Exhibition portrays five decades of beauty in Vogue Italia

When Vogue Italia launched in 1966, it was one of the first magazines in Italy, and indeed the world, to break out of a commercial straitjacket and turn fashion journalism into an art form.

Now, iconic images from the magazine spanning five decades – the 1960s to the 2000s – are going on show as part of an exhibition looking back at the last 50 years of Italian style, which opens at On/Off at the Royal Academy on Tuesday to coincide with London Fashion Week.

From the outset, Vogue Italia employed the world's top photographers – Richard Avedon, Norman Parkinson, David Bailey, Mario Testino and Steven Meisel. It soon became a showcase for Italian fashion – singling out Giorgio Armani, Valentino and the late Gianni Versace as visionaries in the 1970s.

The images in the exhibition are blown up "tearsheets" from the magazine, which trace how Vogue Italia has represented the changing face of fashion across the years.

In the late 1960s, its pages were dominated by André Courrèges's "space age" look and Mary Quant's mini-skirts. Many of the models from this era had aristocratic connections, including Princess Luciana Pignatelli, Marisa Berenson, whose mother was born Countess Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha de Wendt de Kerlor, better known as Gogo Schiaparelli, a socialite of Italian, Swiss, French and Egyptian ancestry and Marella Agnelli, a half-American, half Neapolitan princess who married into the Italian Agnelli family, owners of Fiat. Jean Shrimpton aka Twiggy, and actresses Catherine Deneuve and Claudia Cardinale also graced the glossy's pages.

Like Kate Moss today, Berenson remained in favour throughout the following decade, earning the moniker "the girl of the seventies" from Yves Saint Laurent. In the 1970s, the mini-skirt was out and long patchwork skirts and hand-knit dresses were in, modelled by actresses such as Angelica Houston and Charlotte Rampling through the lenses of photographers Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin.

In the 1980s, Vogue Italia charted another radical shift in fashion, with the rise of the brand logo and the power suit. This was also the era of the supermodel, when Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and a very young Kate Moss became stars.

New talents emerged in the magazine in the 1990s from the theatrical John Galliano and Alexander McQueen to the more minimalist Marc Jacobs, Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela. The exhibition also shows how classic couture houses Chanel and Gucci were reinvented by Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford in this decade.

Since 2000, the film and celebrity industries have played an ever more important role in fashion. This is reflected by pictures of Chiara Mastroianni – the daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni – shot by Peter Lindbergh and Monica Bellucci photographed by Vincent Peters, as well as red carpet shots of Nicole Ritchie wearing Giorgio Armani and Carmen Electra wearing shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo and Jimmy Choo and carrying a Chanel handbag.

Since 1988, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia has been Franca Sozzani – Italy's answer to American Vogue's Anna Wintour and British Vogue's Alexandra Shulman. Her magazine is seen as the most uncompromisingly artistic title in the Vogue family.

When Sozzani first took over, she entrusted the magazine's front page and main spreads to Steven Meisel, who is now one of the most respected fashion photographers in the world.

As part of the show, which is being held in conjunction with Peroni, Vogue Italia asked five young photographers to create adverts for the iconic Italian beer brand, which reflect the spirit of the magazine – including a shot of a woman wearing a 1960s cocktail dress climbing on a pile of beer and another of a 1970s-style disco-diva inspired by Andy Warhol.

The exhibition, which also showcases the best in Italian design, from the Vespa scooter and the Cinquecento car to Gaetano Pesce's silicone chairs and Venini vases, will also go on tour to New York and Milan.

50 Years of Italian Style, On/ Off gallery, Royal Academy of Arts, 6 Burlington Gardens, 18-20 September. Visit: www.peroniItaly.com/vogueitalia.