La Bella Italia

La Bella Italia

Discover the inimitable allure of Italian style with Sonnet Stanfill, the curator behind the V&A‘s new exhibition: The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945–2014

Opulent, provocative and glamorous — Italian style has a mystique like no other.
From colourful Pucci prints to sumptuous Fendi furs and sexy Gucci pantsuits, Italy‘s reputation for covetable fashion is vast and irrefutable. Expert artisans, family-run fashion houses and a taste for the finer things in life have all played their part in putting Italian style on the map. Sonnet Stanfill reveals the history of Italian fashion at the new V&A exhibition, which she says aims to bring to the fore ’the idea of Italian craftsmanship and this wonderful mix of prominent traditions.‘

Until the 1950s, Paris reigned supreme as the world's fashion capital, but in 1952 Italy began to step into the limelight with the first in a series of landmark fashion shows at the Sala Bianca, a ballroom within the Palazzo Pitti, Florence. For the first time, press and buyers from around the world could gather in one place to view the finest designs from the likes of Simonetta, Emilio Pucci, Bertoli, Contessa Visconti and Sorelle Fontana, all of which proved popular with US stores.

The frenzy for all things Italian quickly gathered pace in the 50s and 60s as cameras began rolling on location for Roman Holiday and Cleopatra. The films leading ladies, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, found themselves unofficial poster girls for Italian brands. So much so that Richard Burton famously quipped, ’The only word Elizabeth knows in Italian is Bulgari.

It wasn’t long before this Italian magic made its way to Britain, where mod culture was rewriting the style rules and the taste for slim, slick tailoring saw the demand for Italian suits rocket. This period gave rise to London’s cool café culture and film director Federico Fellini was the name to drop.

The ‘Made in Italy’ label continued to be synonymous with quality throughout the 80s and 90s with Gucci, Moschino, Versace and Armani hailed as the epitome of luxury. ’Italy has traditionally excelled in the production of wool, silk and leather-working,’ explains Stanfill

’Fine materials and specialist regional techniques are the key characteristics of Italian menswear and womenswear.’ Using skills passed down through generations, family business has long been at the heart of Italy’s unrivalled craftsmanship. The now dynastical fashion houses of Prada and Bottega Veneta both started out as leather goods workshops, and Missoni was originally a sports knitwear outfitters.‘It is a bit of a cliché but there is some truth to the assertion that Italians buy clothes as an investment — beauty and craft defines the Italian wardrobe,’ says Stanfill.

The quest for perfection doesn’t end with production, however. One glance at the streets of any Italian city and the unmistakable La Bella Figura is out in force. This translates as ‘cutting a beautiful figure’ in every setting, whether it's addressing dignitaries or simply walking the dog 

One of the things I enjoy doing most in Milan is taking a morning stroll around the financial district, where the (mainly) male bankers stride into work, pausing to chat to their colleagues en route, it is like a catwalk show featuring impeccably tailored suits,’ says Stanfill. ‘The female equivalent is the gracious Milanese woman, who is equally impeccable, often understated, but always stylish. It’s a wonderful slice of street theatre.

The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014, sponsored by Bulgari, runs from 5 April - 27 July 2014 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London




The ‘Italian Cut’ was born in the early 50s by setting short layers into glossy waves. It was high-maintenance and demanded a weekly trip to the salon and evenings spent in rollers for the desired immaculate look. ‘This iconic style was adopted by royals and movie stars alike, such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and the Queen,’ says Toni Mascolo

  • Words: Georgina Bacchus

  • Banner Photography: The Prince of Prints, Pucci's Vision & Legacy, TASCHEN

  • Photography: Rex Features, The V&A Museum, Name in Fashion, The Glamourous Life & Work of Valentino Garavani, TASCHEN