The History of Italian Fashion


Italians have dressed well for centuries. Italian silk textiles were famous throughout Europe from medieval times onward. Italian woolen fabrics and Italian shoes gained worldwide prominence early in the twentieth century. Yet the Italian fashion industry as such is a quite recent phenomenon.

Prior to 1945 Italy, like much of the world, looked abroad for the latest fashions. Wealthy women bought their clothes in Paris; wealthy men had their suits and shoes custom-made in London. The middle classes employed dressmakers and tailors to produce copies of the latest Paris and London styles. True, Mariano Fortuny produced avant-garde dresses as well as elegant silk textiles, and Gucci leather and Ferragamo shoes became internationally known as early as the 1920s, but those were exceptions. The best-known Italian designer of the pre-war period, Elsa Schiaparelli, found fame only when she established her couture house in Paris.



Things changed in the aftermath of World War II. The postwar Italian government actively sought ways to help the nation recover from the war's fearsome damage and build a new economy. One early success was the revival of traditional craft-based products -- shoes, leather goods, and other accessories -- for  an export market aimed at the United States, the only big country in the world with substantial post-war purchasing power. The American fashion press took notice, and observed, too, that Italian dresses (still taking their design cues from Paris) were coming onto the market at prices far lower than those for French creations.

But a distinctive Italian Look had yet to emerge. A crucial step in putting Italy on the world fashion map was the first multi-designer Italian fashion show, held in Florence in 1951. That turned the spotlight on such pioneer designers as the Fontana Sisters, Contessa Visconti, Emilio Pucci, Baroness Gallotti, and Bertoli, and the fashion press responded with enthusiasm, using phrases like "seductive elegance" and "aristocratic ease." Throughout the 1950s,,competing fashion shows in Florence and Rome solidified Italy's reputation for Capri pants, "palazzo pyjamas," and other youthful, elegant sportswear.

But the Italian Look meant glamour, too. In the 1950s, sophisticated evening gowns from the Fontana Sisters and Emilio Shuberth, and cocktail dresses from Contessa Visconti, began to be conspicuously worn by Italian and Hollywood movie stars. Roberto Capucci, as much an artist as a fashion designer, astounded the world of haute couture with his sculptural dresses. The 1960s brought a new star to the fore as Valentino began his long and influential career.

The 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of  Italian menswear. Aided by conspicuous roles in several films and television shows, suits by Armani, Zegna, Brioni, and other top designers set the new international standard of male elegance. Shoes by Gucci and sweaters by Missoni raised the bar for men's casual wear. By the 1980s, a revolution in women's business attire made Italian tailoring as much de rigeur for women executives as it was for their male counterparts; new names in the Italian fashion scene at that time included Moschino, Romeo Gigli and Dolce & Gabbana. And in the 80s and 90s new women's-wear designers such as Ferré, Gianni Versace, and Prada expanded the boundaries of the Italian Look

In the 70s and 80s, too, the dominance of Milan over Rome and Florence as the premier showcase of Italian style, particularly in the ready-to-wear sector, became more pronounced. At the same time, a unique system of vertical integration came to characterize the Italian fashion industry, giving owners and designers total control over all phases of operations from textile production to design and manufacturing to retail sales, drawing on production facilities and craft traditions in every part of the country. By the 20th century Milan's fashion week had joined Paris, New York, and London as an essential stop for buyers, clients, and journalists. Just half a century after its tentative beginnings, Italy's fashion industry had become a major power in the international world of fashion. And it is a power, too, in the Italian economy; the fashion industry broadly defined (including textiles, apparel, shoes, accessories, and ancillary products) is the third largest sector of Italy’s industrial economy, employing more than one million workers.