When the Victoria and Albert Museum in London started working on the first comprehensive, large-scale exhibition covering the last 70 years of Italian fashion just four years ago, the Frist Center for Visual Arts in Nashville jumped at the chance to host the show stateside.
The city had already proved its thirst for fashion when the center was the only U.S. location to host the V&A's "The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947-57" exhibit in 2010. It is still one of the best attended exhibitions in the history of Nashville's major arts center, with about 97,000 people visiting during its run. "Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945" opened in June after stints in Minneapolis and Portland and is also proving popular, with current estimates at about 40,000 guests in the first two months.
"I don't think most people really recognize just how many Italian fashion designers there are that are world famous," said Frist curator Trinita Kennedy about visitors' reactions. "There is a lot of variety and contrast. There's a big difference between Armani and Versace or Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, and I think that really comes out in the show."
The exhibit, curated by the V&A's Sonnet Stanfull, begins with elaborate gowns from the Sala Bianca runway shows in the 1950s (image above). An aristocrat named Giovanni Battista Giorgini organized the legendary shows in Florence at the Palazzo Pitti in order to bolster and market Italy's couture designers for a global audience. Sculptural gowns by Capucci and a pink sfumatura (gradated) column dress by Emilio Schuberth — which was owned by heiress Thelma Chrysler Foy — are presented in rows for a catwalk effect. Nearby, a screen plays black-and-white footage of the presentations featuring audiences of overheated older Italian women chain smoking and watching models with flairs for theatrical walks.
The second exhibition gallery, one of the largest in the show, features fashion from Hollywood films like "Roman Holiday" and "War and Peace," alongside gowns by designers such as Sorelle Fontana and Gattinoni. Pink pajamas owned by Jackie Kennedy designed by Irene Galitzine are a highlight (image above), as is the silver Mila Schön dress worn by her sister Lee Radziwill to Truman Capote's Black and White Ball in 1966 (image below).
Kennedy said one of the major challenges in adapting the show for the Frist had to do with the building itself — it's a historical landmark that was built in the 1930s as the city's official post office, hence the building's Art Deco style. As a result, the curators couldn't just deconstruct walls as they would at other institutions. But the show manages to continue in a chronological path, moving on to the advent of ready-to-wear after a section focused on menswear with suits by Rubinacci and Brioni.
Fashion manufacturing exploded for Italy in the '70s and '80s when Moschino, Versace, Fiorucci, Armani and Missoni emerged as bold names with their distinct styles and silhouettes. A video outlines the regions in the country where designers turned for certain fabrics, mills and specialized productions. There's a whole knitwear section, too, with a particularly memorable puma sweater from the label Krizia, as well as cases dedicated to leather goods, such as accessories from Bottega Veneta.
Before the final climactic gallery, a film of interviews with present day Italian designers and editors addresses the future of the country's fashion industry. It varies from the conceptual, like Valentino's Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli on the enduring humanism of Italian design, to the practical, like Mariano Rubinacci's complaint that taxes on brands are unreasonably high.
It all ends in the final room, in which an abstract film is projected onto a central and tall narrow wall with narration from designers Donatella Versace and Valentino Garavani, among others, with their definitions of fashion. It is surrounded by recent designs from the Italian designers previously mentioned, including a bright pink Capucci design from the '80s (see above) and bedazzled boots and accessories from Miu Miu and Dolce & Gabbana (see below).
"In London, they finished on the video about Italy's fashion future," said Kennedy. "But we thought that the exhibition [would close] on more of a high note if we ended on dresses rather than on a documentary." Again, spatial constraints were a challenge. "At the V&A they had a taller ceiling and they really wanted [the gallery] to look like a cathedral to fashion. We had a much smaller space but I think were successful in creating some height," she said. "It's fairly dramatic and overall the exhibition is kind of dark, which is cinematic in a way...It's about the drama and the spectacle."
"Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945" is on display at The Frist Center for Visual Arts in Nashville until September 7.
Disclosure: Nashville paid for my travel and accommodation to visit the exhibit and local designers.