Viva Vintage Italia!
Aug 26, 2015 | by Ellen Dial
Italy. What comes to mind – glorious food? Mind blowing art? Fabulous wine? Going to the mattresses? Vintage couture? Not so much?
Don’t feel bad, you’re not alone. Oh sure, we’re all familiar with “now names” of Versace and Armani – perhaps a glimmer of thought skitters through your brain pan relative to Pucci’s wild prints of the 60’s and 70’s (which are being revived).
What about before the 1960’s? Crickets.
Again with the crickets ….
“Buyers and press agree that you can close your eyes and pick beautiful evening gowns in any collection shown in Florence this weekend…” – Woman’s Wear Weekly 1952
Who knew? I sure didn’t until I embarked on a five hour road trip with my fabulously fabulous momma, we motored to The Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN. The Frist is currently presenting the fantastic exhibit, “Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945”. I can only say, “Bellissima!”
Shameless plug for Nashville – it’s more than country music and big hair! The Frist is an amazing non-collecting museum, housed in the city’s retired main Post Office. This glorious example of Art Deco architecture and decorative arts is worth seeing on it’s own! We hopped a free Joyride from our hotel to the Frist. Then enjoyed an elegant post-exhibition lunch at the magnificently restored Union Station Hotel (circa 1900), which is situated right across the street.. Perfect! A trip to the Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art was another high point. Nestled in the most impressive and beautiful areas we’ve ever seen (think Gatsby-esque estates without the waterfront). Truly a hidden gem. The collection is housed in the grand estate home of the Cheek family. The Cheeks sold their Maxwell House Coffee blend/brand to Postum in the early 20’s, for the stout sum of $40 million (that’s 1920’s dollars. Mind. Blown.) I would highly recommend a look. Not so much for the permanent collection (unless you adore snuff boxes), but the current Jaume Plensa exhibit is outstanding! The house and gardens are gloriously impressive.
With the plug complete, let’s pull on our Pucci tights and fire up the Vespa for a look at Italian fashion from 1945 onward!
Vintage Italian Dressing | Fascist Fashion
WWII and Italy’s fascist regime made fashion, well….. difficult. The creation of the National Fashion Board (quite the misnomer!) a governing body which drove design, national unity and Italianized fashion house names, quashed creativity. Severely tailored dresses and suits abounded- think uniform design and mousy. The revered house, La Merveilleuse – founded in 1911, became Tortonese during this time to comply with governmental expectations. It really was pretty much a hot mess.
The end of WWII brought the fall of fascism. Aid provided by the Marshall Plan, fostered a hunger for glamour and sparked the need for a return to luxury – the world of Italian couture was starting to percolate.
Vintage Italian Dressing | Hollywood on the Tiber – Pushing Past Paris
Paris had always been the center of the couture universe – the houses of Chanel, Dior and others dominating catwalks and setting the bar for women’s fashion. Adored and much emulated, these houses were the rulers of the fashion world.
But not for much longer.
Several popular movies starring Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor –set in exotic locales, and featuring gorgeous Italian fashions, gave purchase to the need of European and American women to mimic the style of these glamorous Hollywood stars. They also wanted to possess beautiful couture without paying the outrageous Paris prices.
Chic women could do so by buying Italian.
In addition, several high end department stores clambered for these new collections, making them even more accessible to the many fashionable women enjoying post war prosperity.
Walking through the collection, one can sense the influence of Dior, Schiaparelli and the American genius Charles James. Sumptuous fabrics, brilliant engineering and clean lines. The glorious use of color, as seen in the ombre evening gown by Emilio Shuberth. Lush satin softens the tailored lines of an evening gown by Alberto Fabiani, the back delights with a huge feminine bow and short train, softening the look. The dress is drop dead elegant, and a favorite of the road tripping dynamic duo.
As the power of the Italian houses grew, Milan surpassed Florence as the fashion center and the use of detail and bling grew as the hallmark of Italian couture.
Vintage Italian Dressing | Three Blings in the Fountain
Liberal use of diamantes, sequins and intricate beading bring the bling. Luscious metallic fabrics lend an old world feel to more contemporary styles. Italy positively glitters. Bright colors and avant garde cuts creep into collections – definitely setting the Italians apart.
The glamorous FLOTUS Jackie Kennedy and other notables fuel Italian couture’s popularity – it’s fresh, new and remains more affordable. These burgeoning designers take risks and experiment – creating truly original pieces. The collections begin to flourish as never before, there is now a definite “look” and “feel” to Italian design.
The beginning of the 1980’s explode with these instantly recognizable names: Missoni, Valentino , Versace and Dolce & Gabbana. Jewel encrusted shoes and dresses. Wildly embellished jackets paired with leather mini skirts and jeweled bustiers. Sensual leather evening gowns with bondage style open backs. Even the less embellished, more tailored pieces are interesting and off-center with asymmetrical hems, bold colors, cut out backs and deep slits.
It’s impossible to capture in words the transformation from the mousy, drab suits of wartime, to the glittering wearable works of art featured in the collections of today. With 90+ pieces in the exhibition, there’s not enough room on this page! It was nearly overwhelming – a vintage fashionista could spend hours walking the collection and day dreaming.
The exhibit is open through September 7th. So just a couple more weeks for the Viva Vintage Italia. If you have the time and inclination, a trip to Nashville is a must do.
To our dear readers: What Italian designers do you prefer? What influence to you feel they’ve had on fashion?
Thanks to: The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, metmuseum.org, wikipedia.org, The Victoria and Albert Museum, vogue.uk.com, Autograph Hotels and those who post their images freely on the internet. And of course, to my wonderful travel partner and mother, who indulges my love for all things vintage – this was our best trip ever!