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Italians do it better: How post-war Italy embraced its fashion industry

Italians do it better

Post-war Italy found its footing by embracing its fashion industry's knack for craftsmanship. Robert Everett-Green visits an exhibition in Montreal that highlights what happened next

Roman fashion designer Simonetta's first collection in 1946 included outfits made from dishcloths and repurposed gardening aprons, because finer materials were so scarce. Two years later, her work was being photographed on the island of Capri for British Vogue.

The post-war rise of Italian fashion is a rags-to-riches story. Allied bombing had pulverized much of the country's industrial and transportation base. Scarcely half the population was literate. But there was abundant skill among the sarte, the independent seamstresses who made much of Italy's fine clothing in small ateliers. With peace came reparations from America, restoration of the country's textile mills and leather workshops, and new scope for young Italian designers.

From Simonetta’s evening gown to a Gucci dress worn on the red carpet by Lupita Nyong’o, Italian is synonymous with glamour.

From Simonetta’s evening gown to a Gucci dress worn on the red carpet by Lupita Nyong’o, Italian style is synonymous with glamour.

Emma Birch

The story is told in Eleganza: Italian Fashion from 1945 to Today, an installation at Montreal's McCord Museum, which was created by London's Victoria and Albert Museum two years ago. In addition to the display of some truly fabulous duds, the exhibition shows how Italian fashion benefitted from one man's realization that it could become a national brand with global reach.

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That man was Giovanni Battista Giorgini, a Florentine buyer's agent who, in the early 1950s, organized fashion shows at lavish locations such as the Palazzo Pitti. Giorgini flew in influential U.S. buyers, correctly predicting that the splendour of the clothes and locale were just what the newly flush American public wanted after its release from wartime austerity.

The cause was helped by films such as Roman Holiday, in which Audrey Hepburn – wardrobed by Edith Head – personified the American fantasy of carefree-yet-elegant Italian style. It also didn't hurt that Simonetta and several other young designers were genuine Italian aristocrats.

Eleganza features several knockout creations from this period, including a lavish feather-adorned gown by Simonetta that might well have influenced Jean Paul Gaultier; and a wildly elegant silk evening dress commissioned by a wealthy American from the sartoria of Maria Grimaldi. There's also a red dress by Germana Marucelli that shows an almost sculptural approach to garment structure.

The exhibition includes some playful designs from the 1960s, including the shimmering Mila Schon evening dress and coat worn by Lee Radziwill to Truman Capote's Black and White Ball in 1966. There's also a pair of the silk "palazzo pyjamas" that became a jet-set sensation for Irene Galitzine.

Pucci prints add a playful layer to the Italian fashion mix, all facets of which are explored in the Eleganza: Italian Fashion from 1945 to Today exhibit.

Pucci prints add a playful layer to the Italian fashion mix, all facets of which are explored in the Eleganza: Italian Fashion from 1945 to Today exhibit.

Even after the development of designer ready-to-wear, the Italians emphasized high quality in manufacturing and materials, sourcing mainly from long-established Italian mills. This became even more essential as the bulk of low-end production shifted to China, which in turn has become a huge market for Italian fashion ($22-billion in sales in 2015).

The last and best room in the show is filled with a stunning array of more recent designs laid out along a T-shaped catwalk, including pieces by Roberto Capucci, Valentino, Gucci and Prada, as well as an ornate and playful sequined dress from Prada's Miu Miu line. Almost all of these pieces were donated by the houses themselves, and at least one came in since the show's London opening. Successful as they are, these designers know what cachet can come from being included in a museum exhibition.

The related book of illustrated essays, The Glamour of Italian Fashion Since 1945, is low on photos of the outfits on display, but rich in information collected by curator Sonnet Stanfill and nearly two dozen other contributors. They take a panoramic view of their subject, analyzing the materials, makers and presentation of Italian fashion through marketing and media. The book makes an outstanding companion to a beautiful show.

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Lupita Nyong'o attends the opening ceremony and premiere of La Tete Haute during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 13, 2015, in France.

Lupita Nyong’o attends the opening ceremony and premiere of La Tete Haute during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 13, 2015, in France.

Traverso/L’Oreal/Getty Images

Eleganza: Italian Fashion from 1945 to Today continues at the McCord Museum through Sept. 25.

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