Elizabeth Taylor's engagement diamonds, a dress worn by Audrey Hepburn and designs by Valentino's new creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli are among the glamorous items in the next blockbuster fashion exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, opening this spring (April 5 to July 27).
The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 is the first major exhibition on the evolution of Italian fashion: from post-war dressmakers to the remarkable fashion empires like Prada, Giorgio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana that dominate the catwalk today. To illustrate how up-to-the-minute this exhibition will be, it will display spring-summer 2014 looks from the collections of Miu Miu, Antonio Marras and Fausto Puglisi. There will also be a couture evening gown and menswear from recent Valentino collections.
Although there have been solo international exhibitions staged by designers such as Giorgio Armani, Valentino and Versace, there hasn't been an exhibition of 20th-century Italian fashion - not even in Italy. In fact, Italy does not even have a national fashion archive like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. However, the V&A has been no slouch in collecting Italian design.
Using fashion, photography, illustration and film, the exhibition charts the origins of Italian style from post-war sobriety to Florence's famous Sala Bianca catwalk shows of the 1950s, which propelled Italian fashion and designers such as Emilio Pucci onto the world stage. Milan was to become the Italian fashion capital much later, in the 1970s and '80s when Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace stamped their glamorous style on a city that was already a fashion production powerhouse.
During the '50s and '60s Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn were among the many movie stars who made films in Italy, transforming Rome into "Hollywood on Tiber". Taylor's favourite pastime was shopping at Bulgari, which is sponsoring the exhibition at the V&A. It is showcasing three exceptional jewels given to her by her husband Richard Burton who used to quip that, "the only word Liz knows in Italian is Bulgari".
These movie stars became international style ambassadors. "They were a key way to promote the glamour of Italian fashion internationally," says exhibition curator Sonnet Stanfill. "The paparazzi shots of stars outside nightclubs or shopping, the news reels and the fan magazines were fuelling an international appetite for luxurious clothing made in Italy."
The V&A's exhibition will explore how the perception of Italian fashion has changed over the decades. Now designers have become celebrities and don't just design fashion but furniture, yachts and hotels as well. It will also highlight the quality of techniques, materials and expertise for which Italy has become renowned.
There will be filmed interviews with designers, and outfits and accessories from Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Missoni and many other familiar names of today along with less well known names like Walter Albini, Capucci and Mila Schön, who were pivotal in the evolution of Italian fashion.
This exhibition is an ambitious project says Stanfill. It "is really the first of its kind to look at Italian fashion since the second world war. It charts the transformation from war to virtual world domination of makers of fine things".
So for those that know little about Italian fashion before Giorgio Armani and Prada came on the scene, this exhibition will provide context for the many catwalk collections seen recently.
The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014, April 5 - July 27 at the V&A, London. vam.ac.uk/italianfashion