Emilio Pucci

‘Italian Style’: How fashion design made it cool to be Italian

The Portland Art Museum show celebrates the world of Gucci, Pucci, Versace and Prada

By SHAWN LEVY

The world of fashion is often considered a frivolity, a trifle, a sideshow of ‘serious’ history. But as evidenced by “Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945,” a delightful exhibit on display at the Portland Art Museum until May 3, a close examination of clothing can be a path to a deeper understanding of culture, history, economics, and even geopolitics.

The show, which was created at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and stopped for a spell in Minneapolis on its way to Portland, compiles more than 150 items in a survey of a half-century-plus of fashion history, telling the story of how a nation redefined itself in the world and recovered from the devastation of war through the somewhat fanciful vehicle of its apparel industry.

Gucci, bamboo-handled pigskin bag, early 1960s. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Gucci, bamboo-handled pigskin
bag, early 1960s. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Italy that’s on display at PAM isn’t the Italy of the Caesars or the Popes or Mussolini’s blackshirts but, rather, the Italy of Valentino gowns, Armani suits, Ferragamo shoes, of movie stars dodging paparazzi on the Via Veneto and chic boutiques on Madison Ave., of haute couture and ordinary swimwear, of Gucci, Pucci, Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and many, many more. The clothes in the exhibit, most of which have never been seen outside of Europe, demonstrate remarkable inventiveness in design coupled with the impeccable craft for which Italian artisans have always been known. And they make the case that Italy has provided the world with its style for several decades on the trot.

Walking through the rooms is like a history lesson, taking you from the hardscrabble days after World War II, when Italian fashion was more or less invented as a global phenomenon by a single tenacious salesman, through the Dolce Vita era of the ’50s and ’60s, when Italian style was embraced by the world, to the current era, starting in the early ’80s, when Italian clothes became a global standard for both high fashion and everyday wear and fashion designers became Italy’s most famous export.

There’s a ton to discuss – I heartily recommend the exhibition catalog, written and edited by Sonnet Stanfill, who curated the exhibit for the V&A. But I’d like to focus on the timeline of the 20 or so years just after World War II, with a nod to the boom of the ’80s and a special note about Portland’s (inevitable) connection to the history of Italian fashion.

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