Italian fashion is synonymous with glamour, luxury, and exceptional craftsmanship. This can be seen in the designs coming from both the established Italian fashion houses and the next generation of designers. The V&A’s latest exhibition, The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014 aims to explore the many facets of the Italian fashion industry and its far-reaching influence.

The exhibition starts with Fashion Under Fascism and features a wartime day suit and the ‘Mark of Guarantee’ that was stitched onto the garments. This was a very apt start to the exhibition with very modest garments that exemplified the journey that Italian fashion would have to go on to become what it is today.

The first room focuses on the Return to Luxury and the American Aid given in the Marshall Plan that served as a much needed post-war boost for the economy. As with many countries after World War Two, there was a hunger and excitement for glamour. To achieve this, Giovanni Battista Giorgini organised the ‘Sala Bianca’ catwalk shows in Florence in the early 1950s at his home. Designers were able to present their collections there and showed the best designs that the country had to offer. Highlights of this room include a stunning evening gown with metallic embroidery by Sorelle Fontana, a quilted cocktail dress by Carosa and a red dress with flaring waist panels by Germana Marucelli. In addition to the garments, archival documents such as Giorgini’s promotional notebook, photographs from the first fashion show and a film excerpt of the fashion events are also displayed. As well as being very informative, this room offers an in-depth view of Italy’s return to luxury that is not often focused upon.

The next room starts with a look at the important relationship between the dressmaker and the client. 80% of women’s wardrobes were still made by hand in the 1950s and the local dressmaker provided affluent women with the majority of their fashionable garments. The pieces here were donated from the wardrobe of Margaret Abegg who was the American wife of a textile manufacturer and art collector. The impact of Hollywood films on Italian fashion is then explored; during the 1950s and 1960s many American films were shot on location in Rome. The stand out piece here is Elizabeth Taylor’s Bulgari jewellery given to her by Richard Burton. The necklace is set in platinum with diamonds and emeralds, showcasing the opulence of Italian style during this period.

Italian fashion and tailoring go hand in hand and the enthusiasm for this tailoring is shown through a variety of garments, including a Brioni double-breasted suit and pieces by Rubinacci. Made in Italy charts the country’s economic growth and Italy’s status as a manufacturer and exporter of fashion and textiles. Leather, fur and knitwear are exhibited to highlight the traditional industries that the country has to offer. Textile swatch books and magazine spreads provided good supplementary material to the garments.

The final room is the Cult of the Fashion Designer and displays pieces from designers at varying stages of their careers. The artisanal skills and traditional practices that Italy does so well are shown in these contemporary designs. Dolce & Gabbana’s dress with Sicilian mosaics from Autumn/Winter 2013-14 was inspired by Italian heritage, whilst an outfit by Stella Jean offered a multicultural take on Italian manufacture.

Other designers in this room include Prada, Versace, Gucci, Valentino and Fausto Puglisi. The exhibition ends with a short film on the future of Italian fashion with Franca Sozzani, Angela Missoni and others sharing their views on the impact that politics, immigration and societal issues are having on fashion in the country. The film provides a strong ending to the exhibition; unafraid to explore the problems that Italy is facing and discussing what needs to be done to ensure that Italy remains a leader in the fashion industry.

The strength of The Glamour of Italian Fashion lies not only in the wonderfully selected garments and accessories that are featured. The exhibition curated by Sonnet Stanfill manages to give a complete understanding of the growth of Italian fashion in a way that is succinct, informative and thoroughly engaging.

Each room tells a story that gives a definitive picture by combining fashion with other materials; whether it be film, photographs, sketches or letters. Fashion isn’t used here as an exercise in advertising or with a ‘style over substance’ angle to draw in the crowds. It is used as a vehicle to explore the social and political context that Italian fashion has been immersed in, and the exhibition does it to great effect.

The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014, sponsored by Bulgari, runs from 5 April – 27 July 2014.

 Written by Giselle La Pompe-Moore.