As with design, Italy’s preeminence in fashion is so entrenched that it’s easy to forget it’s a relatively recent development. Most histories attribute the beginnings of Italian fashion as we know it to 1952, when the first of many now legendary fashion shows was organized by businessman Giovan Battista Giorgini at the Sala Bianca of Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. It was an effort to garner international attention for a generation of emerging Italian talent, and—as we all know—it worked.
Fashion, Italian Style (through April 12 at the Museum at FIT, in New York) chronicles this dizzying ascendancy with more than 100 pieces—garments, accessories, and textiles—that range from the hallucinogenic prints of Emilio Pucci to the minimalism of Giorgio Armani and the sexually charged street-inspired looks of Gianni Versace. With an astonishing diversity, these designers infused the couture sensibilities of the French ateliers with the pragmatism of American mass-produced sportswear to create some of the most provocative and persuasive fashion in decades.
“The fifties and sixties is the period in Italy when you were getting the iconic Vespa scooters and Olivetti typewriters, as well as Pucci,” says curator Valerie Steele, acting director of the museum. “The Italians were all looking for a new and modern way of living at a moment of postwar reconstruction and technological innovation. And they were building on a sensuality and craft tradition that was already there.” Indeed Italy benefited from its unique mix of southern romanticism and northern industriousness. Add to that a strong craft heritage, a postwar manufacturing boom, and a nurturing culture of family businesses, and perhaps it was inevitable that Italian fashion would seduce the world with its updated take on la bella figura. “In a way,” Steele says, “you could say it was all predetermined.”