The Glamour of the Sala Bianca

The Sala Bianca in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, was originally used as a guest hall by the Medici family, but its current appearance as a ballroom is due to stucco works added in 1774-6, by Grato and Giocondo Albertini, following a neoclassical style. The colour white communicates both the decadence and the simplicity of the room. The decadent element stems from the classical motifs, with arches, pilasters and the stucco scenes on the ceiling. The chandeliers and mirrors further this luxurious display, adding reflective surfaces, which shimmer and catch the light. The neutral palette sterilises the room, as the monochrome appearance is minimalist, contrasting with the detailed decoration.

The Sala Bianca today

On the 22nd July 1952, Giovanni Battista Giorgini, a Florentine fashion buyer, organised the fourth ‘Italian High Fashion Show’ in the Sala Bianca. He invited European and American press, buyers and designers, in order to showcase the best of Italian fashion, with the intention of rivalling Parisian haute couture. In the aftermath of World War II, Giorgini wanted to promote the advantages of Italian fashion production; with artisanal expertise, creativity and low prices of production. Nine high fashion and sixteen boutique houses were represented. Giorgini chose designers that would present pieces that matched the American lifestyle – for example, informal knitwear and beachwear. This show featured such designers as Emilio Pucci and Simonetta.

The 1952 Sala Bianca fashion show

The language of fashion at this time had to rely on other cultural frameworks, such as art and architecture, as it sought to find its own identity in culture. The Sala Bianca fashion show showcased the best of Italian design, showing modern looks in a traditional setting. This allied the glamour of the past with the elegant designs of the present. This was a very clever strategy for advertising Italian fashion to an international audience, by mixing the modern and antique.

We are now accustomed to contemporary fashion houses showcasing their latest collections in impressive historical locations. A prominent example of this is the 2016 Fendi 90th anniversary fashion show which actually took place on an Italian landmark, the Trevi Fountain, in Rome. Again, there is the significance of an Italian brand showcasing a collection at one of the most iconic Italian landmarks. The use of the Trevi Fountain can also be linked to Italian cinema. This is through the 1960 Frederico Fellini film, La Dolce Vita, where the actress Anita Ekberg splashes around in the fountain.

Fendi 90th anniversary show at the Trevi Fountain, 2016

Both shows drew on the cultural significance of the landmarks, adding another layer of meaning to the shows. In this way, I feel they communicate the spectacle of the fashion show, with the dramatic surroundings acting as a stage and the models parading on their catwalk, or stage. The Sala Bianca was used as a location for fashion shows for the next thirty years in Florence. This was hailed as the ‘birth of Italian fashion’, but I also feel that it was influential in terms of linking architecture and fashion.

Ellen Bhamra

References

Stanfill, Sonnet. The Glamour of Italian Fashion Since 1945 (V&A Publishing, 2014)

Vergani, Guido. The Sala Bianca: The Birth of Italian Fashion (Electa, 1992)

Architecture & Fashion: a look at two images from 1964 – 1965

 

Fig 1

Jardin des Modes (February 1964)

In the past as for today, the fashion press often served as a space for the meeting of architecture, bodies and dress, each element casting the other in a certain light for readers to absorb. The multitude of architectural projects that marked post-Second World War Paris, ranging from corporate skyscrapers to housing estates, provided ample spatial prospects for magazines. The Maison de la Radio, constructed between 1952 and 1963, with its striking modernist features, was an ideal setting for their presentation of both haute couture and prêt-à-porter, and the dramatic, functional values they espoused. The building housed France’s main television station, the government-controlled Radiodiffusion-télévision française (RTF), whose new reports propagated the structure’s centrality and modernity. In 1963, for example, one described the new construction as ‘a victory against dispersion, disorder, discomfort and the dust of old buildings’. Its concrete, aluminium and glass structure consisted of a tall tower block and round wing enveloped by a circular building. It was so recognisable that an editorial in the February 1964 issue of Jardin des Modes, which depicted models in ready-made garments inside and beside the structure, didn’t identify it. In one image, a model in a wool blazer and pleated skirt designed by Christiane Bailly for the newly created brand Déjac stood on its outer circular edge with a view of the city in the background. Her statuesque, aerial stance paralleled the shape and position of the tower, and illustrated how the aesthetic of buildings affected poses, gazes onto bodies, and fashion’s role in reinforcing this behaviour for a wide public.

Stills from ‘La Maison de la Radio’, Edition spéciale, ORTF (5 September 1963)

Stills from ‘La Maison de la Radio’, Edition spéciale, ORTF (5 September 1963)

Moving imagery also captured the parallel between bodies and buildings, as television sets increasingly featured in French homes in the 1960s, adding a visual element to news broadcasts. In one 1963 RTF televised report, the camera panned the structure from several angles, emphasising its round, corporeal structure, as though eying a body. This panoramic scrutiny was necessary, given the building’s complexity, which made it appear differently from every angle, and difficult to photograph entirely and clearly. In another RTF report from December 1963, its architect Henry Bernard compared the circular structure to a human body or face in that ‘everything grew from the inside.’ The building thus paralleled the centralisation of the city, whose arrondissements radiated from its midpoint, and the nation, with its political and cultural centre in Paris, as well as the way current events were dispersed from the Maison de la Radio to French citizens through television.

Fig 3

Stills from ‘La Maison de la Radio’, Edition spéciale, ORTF (5 September 1963)

Left to right: still from ‘La Maison de la Radio’ (5 September 1963) and Elle (2 September 1965)

Left to right: still from ‘La Maison de la Radio’ (5 September 1963) and Elle (2 September 1965)

An editorial in a September 1965 issue of Elle made the connection between space, the moving image and the experience of fashion. Its text explained how pictured models in their couture garments were ‘filmed’ in the Maison de la Radio, ‘the most important monument of modern architecture in Paris’. Accompanying photographs by Terence Donovan dramatised and likened the garments and structure, through lighting, and a focus on angular shapes and the texture or shine of materials. Likewise, the text described clothing and dressmaking in architectural and pictorial terms: ‘Modern art coats. Couturiers sculpt fabric, contrast materials, play with colour masses, cut graphically… and they construct a coat or a suit that the eye perceives in one shot in a perfectly balanced image’. In one, a model in a sculptural coat and skirt ensemble by Roberto Capucci was cloaked in shadow, an illuminated figure against dark, imposing asymmetrical shapes. Shot from the same viewpoint as a still from the above-mentioned news report, the structure loomed over and enveloped her. Authoritative, panoptic space served to contain its subject, and this was heightened for viewers through narrative, cinematic imagery. As opposed to the earlier Jardin des Modes photograph in which the model’s dressed body was a site of modernity and centrality, here garment and architecture were highlighted, while bodies faded into the background. The image presaged how, increasingly into the 1960s, the dream of modernist progress and social idealism attached to these spaces would fade, as they began to stand for the state’s authority, as Henri Lefebvre described: ‘The arrogant verticality of skyscrapers, and especially of public and state buildings, introduces a phallic or more precisely a phallocentric element into the visual realm; the purpose of this display, of this need to impress, is to convey an impression of authority to each spectator’. The fashion press dispersed this message, while shaping ways of seeing, and how individuals envisioned themselves in space.

Sources:

Jardin des Modes, February 1964.

Elle, 2 September 1965, 11.

Henry Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991 [1974]), 98.

“La Maison de la Radio’, Edition spéciale, ORTF, 5 September 1963, accessed from: https://www.ina.fr/video/CAF93073298.

‘Visite de la maison de la RTF’, RTF, 14 December 1963, accessed from: https://www.ina.fr/notice/voir/CAF96032435.