Sorelle Fontana model alongside the hand of the colossal statue of Constantine in the courtyard of the Musei Capitolini in Rome, 1952. This image was part of a feature published in La Donna, June 1952. (Photograph by Regina Relang, courtesy Archiv Relang, Sammlung Photographs, Munchner Stadmuseum.)
Italy's fashion houses are legendary, from Dolce Vita to Prada, Versace to Valentino. The country has always been known for its meticulous craftsmanship and luxury materials, but it was only after Word War II that Italy emerged as a fashion destination.
"Before the war, Italian fashion was always following the direction of French fashion, just like everyone else was. It wasn't until after the war that Italy's fashion industry got the confidence and the economic support to come into its own," says Stefano Tonchi, one of the curators of the exhibition Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945 – 1968. During the '50s and '60s, while French labels like Christian Dior and Jacques Fath turned their focus fully on couture, only Italian fashion designers truly understood the need for women to have comfortable, versatile clothing that was also tailored and refined. Italian day wear took off in America ("Italian designers really understood the American women," Tonchi says) and paved the way for the ready-to-wear collections coming out of fashion houses today.
The exhibition, now showing at the NSU Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, explores the postwar period when Italian high fashion cemented its place in the global fashion world. Here, Tonchi gives us four factors that led to its rise.
In an effort to restore and stabilize the Italian economy after World War II, the Marshall Plan provided American aid for Italy's textile businesses, which were mostly small, family-owned operations. This investment spurred the production of the leather, fur, silk and wool—still the country's most prized luxury materials to this day.
"That was the key thing that set Italian designers apart during this period," says Tonchi. "It was always about clothes that were well-made but also practical and made for living in the contemporary world." Short cocktail dresses allowed for movement, while oversized coats were made with warmth in mind. Princess Irene Galitzine designed elegant, yet comfortable evening gowns made from jersey. Made with the modern woman in mind, these pieces laid the foundation for Italy's shift from haute couture to ready-to-wear in the '70s.
Women Designing For Women
Part of the reason Italy was the first market for day wear was a coterie of women designers who understood the needs of women. Germana Marucelli, Mila Schön, Simonetta, and Galitzine: "this group of ladies were all coming from Italian aristocracy, and they found themselves without a job and without any money after the war," says Tonchi. "What they knew was clothes, they loved clothes, and they had the technical know-how to create these collections."
The fashion industry was influenced by other artistic fields, most notably film. In the 1950s, Rome became Italy's "Hollywood on the Tiber" when American filmmakers started shifting production overseas to take advantage of lower costs. Hollywood stars like Eva Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, and Liz Taylor regularly wore Italian designers, while the Italian costume designer Danilo Donati frequently designed for Italian filmmakers like Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti.