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The appearance of lush dresses or a cute pair of kitten heels in a museum might strike the contemporary viewer as incongruous. But why is this? By now we have become accustomed to seeing design objects displayed cheek by jowl with the hidebound mediums of painting and sculpture. The intrepid museum visitor once had to seek out the designed object, which was relegated to discrete period rooms or wholly separate sections devoted to the so-called decorative arts. This separation, however, is no more. Indeed, as the recent reinstallation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of early twentieth-century modern art attests, we are developing a more sensitive eye to the intersections between the fine arts and those that cater to the gratification of our baser needs or consumerist desires. While attempts at cross-disciplinary study remain tentative and, at times, ham-fisted (for instance, the Met’s installation, titled Reimagining Modernism: 1900–1950, features design works primarily in only two sections—those devoted to abstraction and the body), the possibility of fruitful couplings between artworks and design goods broadens art-historical study and offers much-needed nuance to the mono-directional idea that avant-garde art serves as the “research and development arm of the culture industry,” as Thomas Crow once noted (Thomas Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, 35).
As we grow more comfortable making the formal and historical connections between, say, a Josef Hoffmann silver tea service and an elaborately decorated Gustav Klimt canvas, we still bristle at the introduction of fashion into the museum’s main galleries. One reason for this discomfort may lie in the very name itself. “Fashion,” more so than “clothes” or “apparel,” suggests an aesthetic sensibility that is subject to the capricious and arbitrary whims of the market rather than any art-historical teleology. And besides, what could a miniskirt possibly tell us about a Donald Judd Plexiglas box, or vice versa?
Setting aside the proposition that a skirt put in conversation with U.S. Minimalism could indeed tell us quite a lot, the strict exclusion of fashion from our prime museum spaces is being rethought. One example is the recent exhibition Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, which was jointly mounted by the Met, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Art Institute of Chicago; the show illustrated how French painting and clothing design informed one another in the late nineteenth century (click here for review). Another model is the large blockbuster exhibition, often monographic in format, which keeps cropping up with regularity. Examples include The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014; Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, at the Met in 2011; and, perhaps most infamously, Giorgio Armani at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2001. The popularity of these exhibitions attests to their profound ability to cater to large audiences, and the attendant revenue from gift shop sales helps keep the museums’ coffers flush. However, the singular emphasis on celebrity designers strikes critics as meretricious, while the educational or scholarly worth of such endeavors may be almost nil.
A third path is found in the exhibition The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945–2014, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum and rebranded as Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945 as it tours to several venues in the United States, including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (where I visited the exhibition). Compared to Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, this exhibition is tighter in focus, looking solely at the birth of Italy’s stout fashion industry and the various craft producers that buttress it. The exhibition catalogue, edited by curator Sonnet Stanfill, echoes the layout of the show by concentrating first on the genesis of the postwar Italian fashion industry and then moving to focused studies of individual craft or materials sectors. The study concludes with a look at the way Italian fashion has been imaged in the mass media. The dialogic rapport between fashion and art (or “fashion and design,” or “fashion and . . .”) instead gives way to a deeper archaeology of an industry in a moment of profound transformation. Additionally, while any casual visitor will be instantly familiar with many of the chief names of Italian fashion from the twentieth century, including Gucci, Versace, Prada, and, yes, Armani, Stanfill attempts something far more ambitious than a cynical money grab for the host institutions. Visitors get to delectate upon the gowns—oh, so many of them—but the exhibition as a whole, and the accompanying catalogue in particular, offers a history of Italian design that reflects deeply on the unlikeliness of such luxury goods coming from the southern Mediterranean country in the first place.
Such is the jumping-off point of the exhibition. From an initial reminder of both the aesthetic and political control of the Fascist regime, one is immediately plunged into a sensitive account of the early days of Italian fashion shows in Florence not long after World War II’s conclusion. Vittoria Caterlina Caratozzolo’s essay, “Reorienting Fashion: Italy’s Wayfinding after the Second World War,” brilliantly elucidates the complex network of players that included dressmakers from Italian nobility, small regional producers of high-quality materials, and U.S. department store moguls with their influx of money. In the first galleries, a selection of garments highlights the odd position initially held by designers at the time; their impeccably crafted dresses made from sumptuous materials were beautiful, yes, but also rather timid in their approach. A telling document is spread across the gallery walls: a photomural of an archival photograph of the first fashion show in 1952 at the Sala Bianca in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. The models appear inelegantly excited about the assembled audience looking at them in such lavish attire. The catwalk was not, in this case, the site of impassive swagger, but rather the place where an embattled, beaten state could demonstrate an initial sense of pride in an area in which it had always excelled—an unremitting obsession with craft.
Here, the exhibition truly excels in displaying what historians of Italian design have long known: that as much as industrialization revolutionized production up and down the boot, Italy’s strength has long been its regional producers and suppliers. The curators rightly chose to devote a significant amount of space to the local producers of silks, leather, knitwear, and textiles, for instance. (This list could have expanded to include another of Italy’s major contributions to contemporary fashion, namely its use of synthetic materials, due in no small part to its highly successful plastics industry. A focus on craft need not adhere solely to time-honored materials.) This focus deflects attention away from the already canonized list of renowned designers and instead throws the spotlight on the workers whose exacting attention led to the prestige that accompanies the tag “Made in Italy.” Fashion researchers will be drawn to both the minute detail and pithy gossip contained in the catalogue’s pages. Catherine Rossi’s astute essay, “Craft and ‘Made in Italy,’” however, alludes to a crucial point not otherwise made in the exhibition. In regards to some of the abusive labor practices of the famed shoe manufacturer Salvatore Ferragamo, she notes that such routinized productions “are reminders of the need to attend to the conditions of all workers—be they on the factory floor or in the craft workshop” (98). Further investigation into the experience of luxury fashion production is necessary in order to mitigate against the sometimes romantic fascination with cottage industry craft on display in the galleries.
The exhibition reminds us, in surreptitious ways, that the market for these fine garments was never Italian consumer society. Even after Italy’s vaunted “economic miracle” of the 1950s through mid-1960s, the country’s ascendant fashion industry set its sights almost exclusively on foreign markets. One is reminded of the short vignette in Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo in which the titular character’s family roams into a shiny, new U.S.-style grocery store, loads up their carts, and then hastily dumps the slickly packaged goods through a gaping hole in the still unfinished wall once they realize that their desires outstripped their pocketbooks (Italo Calvino, Marcovaldo, Or, The Seasons in the City, trans. William Weaver, San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1983, 84–89). Italy was on the rise, but Italian workers could scarcely afford the consumer lifestyle associated with their products.
Since these design wares were marketed and advertised to foreign (primarily U.S. and British) consumers, much of the exhibition looks at the mediated image of Italian fashion. This focus is evident first in the Hollywood imagery of the 1950s and 1960s (see especially Stella Bruzzi’s perceptive essay, “Italian Fashion Designers in Hollywood,” for her analysis of how one looks at—and not through—Italian designs on screen), and later in the media-saturated fashion magazines of the 1980s to the present day. As important as these sections are to the broader story of the industry, they both raise a certain tension and point to certain gaps in the show’s conception. On the one hand, the exhibition wants to provide viewers with a sense of the craftspeople who construct the materials for sought-after garments. In a country riven by some of the most impassioned labor riots of the industrial era, this attention to the creators of the raw materials is indeed laudable and important. But on the other hand, the exhibition veers away from the material object toward its mediated image, that is, toward spectacle, all too easily.
These diversions make one long all the more for an exhibition with a focus on the act of fabrication. The emphasis on luxe materials, eye-popping patterns, and lush textures inspires us to grab a pair of shears, but the projected images from Vogue Italia put us back in our prosaic place. Fashion is a realm just out of reach, despite the catalogue authors’ repeated championing of Italy’s ready-to-wear informality (most sensitively addressed in Gianluca Longo’s contribution, “The Man in the Street”). And yet, the show could have presented an expanded notion of “Italian Style,” one that encourages a more liberated form of design activity. For instance, as part of the Radical Architecture movement in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s, the Florentine collective Archizoom published a project in Casabella with the simple title “Vestirsi è facile,” or “Dressing is easy” (Archizoom, “Vestirsi è facile/Dressing is easy,” Casabella 387 (1974): 43–48). In one of the most prominent design journals of its day, the group laid out a series of do-it-yourself manuals for how to construct clothes. The resulting garments were almost dumbly simple, and yet their awkward fit demonstrated a unique approach to sculptural form. It was both innovative fashion and a politically astute design program. Most importantly, the project pointed the way toward a possible world in which laborer and fashion model fuse in the form of an activated subject who fashions her own world as she sees fit. As the exhibition points out, one characteristic of fashion, particularly men’s fashion, in Italy was its relaxed informality. But this sense of unpretentiousness was available only to the one percent, rarely to the Italian public. And here, I wonder what Marcovaldo would think of these soignée smocks. I like to believe that he would take one look at his own sartorial bricolage and say to himself, “Hmmm. . . . Well, dressing is easy.”
Ross K. Elfline
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Carleton College