NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale Paints Bellissima Portrait of Italian Couture at the Height of Fashion, 1945 – 1968
By Margery Gordon
An Italian Renaissance rarely heralded by American institutions will grace the Gulf Coast this season in a museum exhibition revealing the roots of a 20th-century cultural rebirth that transformed a country devastated by World War II into an international fashion capital. “Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968”, at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale from February 7 through June 5, weaves together threads from art, architecture, film, theater and photography with the distinctive designs they inspired to unravel the rise of an alta moda that rivaled haute couture.
“The exhibition is presented within a broad historical context that looks at the role fashion, art and cinema played in rebuilding Italy and its economy after the war and how these disciplines forged Italy’s contemporary image,” says Bonnie Clearwater, the museum’s director and chief curator. The show’s timeline is bracketed by the end of World War II and the establishment of ready-to-wear divisions at high fashion houses, “the period when Italy was able to successfully create the first major fashion center to challenge the dominance of Paris.”
This exhibition also emphasizes the role America played in this postwar development as part of the rebuilding of war-torn Europe and stabilizing its economy,” Clearwater explains. From 1947 to ’52, the U.S. government provided nearly $13 billion (valued at ten times that figure according to 2015 currency equivalents) to 16 nations through the European Recovery Program developed by George Marshall soon after the general who led the victorious troops was appointed secretary of state by President Harry Truman. “The Marshall Plan was instrumental in providing financial aid to invest in the Italian textile factories so they could be up and running again and provide much-needed jobs for skilled labor.”
American capitalists and consumers matched those funds with a newfound fondness for luxury imports and European styles that bolstered Italian brands with a vote of confidence motivated by personal preference rather than strategic generosity. “The American department stores, satisfying the newly emerged market of emancipated American women, were key in promoting Italian style,” Clearwater points out.
“This will be a new perspective for the general audience in the U.S. and provides a larger context for understanding the role fashion plays in international trade and how ‘Made in Italy’ became an enduring quality brand.”
South Florida audiences will recognize the alluring combination of unabashed femininity, elegant silhouettes and consummate detailing that characterize more than 230 vintage garments, even if they don’t recognize the names of many important designers included alongside legends like Fendi, Valentino and Emilio Pucci. “Italian fashion has not received the attention that French and British designers have received in US museum exhibitions, so this exhibition will provide considerable revelations about the designers that established and defined the timeless styles and the fine tailoring and craftsmanship that became the hallmark of Italian fashion and design.”
A fashion show would not be complete without the bold accessories that complete the look, especially one from a country famous for its handbags, shoes, hats and jewelry. Bellissima will arrive bedecked in vintage baubles from Bulgari, presenting sponsor of the exhibition. “Their distinctive designs were an essential part of the look and glamour of postwar Italy. These jewels played a key role in the international popularization of Italian design, as many major movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor accessorized in Bulgari and their photos appeared in fan magazines and luxury lifestyle magazines,” says Clearwater. The NSU Museum secured a precious loan from a private collection: Elizabeth Taylor’s own platinum pendant earrings with fancy diamond drops in a yellow hue dangling from diamond clusters (circa 1962), an exclusive addition to the third iteration of an exhibition that debuted at MAXXI National Museum of the XXI Century Arts in Rome in December 2014 before traveling to the Villa Reale in Monza on the outskirts of Milan.
Bellissima makes a grand entrance on February 5 with a gala, also sponsored by Bulgari, that celebrates both the exhibition’s opening and the 30th anniversary of the NSU Museum’s building by Edward Larrabee Barnes. “The exhibition design will highlight the museum’s architecture with its curving walls and white terrazzo floors,” promises Clearwater. “We want visitors to feel as though they are immersed in the Roman Colosseum so that they experience how the past is always present in Italy.”
The exhibition’s sophisticated synthesis of history and multiple art forms reflects a trend among museums that have been broadening the scope of their mission to illuminate the interconnected nature of contemporary culture with nuanced analyses and dynamic installations that map out how cross-pollination among creative fields manifests in diverse facets of high art, popular culture and social change. “At NSU Art Museum, we emphasize cross-disciplinary exhibitions,” notes Clearwater. “Bellissima was particularly appealing as it focuses on the post-World War II period, one of our areas of concentration.”
The new show highlights influential figures like Lucio Fontana, the father of Arte Povera who sent shockwaves through the global art world when he pierced the picture plane, by pairing one of his groundbreaking slashed canvases with a piece from Mila Schön’s mid-1960s collection directly inspired by his radical act. Scenes of starlets impeccably styled by Italian costume designers capture glorious visions from the avant-garde films of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti – offering dramatic testimony of the enduring impact that Cinecittà, the Roman hub of Italian cinema, had on the international image of La Dolce Vita – and the mainstream American directors that followed in their wake, setting up what came to be known as “Hollywood on the Tiber.”
Bellissima follows Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television – which spanned the late 1940s to the mid-1970s and included examples from traditional forms of fine art as well as graphic design, advertising and architecture. Bellissima overlaps with the last two weeks of The Indestructible Lee Miller, in which the former model’s photographs of European fashion and devastation during World War II hang above cases displaying their published format in issues of British and American Vogue.
Photographs from Italian and American magazines underscore key themes in Bellissima, illustrating factors that contributed to the cultural relevance and international popularity of alta moda. Taking models out of the rarefied chambers of ateliers and sterile production studios to pose them on picturesque city streets, in historical sites and at museums capitalized on Italy’s iconic architecture and artistic heritage.
“The idea of the Dolce Vita, our landscapes, our cities, Italian food, design and craftmanship – these were all elements that appealed to the Americans and let us became internationally recognized,” says Maria Luisa Frisa, a critic and director of the Degree in Fashion Design and Multimedia Arts at the IUAV University of Venice. She and Stefano Tonchi, editor-in-chief of W Magazine, researched this crucial period for nearly two years in collaboration with MAXXI Art Director Anna Mattirolo and the Alta Roma association. “Our qualities were defined through the external gaze of the United States. It was important and it’s still important today because it helped us to re-consider our selling points, our strengths, our cultural and economic values.”
Editorial shoots in urban locations also demonstrated how well new silhouettes suited middle-class career women empowered by their unprecedented engagement in the wartime economy and a loosening of social strictures. Polished professional ensembles merged refinement and pragmatism in fluid lines for the wider realm of possibilities open to a female population who finally had free range of their environment, outfitting their unencumbered lifestyle with comfortable cuts that accommodated activities from working to socializing.
“The high fashion of that time was grounded in a strong sense of reality: They were luxury creations, but nonetheless practical; precious, embroidered textiles that has a certain simplicity; short cocktail dresses that allowed for movement; and warm, roomy coats accompanied by oversized handbags,” says co-curator Tonchi. “This awareness created an opportunity for a fashion system that truly served its patrons, with garments designed for the life of the modern woman.”
Forward-thinking Italian designers adapted swiftly to democratic demands, winning over American consumers with a sensitivity and flexibility that Tonchi holds up against the rigidity of an outmoded French system that clung to a conservative structure and restrictive fit until the mid-1960s.
Whereas international arbiters of haute couture did not embrace prêt-à-porter on a widespread scale until the end of the Sixties, Florentine knitwear designers had already begun to branch out in the early 1950s. The more inclusive vision represented on Florentine and then Roman runways was gradually implemented on a national level as the titans of alta moda translated their exquisite handiwork and custom tailoring into versions that retained signature styles in standardized sizes that could be replicated readily for mass distribution.
The Italian garment industry’s gradual transition toward ready-to-wear leveraged recent American investments in improving and expanding factories to speed up production and control costs for making silk, leather and yarn without sacrificing their trademark quality. These innovative methods and imaginative designs are evident in a rare selection of archival textiles, swatch catalogs and patterns that added another dimension to Bellissima’s second stop near Milan and will also enhance its appearance at the NSU Art Museum.
“We were not simply producers, but we had creative and imaginative skills,” observes Frisa, expressing pride in her country’s distinguished lineage. “American audiences will be surprised by the richness of our fashion in those days, which truly anticipated that Italian style which became a worldwide sensation in the Eighties. And they will understand why Italian fashion is still such a big thing. Even today.”