Visual Arts

Fashionable exhibit tells the tale of Italy’s post-war renaissance

Installation image of Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968.
Installation image of Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968.

More than just a pretty show featuring fashion, “Bellissima, Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968” makes a compelling case for how couture helped resurrect Italy from the ashes of World War II.

“At its core, it tells the story of a beautiful partnership between Italy and the U.S.,” says Stefano Tonchi, editor-in-chief of W Magazine and co-curator of the exhibit, on display through June 5.

“I was particularly interested in capturing this period, from 1945 to 1968, because it was essential in the development of the Italian fashion industry and in the rebuilding of the country after the war.”

Tonchi credits the infusion of cash from the United States as the economic stimulus that fueled a convergence of creativity among visual artists and fashion designers. “After the war, Italy’s fashion industry had the economic support [through the Marshall Plan] to really come into its own,” he says. “The financial support from the U.S. helped put the Italian textile and manufacturing industries back in business. It also developed the confidence to establish its own identity as a fashion system.”

A rival to any Fifth Avenue window display in New York City, the Bellissima exhibit features more than 230 objects, including garments, accessories and jewels. It highlights celebrity style with an ecclesial-inspired dress made for Ava Gardner and outfits worn by other film and fashion icons, such as Anna Magnani’s black velvet and satin cape, Gina Lollobrigida’s tulle dress, Lana Turner’s silk crepe dress with an intricate basket weave and a mint-green one-shouldered evening ensemble worn by former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Many of the designer names resonate with Americans today, including Valentino, Fendi, Emilio Pucci and Enzo. The lengths range from micro-mini to maxi and everything in between, including even a few with bare midriffs. There are pantsuits and jumpsuits, cocktail dresses and evening gowns, including one stunningly sculpted two-length gown by Roberto Capucci in magenta mikado silk. Then there’s Federico Forquet’s black-and-white blockbuster ensemble of a double-breasted trench coat and pants with a repeated chevron pattern. The fashionably dressed mannequins appear to be floating in the air as they stand on tiptoe next to one-of-a-kind jewels from the Bulgari Heritage Collection. There’s a red-and-green enameled snake bracelet with a gold watch hidden inside the serpent’s mouth, a “tremblant” brooch in platinum and diamonds that shakes with every move the wearer makes and bib necklaces with Bulgari’s signature cabochon jewels that were deliberately left uncut to highlight the gem’s color.

The exhibit chronicles the interplay between art, film and fashion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the juxtaposition of Lucio Fontana’s famous slash paintings next to a coat by Mila Schön that mimics Fontana’s creation in plain-weave double wool. Fontana, who experimented with ways to provide physical depth to two-dimensional paintings, saw the post-war period as a way to break from the past.

“Instead of having an illusionistic space, as in a Renaissance painting, he’s emphasizing the literal space of the painting with these cuts,” explains NSU museum director Bonnie Clearwater. “He’s working alongside the designers, and everybody knows him. So you have the fashion designer Mila Schön, who looks at those paintings and says, ‘Wow, that’s a nice way to make a pleat.’ 

If you go

What: ‘Bellissima, Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968’

The exhibition, a project by the MAXXI: National Museum of the XXI Century Arts in Rome, is curated by Maria Luisa Frisa, Anna Mattirolo and Stefano Tonchi. Featuring more than 230 designer garments, exquisite jewels on loan from private collections, films, artwork and textiles, it explores the remarkable period of creativity that gave birth to Italian high fashion (alta moda) and was notable for extraordinary contributions in Italian art, architecture, cinema, theater and photography. Bulgari is the main partner for the exhibition.

Where: NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd.

When: Through June 5

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; until 8 p.m. Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.

Admission: Adults $12; seniors and military $8; students (aged 13-17) and college students $5; free for members and NSU students, faculty and staff, as well as children under 12.

Info: Call 954-525-5500 or visit nsuartmuseum.org.

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