How the V&A's Glamour of Italian Fashion exhibition fell flat

The V&A’s survey of Italian fashion from the mid Forties to the present day features some stunning costumes but is still not dramatic enough to do justice to its glamorous subject

“The only word Elizabeth knows in Italian is ‘Bulgari,’” Richard Burton once said. He had bought Taylor an emerald and diamond necklace from the Italian luxury jewellers after they fell in love on the set of Cleopatra (1963). The film was shot in Rome’s Cinecittà (“cinema city”) studios, founded by Mussolini in 1937 for propaganda purposes under the slogan “cinema is the most powerful weapon”. And indeed it was powerful – the studios became synonymous with extreme glamour in the post-war years, with lavish sets and costumes by the very best designers. Cleopatra was a decadent disaster. Both Taylor and Burton were married to other people at the time, and their affair caused a paparazzi frenzy. The Vatican condemned Taylor for the peculiar crime of “erotic vagrancy”.

The necklace, along with a brooch that had previously been given to Taylor by her fourth husband, Eddie Fisher, are included in a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Glamour of Italian Fashion: 1945-2014. Locked in a glass case, a 23.44 carat emerald pendant hangs from a circle of smaller emeralds, sourced not from Italy, but Colombia. The colour is a pure, startling green. The diamonds around the emeralds glitter aggressively. They sparkle in a way that is almost blinding, akin to the paparazzi flash-bulbs that followed  Taylor and Burton everywhere. In fact, the word “paparazzo” comes from the film La Dolce Vita (1960), also shot at Cinecittà – which suggests how much the era has shaped our modern idea of celebrity.

This exhibition explores how Italian fashion emerged out of a country devastated by war to become a globalised industry. “Made in Italy” is a mark of quality, rooted in centuries of regional artisan production. Curator Sonnet Stanfill has been working on the exhibition full time for two years and her research and acumen is  evident. However, the narrative is not dramatic enough. It does not do justice to its subject. Italian glamour is glorious for its spectacle, its excess – to our insipid English palates, its proud OTT-ness. The tone here is more subdued. This is also a story about the conflict between  artisan production and mass industry, which is explored, but not in depth.

Elizabeth Taylor in Venice in 1967 Elizabeth Taylor in Venice in 1967 Next to the emeralds, there is a black and white photograph of Taylor and Burton arriving at a masque ball at the Hotel Ca’Rezzonico, Venice, in 1967. She wears the emeralds, and an elaborate headdress that appears to be made out of cigarettes (although this is probably not the case). Burton wears a shining Venetian cape. The image is high camp, but also seductive: conspicuous consumption plus mad love. Taylor was a perfect ambassador for Bulgari. And it should be noted that Bulgari is the sponsor of this exhibition.

“Hollywood on the Tiber” was a phenomenon that emerged in the Fiftes and Sixties as international stars became associated with the glamour of Italy. The word “glamour” comes from the 18th century – it means “enchantment, magic”. It was an aura that surrounded the productions of Italian designers at that time – from the  Fontana sisters to Mila Schön to Princess Irene Galitzine. What is remarkable about the period is the number of female designers who started their own fashion houses. It seemed that fashion was an industry where women could come into their own and achieve independence. 

I would have liked to know more about the relationship between place and glamour. For example, the island of Capri became synonymous with aspirational tourism in the Fifties after Emilio Pucci opened a boutique there and invented capri pants. There are some Pucci creations on display: a mannequin, wearing a tunic and leggings with his distinctive, vaguely Aztec, geometric pattern, readies herself to clamber on to an original 1949 Vespa, which featured in numerous films, such as Roman Holiday (1953), also shot at Cinecittà.

A dress by Roberto Capucci (1957) A dress by Roberto Capucci (1957) Stanfill’s scholarship is most evident at the beginning of the exhibition. A large black and white photograph of figures walking through the rubble of bombed-out Florence is accompanied by a ladies’ suit that refers to the fascist past. It consists of a broad-shouldered blue jacket with horizontal white stripes and a pleated skirt. The waist is only slightly cinched, a sharp contrast to the cocktail dresses that would come merely a decade later, with waists so waspish that their wearers must have avoided all solid food. The suit is unremarkable, except for the label inside: “marca di garanzia”.

This was the official stamp of approval from the National Fashion Board, through which the fascist government regulated production and Italianized all French names. The  Paris-inspired Italian fashion house that made the suit, La Merveilleuse, was renamed Tortonese. As Stanfill points out, this was an attempt by Mussolini to unite the nation, but it masked “the country’s history as a series of independent states with diverse regional traditions”. After the war, the economy was in chaos, illiteracy was near 50 per cent. Out of this privation, the Italian fashion industry emerged.

Giovanni Battista Giorgini, a Florentine  businessman, is credited with starting things off. He held a series of influential catwalk shows in Florence in the early Fifties, and invited buyers from US department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman. Until that point, Parisian fashions had dominated.

Some of the creations included in Giorgini’s Sala Bianca are displayed here: a stunning cocktail dress by Vita Noberasco, which consists of a nude petticoat covered with black lace. It manages to evoke both peacocks and phoenixes without seeming too much. A faun-coloured evening gown by Simonetta Colonna di Cesarò with a skirt made of layered chiffon and silk to create a feathery effect – it verges on Swan Lake but somehow appears elegant. Simonetta was imprisoned during the war for her anti-fascist activities. She was one half of a fashion power couple. Her husband Roberto Capucci’s  cocktail dress with velvet stole in rich, romantic, dusty purple is one of the stand-out pieces of the exhibition.

It is surreal to wander around these headless white mannequins with slender limbs arranged in gestures of surprise, as though frozen, mid-anecdote, during an impossibly glamorous Florentine cocktail party circa 1963. These dresses transformed those who wore them into mythic, more-than-human chimeras, which is perhaps the point of glamour. There are two in particular that I love, both designed by Schön for guests of Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, New York, following the success of In Cold Blood.

Dresses by Jole Veneziani (1956) Dresses by Jole Veneziani (1956)  

The first is a silver floor-length dress with rivers of sequins flowing downwards, which overall gives the impression of a dazzling, delicate fish. It was worn by Lee Radziwill, sister of the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The second is perhaps my favourite dress in the exhibition: made of a crêpe petticoat under a shimmering silver-gold net, embroidered with circles of beads. It was worn by Marella Agnelli, wife of the chairman of Fiat.

The photograph of Agnelli and her husband at the ball is telling: he is a non-descript  middle-aged man in black suit and bow-tie but she is a plumed creature from another world. Feathers sprout out of her head. She wears a mask over her eyes, which gives her anonymity and therefore power. She appears more than herself, whereas he is just… himself. Capote called these well-bred women his “swans”.

One of the most interesting things about this exhibition is how women from the upper echelons constructed their own fantasy worlds. They may have generally wielded less professional might than their husbands, but they could transform themselves into starry spectacles and thereby command attention. Or perhaps,  to borrow the novelist Angela Carter’s phrase, they were “simply flattering themselves  into submission”.

Burton and Taylor’s marriage combusted for the second and final time in 1976. It seems poignant that Cinecittà has now closed, but will reopen later this year as an Italian-style Universal Studios – a theme park.

The Glamour of Italian Fashion:1945-2014, Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7 (vam.ac.uk) to 27 July

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Sport
premier league
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Fury's Spring/Summer 2015 London Fashion Week roundup
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
News
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

    £70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

    Nursery Nurse

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

    Nursery Nurse

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam