-à-Porter.


The world that emerges in the illuminated hall at the maxxi, with a large glass wall facing the courtyard, and a bird’s eye view of the city, is the story of fashion just before it became focused on business. Here are the beginnings of mass consumerism. Cultural capitals, especially Rome, are again trying to find a common language with the world. The clothes become a creative act. In addition to the relation between Mila Schön and Fontana, artists such as Dorazio, Sanfilippo, and Carla Accardi made drawings for silk factories in northern Italy, while the graphism of Alberto Biasi found another area for their illusionism. Germana Marucelli entrusted Paolo Scheggi with the design of her new atelier, launching a new line she named Optical. It was realized in collaboration with kinetic artist Getulio Alviani. In contrast, the topic of Campigli’s paintings were clothes, hairstyles, and jewelry, noting and often anticipating the development of fashion in his elegant women with totemic, narrow figures, and facial expressions frozen in elegant surprise. Among his works were the portraits of Irene Brin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Muriel King, and Germana Marucelli. For the latter he even designed patterns and fabrics for her 1951 spring /summer collection.


On display alongside the works of Emilo Schuberth and the Sorelle Fontana, of Germana Marucelli, of Sarli and Simonetta, of Capucci and Gattinoni, of Fendi, Balestra, Biki, Galitzine, Pucci, and Valentino, is a selection of jewelry, accessories, and small sculptures with a value of their own. The exhibited iconic necklaces by Bulgari, the exhibition’s main partner, are a synthesis of the brand’s vigorous creativity at the time: from the gold serpents set with diamonds to the glamorous Melone evening bags (shaped like a melon), to the abundance of rubies and sapphires on the ancient Roman coins turned into an ornamental element similar to gemstones, to the unusual 1950’s chain necklace in platinum with rubies and diamonds, a total of 70 carats.


Fashion accessories, shoes, bags—anything that defined the style thanks to the special touch of such superlative experts as Ferragamo, Gucci, Coppola and Toppo, Roberta da Camerino. Displayed between the mannequins in the cases are the glossy pages of fashion magazines Bellezza, Novità & Vogue, the weekly catalogs that captivated the imaginations of countless women as they flipped through them. Unlike fashion photography in the 1930s argues scientist and author Stefano Tonchi, the co-curator of the exhibition, the high Italian fashion in those days was almost always photographed in open spaces, outside the studio walls. That fashion was worn by the Italian woman who survived the post-war years, impoverished and starved, but freed from prejudice. The resistance and liberation movements, in fact, saw the Italian women as rulers of their destinies in both private and public life. This new freedom, that sense of independence and participation in the working world found a privileged area of expression in fashion.


On the occasion of the exhibition opening, artist Vanessa Beecroft staged a performance, titled vb74: thirty women of different ages, and of totally different figures and statures, exposed to the public eye. Their poses, wide and comfortable robes, absent-minded gazes, deliberately innocent postures: all this in order to highlight the state of those bodies as objects. But where a woman’s body becomes an object, material for the staging process, an image to display, the observer automatically turns into a voyeur—which, indeed, is one of the perspectives on fashion.