Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain, La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini, 1960,
Birth of Venus reconstructed: Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain, La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini, 1960, costume designer Piero Gherardi.

‘Italian women believe implicitly in the magic lure of clothes’ wrote Vogue’s Bettina Ballard in her memoir In My Fashion. The astute journalist who had counted Coco Chanel, Christian Berard and Cristobal Balenciaga as her close friends had made it her business to understand why fashion worked for 40 years. ‘Italy, she said, will never take the place of Paris in fashion, but with its increasingly successful shoe business, its quality fabric industry and its thriving sweater and knitwear businesses as practical commercial lures, it will always draw interested audiences as long as there is any fashion curiosity and as long as the Italians maintain their heart-warming smiles – and undersell Paris.’ p.258.

Botticelli, The Birth of Venus or Venus Anadyomene, Venus Rising from the Sea
Botticelli, The Birth of Venus or Venus Anadyomene: Venus Rising from the Sea, mid 1480s, Uffizi, Florence. She is about to be clothed in raiment sent from the Gods – prosaically, in this case, a cloak of woven Italian silk.

Part of the year of fashion exhibitions being held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a major show, sponsored by Bulgari, unsurprisingly, given the Bulgari connection and the In terms of real glamour. It is, rather, a curiously English show, focusing on the ‘made in Italy’ element – quite rightly – but missing out quite simply on the scale and power of the Italian label. It is also full of froideur, restraint and nervous tiptoeing around sex – and clothes – which, nine times out of ten, is the reason for dressing up at all. And the one thing Italy has got in spades is a history of molten sexuality with attendant images, from Messalina to Titian’s nudes to the Contessa Castiglione to Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren – there is a pagan glorying in, quite literally, the ‘glamour’ of sex – and its constant metamorphoses in art, culture and society.

Birth of Venus reconstructed, Juliet and the Spirits
Birth of Venus reconstructed: Juliet and the Spirits, Federico Fellini, 1964, costume designer (relevant here with the nuns) Piero Gherardi. The shell – to Botticelli – to Fellini and still today – is a shorthand for female pudenda.

The exuberance and physicality of Italian fashion for women – a blend of Contessa, harlot and Madonna is beautifully encapsulated by Sophia Loren in Marriage Italian Style (1964) directed by Vittorio De Sica, costumes for Miss Loren and Marcello Mastroianni by Piero Tosi. Collected by her lover, and wearing a frock that enhances her pneumatic body  rather than concealing it – for a day at the races – this scene encapsulates the fantastic ‘Latinness’ of Italian fashion – earthbound, physical, luxurious in its sensuality. To quote Mark Hughes, who put me on to this – ‘She does the womanly walk with much more comfort and no parody at all. Jayne Mansfield and Monroe would turn this sort of walk into something embarrassing... Sophia walks with her whole body.’ Indeed – it is the thrust and gyration of a maenad or nereid from ancient Rome – the ‘ecstasy’ of the Dionysian cult, unfiltered and unexpurgated by Hollywood.

Capucine as Trifena,  from Satyricon, by Federico Fellini
Capucine as Trifena, from Satyricon, by Federico Fellini, based on Petronius’s satirical tale of life in ancient Rome under Nero. Costume by Danilo Donati , hair and makeup by Piero Tosi. The pleated ‘cape’ imitates the ‘byssos’, fine pleated linen worn by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, adopted by the Romans and which in turn, inspired Mariano Fortuny, Roberto Capucci and Romeo Gigli.

Charisma, glamour ... the classical ideal - Herb Ritts’ nudes, the Nike of Samothrace, the Louvre, top right and below left, the goddess Artemis, 5th century BC, the Parthenon at the Acropolis Museum, Athens.

According to Camille Paglia in her Sexual Personae, charisma and glamour mean the same in classical antiquity and ‘pagan mass media.’ Achilles was given the gift of charisma by the goddess Athena - it is ‘”a golden mist around his head’ and makes his body emit “a blaze of light”, while Icelandic glamr is a name for the moon, or ghost, the magic haze in the air around persons or things. Put Magnani, Ekberg, Loren, Cardinale, Vitti, and Bellucci in front of the cameras of the great Italian film directors – Visconti, Rossellini, Fellini and Pasolini and they have that aura. Add the magic touch of great costume designers Piero Tosi and Piero Gherardi and you have a working manifesto of Italian style.

Sophia Loren, Vogue Italia.

Fashion and form: Roberto Capucci, Evening dress in fuschia and green silk, 1967, V&A.

The Italian Effect: ‘Well -A-Day – Is this my son Tom?!’ – A print by Grimm, PUBLISHED BY Carrington Bowles, that satirises the ‘Macaroni’ fashion of the late 1760s and early 1770s, when young men who had taken the Grand Tour scandalised the English, and particularly their parents - with affectation of Italian fashion and manners.

The extraordinary talent of Romeo Gigli: Paolo Roversi, Romeo Gigli advertisement in Vogue February 1990,

All these references – and more of course – have influenced the work of Italian fashion designers in the post war period, from Giorgio Armani’s relevant deconstruction of the jacket and easy elegance of the 80s, Gianni Versace’s extraordinary craftsmanship and reinterpretation of history, Romeo Gigli’s exquisite interpretations of dress and archival images that made him a modern Fortuny to Moschino’s ribald send up of the status quo. Valentino’s work rivalled anything in Paris, Pucci splashed the colours of Tiepolo and the Adriatic across his patrician creations. And that takes us up to the 90s. Yet it is the companies who have their roots in Italian tradition – the ‘Made in Italy’ reality that have really come into their own as brands, building on their histories – particularly Gucci, Prada and Fendi.  The latter does not go back this far, but there are records of fur trading in Genoa in the 12th century; later squirrel, ermine, fox, sable, fitch and marten were available in the Black Sea ports, treated and made usable by furriers.

The room dedicated to leather and fur has been handled with great taste in British terms. It could not be more minimal – in fact, the best thing in there I think was the paper toile for a sportscoat by Fendi – all circles and squares and rectangles, by Lagerfeld, meticulously designed as if by an engineer – with the sample of shaved mink, the design of the coat and the actual garment, presented for FW 2000/01 alongside really opulent showpieces – at a time when fur was just getting its footing back.  

Made in Italy: Craftsmanship and Design in leather and fur, The Glamour of Italian Fashion, (c) V&A.

Lagerfeld’s sketch, the paper toile, the sample and the sportscoat, all for Fendi.

Sketch for shaved mink coat by Karl Lagerfeld, FW 2000/01 (c) Fendi

Fendi, sheared mink intarsia, Pop colours with a twist of Memphis, FW 2000 - 2001.

Fendi, AW 2000 -1 Look 32

Sample of above, made at Fendi, in Rome. Ancient craft skills and techniques that are part of the ‘Made in Italy’ heritage.

So there are a number of paths the V and A could have taken.  Unfortunately, there is perhaps a little too much emphasis on its estimable dressmaking tradition and not enough on that huge pumping Leviathan that is the Italian fashion industry; and given that so much of Italian fashion references the past – Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Dolce and Gabbana FW 2012/13 Byzantine collection - there is a paucity of cultural and historical context which leaves the viewer grasping at the ‘Why’ and not the ‘How’.

The Byzantine Empress and former gymnast Theodora, Ravenna Cathedral, 500 – 526 AD.

Gianni Versace, Zodiac dress based on Roman mosaics, Vogue, August 1990.

It is as if Oliver Cromwell had sneaked into the Museum with a cattle-prod and killed the carnality of Fashion. Shame really – the V&A is groaning with classical, renaissance and baroque sculpture and the Raphael Cartoons are along the corridor ....  surely  .....  surely  ...?  There is no tango; it is all tea dance.  What should have been a Nessun Dorma- style  epiphany isn’t one.  It looks like too much interference with the work of the curators and curation by committee. Next time, V&A, let the curators pursue their vision – don’t knock their confidence. I write this as the news of the departure of Damien Whitmore from the Museum as director of public affairs. The Museum has lost a great advocate and an articulate and committed driving force. Whitmore has built on much of what was already in place but has seen the V&A move into the international community of museums and galleries and posited it as the most famous art and design museum in the world. If its fashion exhibitions are going to match those of the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Musée de la Mode in Paris then they need someone with flair and ideas as well as academic qualifications; to understand the feeling of fashion, not just the theory. Its Wedding Dresses show now on goes some way towards that and when it opens the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition next March it will be appealing to a very different audience. It will be interesting to see the V&A coping with the essentially visceral, dangerous and sexual in McQueen’s work – and overcoming its outdated belief that fashion cannot be art.

the exhibition runs from the 5th April to the 27th July

'The Italian Invasion' film by FCP students for V&A

'The Italian Invasion': a proposal for the launch campaign of the Glamour of Italian Fashion exhibition (5 April to 27 July 2014) at the V&A Museum by Campbell Addy, Ibrahim Kamara,  Sam Ross, Sean Tay and Gareth Wrighton. Fashion Communication and Promotion second year students at Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design, UAL.

02 March 2016

Fur Glamour: The Academy Award

23 February 2016


12 December 2015

Children in furs

03 November 2015

This seasons fur ads

06 October 2015

The Parka

27 August 2015

Red On The Rocks

25 July 2015

A New Garden of Earthly Delights: Christian Dior Haute Couture Autumn/Winter 2015

22 July 2015


26 January 2015

Titfers, Tiles, Butter flaps and Bonnets

22 November 2014

Adonis in Furs

10 November 2014

Beasts of the Wild Frontier

30 October 2014

Wilde Thing

06 October 2014

‘HEAVEN’S BEAUTIFUL SERPENT’: The Marchesa Casati and the Museo Fortuny exhibition

15 September 2014

I never promised you a rose garden

27 August 2014


18 July 2014


18 July 2014

Elsa Schiaparelli in Cloud Cuckoo Land

16 July 2014

Schiaparelli Couture Fall 2014 by Marco Zanini

08 July 2014

Fashion : 1914 and Century On

01 July 2014

Of Unicorns and Wickermen – British Folk Art at Tate Britain

27 June 2014

Newsflash – auction results Kerry Taylor Auctions – sale results, Passion for Fashion 24 June 2014

24 June 2014

Passion for Fashion sale 24th June

23 June 2014

The Glamour of Italian Fashion’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

05 June 2014

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10 June 2014

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