Italian glamour celebrated in London

From its birth in post-war Florence through to Milan's modern-day creations, a new London show is celebrating the glory days of the "Made in Italy" brand, which today is facing an uncertain future.

Italian glamour celebrated in London
'The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014' show is being held at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP

Spectacular gowns and accessories from top designers and forgotten brands showcase the craftsmanship and style that helped rebuild Italy and its global reputation after World War II.

The exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum is entitled "The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014", but it has a nostalgic air, a reminder of how Italy's standing in the fashion world has declined.

The marketing of Italy as the home of fashion began at the time of the Marshall Plan, the US aid package that helped rebuild parts of Europe destroyed and demoralised by war.

With the vision of charismatic businessman Giovanni Battista Giorgini, the funds helped Italian fashion play a key role in national reconstruction – and give Paris a run for its money.

Giorgini succeeded in attracting international buyers, including US department stores, and organised the first major show in February 1951, where models sporting elegant dresses and casual beach wear worked the catwalk at his Florence home.

"The fact that Giorgini convinced these buyers to come and add Florence after Paris on their fashion route really brought the international press and buying power to Italy for the first time," explained exhibition curator Sonnet Stanfill.

Italy's international reputation for style was ingrained by the semi-mythical "Sala Bianca" shows, held in Florence's sumptious Palazzo Pitti and captured on black and white film.

Among those early designers, Emilio Pucci is the only brand currently shown on the runway. Others disappeared into obscurity, including Vanna and Emilio Schuberth, who is represented at the London show by a stunning strapless robe in various shades of pink.

Cinema and its glamorous stars served as a unique shop window for Italian designers, thanks to the many movies filmed in the Cinecitta studios in the 1950s and 1960s.

A Sorelle Fontana dress worn by Hollywood star Ava Gardner and a Bulgari necklace and emerald-and-diamond ring given by Richard Burton to his lover Elizabeth Taylor, who filmed Cleopatra in Rome, are among about 100 exhibits on show.

Combining expert craftsmanship and lower-than-Paris prices, Italian designers drove a booming export market, profiting from a thriving textile industry and local skill clusters: Como for silk, Biella (Piedmont) for wool and Prato (Tuscany) for leather.

In the 1980s, Milan became the capital of Italian fashion and the "Made in Italy" brand became an effective marketing tool worldwide.

''We need new blood'

Marked by a stunning pair of Dolce & Gabbana black boots encrusted with stones, and Valentino and Armani evening dresses, the final part of the exhibition explores the latest big names in Italian fashion.

It also looks at the uncertain future of an industry plagued by economic difficulties and the advancing age of its designers.

"I was very aware of the debate that is swirling around Milan at the moment. If (renowned fashion writer) Suzy Menkes referred to London as a fashion laboratory, where does that leave Milan?" asked Stanfill.

"I think the fact that the Camera Nazionale della Moda (Italy's national fashion council) has created a new position, that of CEO, and appointed a British female executive, Jane Reeve, to that position, indicates its own self-awareness that there needs to be a change," she added.

It is a sentiment expressed by the designers themselves in a film shown at the end of the exhibition.

"Italian fashion needs really to wake up… we need fresh blood," argues Jacopo Etro, creative director of accessories and leather at Etro. He claims the high number of designers aged over 70 is blocking progress.

Mariano Rubinacci, chairman of the eponymous tailoring company, complains of "unbelievable taxes" while Angela Missoni, creative director of Missoni, bemoans a lack of government support.

It is a message that may be particularly poignant for new Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, 39, who saw the exhibition on Tuesday evening during a visit to London.

The show runs from April 5th to July 27th.

Don't miss a story about Italy – Join us on Facebook and Twitter

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


IN MAPS: A brief introduction to Italy’s many local ‘dialects’

Are the Italians around you speaking a completely different language? Why are local dialects often so far removed from modern Italian? Here's what you need to know.

IN MAPS: A brief introduction to Italy's many local 'dialects'
A man wearing a t-shirt reading ''100% Venetian''. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

It's the problem italian language learners have faced for as long as anyone can remember. You've diligently studied your Italian grammar, and carefully practiced your phrases ahead of your first visit to Italy, only to realise upon arrival that the Italians around you seem to be speaking a different language entirely.

READ ALSO: Ten of the most common Italian language mistakes you should avoid

Italy's dialects are far more than just heavily-accented Italian. They seem like totally different languages because, in fact, that's exactly what they are.

It's not quite correct to call them “dialects”, which are actually variants on a standard language. These are different languages which evolved separately from Latin – or, in some cases, other languages.

And even when they switch to Italian, speakers of these dialects or languages often speak with a heavy accent, much to the dismay of anyone still getting to grips with with basic Italian. Even in a big city like Florence or Rome, Italian spoken in a thick local accent can be hard to decipher – even for native Italian speakers from other areas.

As the map below shows, every region and often province has its own local language. Some have more than one, and each town may also have a variation.

Many of these are part of language “families” and some are more closely related to Italian, or to Latin, than others.

The map below classifies them further and also shows how languages in different regions are connected.

Map: Antonio Ciccolella/Wikimedia Commons

This might look complicated, but anyone who lives in a small italian town will no doubt still be thinking that a more detailed map is needed, as there are actually many more, smaller variations within these categories.

Do people in Italy really still speak all of these dialects?

The language we call Standard Italian derives from 13th-century Florentine. Until then, there had been no written rules, and the languages of what is now Italy had mainly evolved by being spoken.

When Italy was unified in 1861, only 2.5 percent of the population could actually speak the Italian language. All spoke their regional languages. Now, that figure is in the high 90s, though around five percent still speak only or predominantly in their regional language.

While you might imagine that these dialects or languages are mainly used by older people and are slowly dying out, that's not usually the case. 
While they'll also speak standard Italian, you'll find young Italians proudly speaking their local lingo everywhere from central Naples to the valleys of South Tyrol.
Some are far more widely used than others. In fact the most widely spoken is Neapolitan, with over five million speakers today.
The least widely-used is Croato. This dialect is used by an ethnic minority from a region corresponding to present-day Croatia and is spoken in the southern region of Molise. Today it only around 1,000 speakers.
In the southernmost parts of Italy, such as Salento and Calabria, Griko dialects are thought to derive from ancient Greek.
Meanwhile, Sardinian is classified as an “endangered” language by Unesco,  Like Italian, Sardinian has roots in Latin – in fact, some linguists argue that, of all the modern Romance languages, Sardinian is the closest to Latin – but it also displays much older influences. Today, particularly younger people on the island speak a mix of both languages, a sort of “Sarditalian”.
For more details, here are our guides to getting started with some of Italy's regional languages: