The Italian fashion industry is currently one of the leading players on the international fashion stage, and ranks parallel with Paris and New York.1 Yet before 1945, there was no industrial production of fashionable womens-wear in Italy, and little innovative made-to-measure haute couture. The well-known Italian fashion style currently seen in the world's glossy fashion magazines rose seemingly from nowhere in the post-war years, and was not widely recognized until the early 1980s. It is perhaps not surprising therefore, that the early post-war period has been seen simply as a preparation for the recent "miracle" of Italian fashion. This chapter considers whether a distinct Italian fashion look existed in the mind of the international fashion industry well before this date, in fact, by the mid-1960s. It attempts a definition of Italian fashion style in the two decades after the Second World War, through the top three levels of production: haute couture, boutique and quality ready-to-wear. It is confined to the upper levels of Italian fashion manufacture for women, because these led the move towards international recognition, and can be more accurately documented.
The "style" of objects has been the subject of a lot of recent research, not least, as Stuart Ewen has explained, because it is 'a basic form of information' and 'has a major impact on the way we understand society'.2 Although the
1. This chapter uses Christopher Breward's definition of fashion as 'clothing designed primarily for its expressive and decorative qualities, related closely to the current short-term dictates of the market, rather than for work or ceremonial functions'. Breward, Christopher, The Culture of Fashion, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995, p. 5.
2. Ewen, Stuart, 'Marketing Dreams: the Political Elements of Style', in Tomlinson, Alan (ed.) Consumption, Identity and Style: Marketing, Meanings and the Packaging of Pleasure, London: Routledge, 1990, pp. 41-56. See also Ewen, Stuart, All Consuming Images: the Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture, New York: Basic Books, 1988.
relevance of style to national identity has been addressed by a number of authors, the evolution of a specifically Italian national style in fashion has never been defined.3 The three principle sources which offer evidence for an international commercial understanding of a distinct "Italian look" in these post-war years are: analysis of surviving garments in museum and private collections, the opinions of witnesses and contemporary press coverage.
Traditionally, well-off Italian women looked to Paris for their fashion. The alternative to French couture was the extensive network of Italian dressmakers, many of whom had very good reputations, and achieved very high technical standards, especially with embroidery.4 Despite their quality, it was normal practice for the top professional dressmakers to import designs from Paris, and copy or "translate" them. By the interwar years there were three principle agencies, known as "Model Houses" (Modellisti) which facilitated this process. Maria Pezzi, now in her 90s, worked for an agency from 1936, and has a unique private archive of her designs. She described both the process and her role within it in interview.5 Translations were made in two principal ways: firstly, concentration on the decorative element as testimony to the Italian tradition of great craftsmanship, and secondly, simplification of the original idea in line with the so-called 'poorer market'. Although these two themes can be traced through the post-war years, it is the latter, simpler look which triumphed in the late twentieth century. According to Pezzi, these "translations" were shown collectively to the smarter Italian dressmakers, who purchased them in the form of toiles or patterns, and then copied them for the Italian market.
Reduction of the dependence of Italian dressmakers on Paris style was integral to the Fascist pursuit of self-sufficiency in this period and, as Grazietta Butazzi has established, there was a determined government effort to establish an Italian style, based on regional peasant models.6 From 1933, designers received both financial and promotional government support (including official exhibitions of both Italian textiles and fashion), which was given on the condition that the designers created original styles. In 1941 Bellezza was established as the "official magazine" of Italian fashion, and published many articles in support of an independent Italian style.
3. The relationship between America and Italian fashion style is addressed in White, Nicola, Reconstructing Italian Fashion: America and the Development of the Italian Fashion Industry, Oxford: Berg, 2000.
4. This is corroborated by the contents of the Pitti Palace Costume collection, Florence.
5. Maria Pezzi in interview, Milan, 13.10.95.
6. Butazzi, Grazietta, 1922-1943 Vent' Anni di Moda Italiana, Florence: Centro Di, 1980. The Fascist period in Italy was 1923-43.
In September 1942, Bellezza ran a piece entitled 'Collections Prepared for Strangers' which used Italian topography as a metaphor to describe the progress of Italian fashion.7 The text encapsulates the ambitions of the regime:
When you climb a mountain, you can look back and see how far you've come. Many people saw the path as un-climbable. They thought that real elegance could only reach the Italian woman from across the Alps (France) or across the ocean (the United States). Italy used to use foreign models, to copy or adapt to Italian taste. To continue on this path would not have been useful to Italy's economy.
It was claimed that Italy was, instead, producing 'refined and practical models which are perfectly in tune with the new rhythm of life. Italian fashion has achieved a prominent position in Europe, and will know in future how to use this position.'
This claim to eminence was clearly misguided and overstated for propaganda purposes and it is now clear that the whole operation was fundamentally ineffective. By the outbreak of war, there was no Italian fashion industry, nor an independently innovative "Italian style" recognisable to the international market, peasant-inspired or otherwise. Nonetheless, the references to refinement, practicality and modern life are important indicators of the future development of Italian style.
After the Second World War, France recaptured its reputation as the global centre of elegance. Although the Paris couture industry experienced difficulties when it reappeared immediately after the armistice, in 1947 the world's eyes were firmly refocused on Paris when Christian Dior launched his famous "New Look".8 Dior's opulent and formal style with its long full or pencil skirts, narrow waists and rounded shoulders formed a stark contrast to the box-jackets and short, straight skirts of the War and was eagerly accepted by women in both Europe and America.
Most Italian dressmakers reverted happily to imitation of Paris style and the "trickledown" nature of the dissemination of fashion in this period meant that French fashion still led the whole of the Italian market. Analysis of the middle-market Italian magazine Linea Italiana clearly illustrates this typical Paris orientation in the late 1940s. There are articles on the latest Paris styles in each issue, including coverage of the Paris collections. It is not unusual to see Italian fashion integrated with the latest French couture styles, perhaps in the hope that some of the prestige would rub off.9 Moreover, some Italian-
7. Bellezza, September 1942, pages unnumbered.
8. See for example, Cawthorne, Nigel, The New Look: the Dior Revolution, London: Hamlyn, 1996.
9. See for example Linea Italiana, Autumn 1948 and Linea Italiana, Winter 1948.
made garments are presented as Italian, but the name of the Italian "designer" is printed alongside the source of direct Parisian inspiration. For example, in summer 1948 one model was sold by couturier Galitzine, and worn by the Italian socialite Countess Crespi, but was described as a 'modello Christian Dior'.10 This means that either Galitzine was buying in Paris and simply reselling in Italy, or, more likely, had bought a toile or a pattern and was reproducing copies or adaptations. Evidently, either way, this represented excellent publicity value for Galitzine.
Yet by Autumn of that year, Linea Italiana claimed that Italian dressmakers were fed up with paying the prices charged by French couturiers for the right to copy; some, they said, had paid 'incredible figures'.11 In the same period there was also a marked increase of interest in the international position of Italian fashion. Even before Italy's collective international shows of the 1950s, commentators began to notice both a conscious effort to move away from Paris dominance, and the emergence of a discernible Italian style. For example, following the liberation of Italy, but before the end of hostilities, the young and elegant editor of US Vogue, Bettina Ballard, visited Rome and wrote in her memoirs that she was astonished by the 'lovely, warm-skinned Roman women in their gay pretty print dresses . . . and Roman sandals' and felt instantly unfashionable.12 Ballard recounts how she quickly found a local dressmaker 'to bring my civilian clothes up to Roman standards of fashion', and 'sent all the information I could to Vogue about the way the Romans lived and dressed and entertained'.13
As early as January 1947, US Vogue covered the major fashion houses of Italy, and offers an invaluable insight into the American perception of Italian style just after the War.14 This is crucial, because the US represented the
10. Brin, Irene, 'Fashion in the eternal city', Linea Italiana, Summer 1948: 14, 'La Contessa Consuelo Crespi indossa "flamme en rose" (modello Christian Dior)'. See also Perkins, Alice, Women's Wear Daily, 31.3.50, p. 7, 'Stein and Blaine custom originals and interpretations of Paris models. Examples include a bouffant taffeta dress adapted from Balmain (and a) Balenciaga printed taffeta with a slim skirt'.
11. 'Moda d'Autunno a Roma', Brin, Irene, Linea Italiana, Autumn 1948, 'una certa amarezza ha accompagnato i sarti italiani nel loro viaggio di ritorno da Parigi; alcuni avevano speso cifre incredibili' (a certain bitterness has accompanied Italian dressmakers on their return trip to Paris; some have spent incredible figures). This piece also features the key Italian dressmakers of 1948: Tizzoni, Fiorani, Rina Pedrini, Noberasko, Biki, Veneziani, Fercioni, Battilochi, Fontana, Carosa, Simonetta, Gattinoni, and Fabiani.
12. Ballard, Bettina, In My Fashion, London: Secker and Warburg, 1960, p. 184.
14. Mannes, Marya, 'The Fine Italian Hand', US Vogue, January 1947, p. 119. The same article was published in British Vogue in September 1946, 44-9, p. 81.
major international market for fashion in these years. The definition of Italian style begins: 'Italian clothes are inclined to be as extrovert as the people who wear them - gay, charming, sometimes dramatic, but seldom imaginative or arresting - it was difficult to discover any strong native current, except in the beach clothes.' The competitiveness of Italian prices was also stressed and this remains a recurrent theme in the reporting of Italian fashion over the following decade. The article concluded that 'Italy has everything necessary to a vital and original fashion industry - talent, fabric and plenty of beautiful women.' Since US Vogue was available in Italy at this point, it is highly likely that many of those working in Italian fashion would have been well aware of this type of constructive criticism, and indeed of this particular piece.
In fact by this stage, Italian fashion journalists were also devoting attention to stylistic emancipation from France. Bellezza, for example, continued to cover the French collections in detail, but simultaneously stressed the innovation of Italian collections, and pointed out that there was little justification for what it called 'pilgrimage to Paris' or copying foreign models.15 Over the next few years, French haute couture found that a combination of overt protectionism and high prices was beginning to have a negative effect on exports. According to one French newspaper, by 1955, Paris couture prices had risen 3,000 per cent compared to their pre-war level, and the international market was getting a little tired of it.16 With their relatively low prices, there was thus a small gap which, if they could manage to prize it open, the Italians might be able to fill.
The first collective presentation of Italian fashion to the international market took place in Florence, in 1951. It was organized by an Italian buyer of Italian goods for the American market, named Giovan Battista Giorgini. Whilst this was clearly not the first attempt to promote an Italian fashion industry, it marks both an awakening of international consciousness, and a very deliberate effort to sever stylistic links with Paris. Italian haute couturier Micol Fontana recalls that in return for his financial and organizational input, Giorgini demanded that there would be 'no more going to Paris', and no more imitation of French designs.17 Fontana says that this represented a request to literally 'sever their lifeline', because of course, all wealthy Italian ladies traditionally wanted French style. It also meant operating in direct
15. Bellezza 16, 1947, p. 15, 'we want to recall the period in which, encircled by war, the Italian collections were all without duplicates, and the dressmaker cut and detailed in her own way'.
16. Les Femmes D'Aujourd'hui, 3 April 1955, page unknown.
17. Micol Fontana in interview, Rome, 23.10.95.
competition with France. There followed a period of intense deliberation amongst the three Fontana sisters (Sorelle Fontana), before the final decision to take part was reached. According to Fontana, this was the precise moment when Italian style emerged on the international stage.
Nonetheless, it should not be assumed that all Italian couturiers suddenly forgot Paris and designed entirely independently thereafter. There was no abrupt break from Paris style at couture level, and adherence to the general seasonal stylistic prescriptions of Paris continued throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. The move away from Paris gathered momentum from 1951, but it was not consistent at all levels of production and with all designers and was seen less in terms of silhouette than in use of colour, fabric and surface decoration. However, it is significant that the links between Italian designers and Paris fashion (which were stressed in the Italian fashion press before 1951) are difficult to find after this date.
Deviations from French dictates can be detected not only through innovations mentioned in media coverage, but also through analysis of individual surviving garments and amalgamated testimonies of witnesses to the early collections. Carla Strini, for example, was Head of Emilio Pucci's foreign operations and attended the very first collective show. She remembers the embroideries, fabrics and colours especially vividly, and says, for example, that 'the colours were very striking, especially the soft pastels of green and aqua which was very unusual'.18 Micol Fontana recalls particularly that 'Italian couture was simpler in line than the French. Draping good quality soft materials was an important part of this, but the real secret was in hidden construction; the garments were very carefully cut, and this was not shown.'19
These key points can be illustrated through examination of extant garments. Italian evening wear was the most important export sector of Italian couture in this period, and typically followed the French lines of Dior's sharp New Look. However, there are few surviving Italian creations as extreme as most Paris designs, and the following examples represent the typically moderated Italian interpretation. The first example is a startling scarlet gown designed by Fontana in 1953, in draped soft crepe chiffon, with a simple, curvaceous silhouette, exactly in line with Fontana's recollections (figure 11.1).20 According to Micol Fontana, it was vital that the gown fitted the individual body perfectly without discomfort. The structure is very intricate, with a firmly boned silk underbodice.
18. Carla Strini in interview, near Florence, 18.10.95.
19. Micol Fontana in interview, Rome, 23.10.95.
20. Held at the Fontana archive, Rome, number n.17/F 1953. Label reads 'Sorelle Fontana Roma'.
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