Squeals of delight slip from the lips of students, older ladies and a few gentlemen at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibition of Italian fashion from 1945 to the present, a show promising to be both comprehensive and glamorous. And, like a good stilista, or fashion designer, the V&A delivers with great taste.
Displaying Italian trends chronologically, the exhibit is divided into five sections. Each section is designed differently and provides a palette for the clothing on view. Wood covers the walls and the floors in the first room that is dedicated to Giovanni Battista Giorgini’s fashion shows in Sala Bianca, or ‘White Hall’ in Florence’s Pitti Palace in the 1950s. When the gowns are displayed in front of this organic material, rather than standard white walls, they take centre stage.
The next section, ‘Tailoring,’ is a room with black walls and black felt-like floors bringing the viewer into the designer’s studio. The wall text is displayed on an oversized wooden textile spool, subtly reminding the viewer of Italian fabric factories. In the 1960s, the popularity for ready-made suits and garments tailored to individual clients increased. As much as the stitching of skirts and non-matching menswear suits impressed me, I could not help but examine the unexpected wallpaper. A detail of a pattern for tailoring (1960) covered the walls, marrying historical documents with contemporary design.
The third room, ‘Made in Italy,’ demonstrates the campaign of the same name that ensured style. In the new fashion capital, Milan, manufactured fashion became wildly popular in the 1970s. The wall text notes that a stilista ‘aimed not to create the perfect outfit but the perfect style.’ The floor-to-ceiling mirrors in this section enable visitors to gape at and appreciate each detail of each outfit from multiple angles. More importantly, the mirrors reflect the viewer and their style in tandem with the fashion on view. The mirrors force the questions: What is your personal style? How does your ensemble measure up to the ones on display?
The showstopper is the section about The Cult of the Fashion Designer. Since the 1990s, designers have become celebrities, often more photographed than their own designs. Upon entering this room, paparazzi cameras flash and click on a large video screen in the white circus tent that hovers over the runway-like display. The dressed mannequins’ shadows grow larger-than-life against the white fabric echoing the image of the celebrity designers who made them.
This exhibition reminds the public of a time when fast fashion was not consumed daily. The way in which the show demonstrates Italian designers’ dedication to each stitch is with its own attention to exhibition design. Like all the shoes that are displayed with one foot slightly in front of the other, as if the mannequin is taking a step forward, Italian fashion is leaping into the future. The question is not whether Italian fashion has a future, but how other designers will keep up with the Italians’ pace.
Aimee Rubensteen is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Design to the T: The Glamour of Italian Fashion is at the V&A til the 27th July 2014.