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Glamour and history of Italian fashion industry on display at Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Dolce & Gabbana. Leather ankle boots with gold, white, and pink embroidery, 2000. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

NASHVILLE, TENN.- The Frist Center for the Visual Arts presents Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945, an elegant exhibition that chronicles the birth and growth of the Italian fashion industry from the post-World War II recovery years to the present day. Based on new archival research, the exhibition explores the development of both womens- and menswear and highlights key designers and the outstanding techniques, materials and expertise for which Italy has become renowned. Curated by Sonnet Stanfill, curator of 20th-century and contemporary fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Italian Style is on view in the Frist Center’s Ingram Gallery from June 5 to September 7, 2015.

“Encouraged by the success of our 2010 presentation of The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947–57 and the strong working relationship we have established with the V&A, we are pleased to present another dazzling exhibition of design from fashion houses that have become familiar, if not household names,” says Frist Center Executive Director and CEO Dr. Susan H. Edwards. “The passionate responses of visitors to The Golden Age of Couture confirmed the cross-cultural appeal of good design and its power to inspire scholarly study as well as conversations about beauty and material culture.” As the most comprehensive exhibition ever to examine Italy’s influential contribution to the international fashion world, Italian Style celebrates the defining factors that have earned the country a reputation for quality and style: the use of luxurious materials; expert textile production; and specialized regional manufacturing.

Organized chronologically, Italian Style charts an economic history of how Italy’s traditional use of high-quality materials and artisanal craftsmanship developed into a global industry. More than 90 garments and accessories by leading Italian fashion houses, including Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Missoni, Prada, Pucci, Valentino and Versace are on display. Among these objects are ball gowns shown next to their original hand-drawn designs; shoes, including an ornate pair of Dolce & Gabbana stiletto ankle boots; handbags; jewelry; personal letters; maps; photography; and archival footage.

The exhibition begins in the recovery years following World War II, when Italy’s government aimed to reinvigorate a country weakened in spirit and in physical and financial ruin. The swift retooling of Italian factories alongside efforts by the country’s many entrepreneurs helped fashion become a cornerstone of Italy’s postwar recovery. As clothing designers and textile manufacturers gradually resumed trading, their stylish designs responded to a hunger for glamour after years of wartime deprivation.

Propelling Italian fashion onto the world stage with a parade of luxury, the landmark Sala Bianca catwalk shows held in Florence in the 1950s stand out as one of the dramatic peaks of this narrative and are widely credited with heralding the birth of Italian fashion as it is known today. When Hollywood films, including The Barefoot Contessa and Roman Holiday, were shot in Rome in the 1950s and ‘60s, photographs of actors such as Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck wearing Italian clothing on and off set were captured by the paparazzi, a term made popular by the 1960 film La Dolce Vita.

“The exhibition features dresses and suits worn by movie stars and directors,” explains Frist Center curator Trinita Kennedy, “and even an exquisite Bulgari tremblant brooch of yellow diamonds acquired by Elizabeth Taylor while she was in Rome filming Cleopatra and beginning her passionate affair with Richard Burton. The casual informality of Italian fashion and its graceful nonchalance—what Italians call sprezzatura—were infectious.” A 1949 mint green Vespa is included in the exhibition and serves as a playful nod to the period’s zeitgeist.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the popularity of couture gave way to enthusiasm for manufactured fashion. By the 1980s, the fashion cognoscenti had embraced designer ready-to-wear as a new fashion language. “This is when Milan emerged as the fashion capital of Italy,” says Ms. Kennedy. “Designers such as Giorgio Armani, Missoni and Gianni Versace offered luxurious clothes that previously had been possible only when made by hand.”

The designation “Made in Italy” became an international mark of style for a universe of goods by the 1980s, yet Italian-made fashion remained synonymous with family-run businesses and Italy’s famed networks of regional, specialized production, including spinning, dyeing, weaving, cutting and stitching. A digital map of Italy in the exhibition will visualize this landscape of mills, workshops and the clusters of related industries.

The exhibition also includes a series of filmed interviews with key protagonists across the design, manufacturing and media sectors, discussing the challenges and trends that will impact and shape the future of Italian fashion.

Italian Style concludes with a look at the next generation of talent, including couture by Giambattista Valli, bold ready-to-wear from Fausto Puglisi and work from Valentino’s new designer duo Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli.

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