The Birth of Italian Fashion (Part one)

La Sala Bianca and birth of Italian Fashion
The 12th of February 1951 marked a historic date, the official birth of Italian fashion. The first runway presentation organized in Florence by Giovanni Battista Giorgini for the representatives of the trade press and of the most important department stores in North America, began a long-term policy of marketing Italian fashion products in the United States. A policy which had been initiated in the immediate postwar period, but which only then was finding the conditions and the people suited to its launching.
Italian High Fashion
Tradition, new ideas, good taste

The Florentine fashion presentations

In the early years of the Florentine fashion presentations, the press spoke about an Italian style, rather than of a true Italian fashion. The collections, even though they were extremely rich in ideas, did not really seem to have all the strength required in order to impose a specific line of their own. They have style though: a very personal and modern style, which immediately ensured their success.

Italian Style

Italian style was a product of instinct, a quality that can be described as a second nature to the Italians, and which perhaps derived from the long-term exposure to art and culture, a prerogative that the Americans envied. Italian fashion was also free of the conditioning from major names of the past, and therefore appeared to be agile, youthful and midway between American standardization and the “very complicated” appearance of French fashion.

Made in Italy

The desire to surprise, to break away from the traditional approaches imposed by French haute couture, merged with the long-term experience using alternative materials. The need to provide a quality product, at the same time original and possibly difficult to copy, stimulated the Italian designers to try out all of the decorative techniques available, emphasising the techniques of manufacture and the arrays of designs – which were meant in some manner to make reference to an Italian tradition, or to hearken back to historical references, features of Italian art, and landscape.


Embroidery, more than lace, proved to be the preferred crafts decoration right from the first runway presentations, given the variety of forms it could take, and its capacity to give a mark of distinction even to an absolutely anonymous outfit.

The excellent quality of the workmanship was greatly appreciated in a country like America, where handmade knitwear constituted something unusual, much as the beauty of Italian fabrics and the Italian sense of color generated enthusiasm.

Unique imagination

The imagination and the careful detailing were another source of attraction for all the buyers, in search for inspiration for their fashion and for new products.

Sports and informal apparel

The predilection of sports and informal apparel played another point in favor of Italian fashion, at the expense of the excessively sophisticated French fashion.

Raincoats, corduroy, and suede jackets, trousers, pullovers with carefully designed and simplified shapes, imposed themselves as products that were typically and successfully Italian.

The Italian cut

In the opinions of the buyers and the press, the practicality of Italian fashion was based on the simplicity of the cut, which made it possible to mass produce the outfits that were presented in Florence. This consideration, which may be applied to the boutique line of certain names and certain items of high fashion – in which the exclusivity was provided by the fabric used or the special workmanship – cannot be generalized. Season after season, with increasing maturity and confidence, the Italian designers perfected the cut so as to make it extremely functional to the construction of the outfit.

The factors of success

Craftsmanship, imagination, good taste, and artistic sense were the decisive factors in the success of Italian fashion. But perhaps the first and foremost in the scale of values, at least during the first years of the Fifties, was the relationship of price to quality of Italian products, linked to the low cost of labor and the crafts structure of individual companies, with a limited number of employees.

The business of Italian Fashion

In Italy the oscillation of prices in 1951 could range from a maximum of 300.000 Lire (about 500 dollars) for embroidered items of high fashion to a minimum of 6.000 Lire (about ten dollars) for simpler, boutique items. Italian fashion was highly competitive.

Promoting Italian Fashion

Moreover the success of the first fashion show was such that the American magazines published, free of charge, the outfits that were shown in Florence, with considerable savings. Italy received this way, advertising worth two billion Lire, without paying a cent.

Men on the runway
The runway presentations organised by Giorgini also marked the debut of men’s fashion, for the first time on the same runway with women’s wear, and an absolutely new development when compared to Paris.

Brioni - for men and women

In January 1952, at the Grand Hotel, Brioni of Rome presented a smoking jacket made of shantung silk which accompanied the wedding dress by Jole Veneziani. The originality of the item, made at Giorgini’s suggestion with a fabric that was unprecedented for this type of outfit, was very popular. On the same occasion, the Roman dressmaker presented boutique items for man and woman with the same cut, anticipating the future of unisex.

In the wake of the now consolidated men’s fashion, which involved an entire vast sector of accessories, in November 1969, ready-to-wear fashion was presented in the Sala Bianca with twelve labels: Baratta, Caraceni, Datti, Litrico, Ken Scott, Nativo, Rosati, Siviglia, Valentini, Bazzarrini, Barbaro, Pucci (with fabrics by Ermenegildo Zegna).

Italian accessories
If the interest of Giorgini in Italian designers was directed toward the establishment of fashion, it was to be the accessories that spread on a broad scale the Italian style, directed toward a number of market areas – chiefly to hats, shoes, and jewelry, but also purses, scarves, umbrellas, and all that which is linked to the apparel industry – such as buttons, belts, passemanerie, and gloves.

The runway also served to present these various less well known sectors, but equally followed by buyers, because they were linked to Italy’s finest craftsmen. That is why it was necessary to create, alongside the fashion events, a specific exhibition for the accessories, which in 1955 became the most important event in the sector in Italy and Europe, with the participation of fifty dedicated companies.

Italian millinary

With time, also Italian hats became an increasingly sought after product in terms of materials , colors, originality of style, competing for first place with France. The creations of Gigi of Florence, Biancalani, Canessa, Cerrato, Export-Zacco, Gallia Peter, Romagnoli, Cartoni, Lea Livoli, and Monsieur Gilles were no longer just accessories, but a necessary part of the line of the suit

Italian shoes

The leading point or cutting edge of Italian style was constituted by shoes, which - in part by virtue of the promotion of the Houses of high fashion present at the Sala Bianca - had rapidly invaded all levels of the market, from the lowest to the luxe production. From the industrial production of Calzaturificio di Varese and the semi-industrial products of Magli di Bologna, to the shoes made by hand by Ferragamo. All of the shoe manufacturing sector of Italy was known throughout the world for the modern design, the excellent workmanship, and the quality of the leather.

The buzz
Some excerpts of articles published from 1946 to 1959 that indicate the context in which the adventure of Giorgini took place and the echo that ensued from the birth of Italian fashion as a global myth.

“There is a ferment in the Italian air that makes one believe, rightly or wrongly, that if Italy is allowed a period of peace and freedom, she may bring to Europe and to us n extraordinary, creative vitality”.

Mirna Mannes, Italy Reviews, "Vogue USA", 15 September 1946

“There are three exciting things about Italian fashion today: The first is in the fact that Italy is capable of producing a kind of clothes which suit America exactly – and producing them in a manner unequalled by any other European country. Namely: clothes for outdoors, for resorts, for travel, for skiing; separates, fads, looks, airs, tricks-all the gay things, all the boutique articles and accessories." (Continues)

(Continues) "The second is the fabrics – anything and everything pertaining to Italian fabrics is newsworthy. The third is the evening dresses, marvelously made in marvelous silks at a relatively low cost. […] These are the three things in which the Italians need to be encouraged: they should be given wings to develop their native specialists, and urgently discouraged from French adaptations – a tendency fast becoming a trend, and only because it is hoped that this will attract the American buying public”.

Italian Collection Notebook, "Vogue USA", 5 September 1952

“Italian fashions – with the aid of Italian fashionables – invaded the U.S. this spring to make a bid for a large share of the American market. On these pages, Look shows how six contessas and two marchesas – wearing the latest creations of major Italian designers – patriotically partied their way across the ocean to New York." (Continues)

(Continues) "In a dizzy, three-week whirl on this side, they appeared in Washington, and Hollywood. If the noble fireworks came off, Italy will see a record influx of American buyers at its fashion shows in July. The aristocratic ladies were highly optimistic, ‘Even the cloackroom girl at El Morocco‘, reports Countess Maria Brandolini, ‘asked me where I got my dress‘.

Fashions form Italy, "Look", 1 May 1956

“Early this year, under the low-hanging chandeliers of Florence’s Pitti Palace ballroom, beams of light played on the svelte fashion models, white-coated waiters passed drinks and sandwiches, and cable companies stood by to telegraph the buyer’s orders. American buyers were there in force; in fact, Italy’s fashion industry is now second only to tourism as a dollar earner." (Continues)

(Continues) "The rise of Italian fashion is in good part the work of Giovanni Battista Giorgini, known as ‘Il Papa‘ of fashion. Giorgini represents a long list of top U.S. firms, including Lord & Taylor, I. Magnin, B. Altman, Bergdorf Goodman, and Nieman-Marcus. He is also first president of Italy’s official fashion association and he has given the industry the prestige of Dior and the efficiency of Macy’s. […]”

The Italian Look, "Fortune", March 1959

Credits: Story

All the images are part of the "The Sala Bianca. The Birth of Italian Fashion" book, curated by Giannino Malossi (1992, Electa, Milano) on the occasion of the exhibition realized by Pitti Immagine in palazzo Strozzi from 25th June to 25th September 1992.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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