The Glamour of Italian Fashion – the current V&A blockbuster – charts the rise of Italy as a fashion producing nation from the post-war years to the present day: a story not just of designers, but of the people who produced the raw materials and constructed the clothes, and of those who wore them. In fact its title is rather too narrow. Beyond simply celebrating ‘glamour’, it lays out the ecosystem of Italian fashion, and reflects on the way it is changing: production, supply chains, and taste itself are increasingly globalised as international markets for elite fashion converge.
In many respects this is a very thoughtful exhibition; however I came away harbouring one particularly strong impression which the show itself said remarkably little about. That is: the striking way in which the relationship between designer and customer (wearer) has changed over the 70 or so years compressed by the exhibition.
The first rooms, featuring clothes from the 50s and 60s, are a quite surprising lesson in the timelessness of good tailoring. The pieces on show – although 70 years old – seem strangely modern in their classic styling, whilst invoking serious nostalgia for a time when people used to take much greater care over their dress. Of course just as persuasive as the clothes themselves, are the black and white stills of beautiful people wearing them: Loren, Hepburn, Taylor, and countless nameless Italian catwalk models, all accentuated, nipped in, and let loose in just the right places.
As the exhibition continues however, through the 70s and 80s to the present day – something changes. Fashion frees itself from tradition and becomes more exploratory. But with this comes a sense of the clothes becoming more awkward, less inviting-looking, neurotic even. A reflection perhaps of wider cultural changes, but also, critically, of a transformation in how fashion relates to the body.
The earlier pieces were quite clearly designed with real women’s bodies in mind, and the objective was to flatter them: patterns were cut to accentuate people’s natural shapes. I was surprised, but then again not that surprised, to note that many of these early Italian fashion houses were led by aristocratic women, presumably designing things they themselves would want to wear.
By contrast, in the later rooms there is a distinct and increasing marginalisation of the wearer. The clothes pay less heed to the body, and rather more to the artistic expression of the designer. Success is not measured by the ability of the clothes to look well on full-figured women. In fact, they begin to look best on bodies that almost aren’t there, tall, coat-hanger figures with no bumps or curves to interrupt the fall of fabric.
Given that this transformation is so striking, it would be nice if the exhibition could have unpacked it a bit more.
Partly, I suppose it has to be acknowledged that the very purpose of the catwalk, and the point of haute couture, has changed: those early shows in Florence’s Pitti Palace were an exercise in selling clothes to (admittedly wealthy) people who might really wear them. Today’s global fashion weeks are more about trendsetting, and defining an artistic identity for a brand.
And, clearly, the economics of the two situations are very different. The exhibition details nicely the centuries-old ecologies of making in Italy’s regions, the network of small tailoring businesses clothing their local population, and the long term view people took in buying and caring for their clothes: in this set-up haute couture and everyday clothes are not very far apart. Today this ecology is being gradually superseded by outsourced manufacture, mass production, and cheaply bought things that don’t last very long: in this system haute couture and everyday clothes are entirely different things.
The contemporary situation is a shame in respect of the quality that’s accessible to the general public. Very few of us can buy made-to-measure or bespoke any more. Rather we are locked into a perverse situation where we live clothed in a second skin that has been designed – not specifically for us – but for a generic body shape, and made by people far away that we will never meet.
But more importantly: the current situation is surely not sustainable or in any way environmentally friendly. The lesson of this exhibition, for me, was that in thinking our way to sustainable fashion – a new ecosystem of making and wearing that provides individuals with high quality clothes that fit well, supports local economies and maintains specialist skills – we don’t have to look much further than Italian history for a role model.