Bellissima: Italy and high fashion 1945 - 1968

MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts

Explore the extraordinary era which launched Italy on the international fashion scene

Highlights from the opening night of "Bellissima. Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968" with Anna Mattirolo, MAXXI Arte Director, and co-curators Maria Luisa Frisa and Stefano Tonchi.

Over 20 years of Italian fashion is presented here, recreating the atmosphere and the styles of a period that made an extraordinary contribution to the definition of the Italian identity on an international scale. A wonderful season of pure Italian creativity. Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968 is not a history of high fashion, but, rather, the attempt to reassemble, through the lens of today, the complex and ever-changing image of Italian fashion, in a choral account made up of many exemplary stories that are the very fabric that will give shape and consistency to the great success of the “made in Italy” label.

Behind-the-scenes video of building the exhibition days before it opened to the public.

Artists and designer represented

From the spectacular creations that lit up the grand balls and foyers of the theaters, accompanied by the glittering expressions of the finest jewelry, to the restrained elegance of the cocktail dresses; from the rigorous black and white graphic look, to the chromatic explosion so typical of the 1960s; from the inventions made for the actresses of the so-called Hollywood on the Tiber, to the results of the sophisticated formal research that was the fruit of the intense collaboration between couturiers and artists.

Works by artists including Carla Accardi, Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana dialogue with the clothes of Emilio Schuberth and theSorelle Fontana, of Germana Marucelli and Mila Schön, of Sarli and Simonetta, of Capucci and Gattinoni, of Fendi, Balestra, Biki, Galitzine, Pucci and Valentino.

The exhibition also features the creations of Bulgari, the most famous Italian jeweller around the world, with a selection of unique pieces displaying great experimentation and stylistic innovation.

Section 1: ARTY


The atelier as a place where culture is produced becomes a witness – especially over the course of the 1960s – to atmospheres marked by the complicity between fashion couturiers and artists.

Some of the most emblematic cases are those of Roberto Capucci, Germana Marucelli, Mila Schön. Creators, who use the design of the outfit as a space in which to reflect upon the languages of contemporary art, and who cultivate a dialogue with artists and are thus transformed into visionary interpreters of the forms of their day and age.

In some cases, traditional shapes are rethought in terms of structure and materials so that they can echo the artworks; in others, the presence of the artist is not just evoked, but it also becomes physical and tangible, as it concretely relates to the couturier’s design.

Such collaborations mark the start of a season in which fashion design is fully manifested as a rigorous discipline, and not simply the frivolous expression of the flair of the absolute creator.


Dresses by Valentino, Roberto Capucci and Germana Marucelli.


Dresses by Mila Schön and Roberto Capucci.

Section 2: COCKTAIL


Cocktail dresses tell of the stages in a day of elegance, in which words like "late afternoon" and "early evening" appear, social events that are an almost everyday occurance, less spectacular than gala events, but no less important to decreeing the success, or lack thereof, of fashionable ladies' look.

The cocktail dress is the stage on wich Italian creators can try out their boldest experiments: from the corolle line, accompanied by pumps with stiletto heels, we move toward more complex architectures that witness the addition of panel, bows, full sleeves and never-before-seen puffy blouses.

The names of such lines become more relaxed: pants make an appearence, toes become wider, and heels lower and thicker; sometimes a spectacular piece of costume jewelry accompanied by a bejeweled sandal is the real star of the outfit.


Dresses by Simonetta and Gigliola Curiel.



The sartorial interpretation of the uniqueness that is proper to great events, the high fashion outfit is the instrument that marks the rhythm of the wearer’s steps on the red carpet, that breathes life into the foyers of the greatest theaters on opening night, and the rooms of aristocratic palazzo where fancy balls are held.

If between the 1940s and the 1950s the exaggerated volumes in clothing are the surface on which articulate precious embroideries, virtuosities of fine craftsmanship are brought to life. In the 1960s they are transformed into sophisticated architectures of the imagination, aimed at the realization of an impossible construction, a deliberately and obsessively unique and unrepeatable one.

Section 4: BLACK & WHITE


Essential and graphic. The Manichean chromatic rhythm that alternates black and white is the design principle underlying some of the outfits on display, which represent the most successful expressions of Italian high fashion between the 1950s and 1960s, intended not as a place celebrating elite atmospheres, but as an outstanding creative workshop, the space in which to cast light on the poetics of the Italian creators.

Hence, the colors black and white become the X-ray through which to read the qualities of those outfits that more than others experiment with new formal solutions, unexpected lengths, unprecedented combinations of materials, and that thus redesign the silhouettes of the bodies that wear them, making evident the evolution of the lines that crossed Italian high fashion in those years.


Dresses by Valentino, Fendi, Fausto Sarli, Fernanda Gattinoni and Gattinoni Couture.


Dresses by Valentino and Fendi.

Section 5: CINEMA


Cinecittà and Hollywood on the Tiber: between the 1950s and 1960s, Italian cinema and the major international productions are fueled by Rome’s high fashion and its atmosphere.

The atelier of Sorelle Fontana provides the scenario for Luciano Emmer’s movie Three Girls from Rome (1952), and also designed by Sorelle Fontana are the outfits that parade by in the Turinese atelier portrayed by Michelangelo Antonioni in The Girlfriends (1955).

Nor can we overlook the names of Fernanda Gattinoni, Emilio Schuberth, and later Valentino, Fabiani, Tiziani: these are some of the names that are linked to the glamour of the actresses that represent la dolce vita.

It’s not just a question of costumes: Italian and international actresses become loyal clients of the great Roman ateliers, and these couturiers become the privileged referents for the personal wardrobes of such icons as Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Anna Magnani, Silvana Mangano, Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor.

Section 6: DAYTIME


Daywear, suits, coats are the other side of high fashion, a less showy side that speaks of sophisticated luxury that doesn’t require unique events to manifest itself.

These are the objects that define the urban imaginaries of the modern age, which do not remain suspended in the rarefied dream-like atmospheres of gala events reserved for the chosen few.

The details of their construction combined with the quality of Italian textiles, the craftsmanship that is juxtaposed with industrial work, underlie the formal solutions that characterize these outfits.

High fashion’s path is also the exploration of this territory, which allowed the great Italian couturiers, between the 1950s and 1960s, to take up the challenge, experiment, so as to design fashion that was high in quality, yet didn’t have to express itself through grandiose and exaggerated styles. It is the path that led straight to ready made clothing, and toward prêt-à-porter fashion.


Coats by Delia Soldaini Biagiotti, Lancetti and Enzo (Enzo Sguanci)

Section 7: EXOTICISM


The appeal of the East and exoticism is transformed - in Italian high fashion - into elaborate and precious applications and embroidery: floral motifs, arabesques and geometric abstractions become the glittering parts of the silhouette, positioned on the collar, cuff and hem, and they even invade the whole surface of the dress.

But the sumptuous splendor is not exhausted in the decoration: in 1960 the Palazzo Pyjama conceived by Irene Galitzine along with her young collaborator Federico Forquet is highly successful at the Florentine fashion events.

The pant and tunic ensemble tells a story of modern noblewomen lying languidly on mountains of pillows in Roman palaces, as suggested by the pictures taken by Henry Clarke and published in Vogue & Novità in November 1965. This is another idea of luxury, a wholly Italian one, which associates preciousness and wearability in an invention that becomes a basic outfit, ideal for the mountains, a cruise, and even for Capri’s “piazzetta”.


Ensemble by Irene Galitzine.


Dresses by Jole Veneziani and Roberto Capucci.


Dresses by Mila Schon.


Dress by Germana Marucelli.

Section 8: SPACE


Sequins, fringes, aluminum chainmail, geometric designs in relief that modulate and enliven the synthetic shapes of fashion: the gleam of metal is the emblem of visions of the future, and of that Sixties aesthetic that was projected toward a tomorrow in style so well described in Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim, 1965.

Clothing shaped by Pop and Op Art ideas and that foreshadowed the sidereal scenarios of 2001: A Space Odyssey directed by Stanley Kubrik (1968). This is the high fashion that is aware of the very young, that accompanies the syncopated dances and hyper-graphic poses of the Vogue models, and that moves from the Baroque palazzo of the Roman nobility, to the dance ring at the Piper Club, and the black and white set designs of TV variety shows.

Credits: Story

BELLISSIMA. ITALY AND HIGH FASHION 1945-1968 was curated by Maria Luisa Frisa, Anna Mattirolo, Stefano Tonchi.

Credits: All media
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