The Italian Sisters Who Changed Fashion Forever


By Google Arts & Culture

Linda Christian's wedding gown fitting (1949)Fondazione Micol Fontana

From humble beginnings to fashion founders, three sister-seamstresses that dressed Hollywood and made history

For those in the know in the world of haute couture or, more appropriately in this case, alta moda, the Sorelle Fontana label was long considered the gold standard in women’s fashion in the 20th century. Designers to such stars of the silver screen as Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, and Ava Gardner, as well as to European and American royalty, like Princess Grace, Jackie Kennedy, and President Truman’s daughter, Margaret, the Sorelle Fontana name became world-renowned.

But who were these enigmatic women who single-handedly put Italy on the fashion map?

Linda Christian's wedding gown fitting, 1949 (From the collection of Fondazione Micol Fontana)

Liz Taylor (1954)Fondazione Micol Fontana

Liz Taylor, 1954 (From the collection of Fondazione Micol Fontana)

A One Way Ticket to Fame

Raised in the tiny village of Traversetolo in the Emilia-Romagna region of northeast Italy near Parma, Micol and her two sisters grew up in the dress shop begun in 1907 by their great-grandmother and run by their mother, the formidable Amabile. Micol was the middle child, born on November 8, 1913, with Zoe preceding her in 1911, and Giovanna following in 1915.

Portrait of Sorelle Fontana Sisters (1965)Fondazione Micol Fontana

Sorelle Fontana Portrait (1955) by Arturo GhergoFondazione Micol Fontana

Sorelle Fontana Portrait, by Arturo Ghergo, 1955 (From the collection of Fondazione Micol Fontana)

The sisters were ambitious and could not be bound by the confines of their small town. In their twenties, they began to leave home one at a time, with the oldest, Zoe, departing first. The story goes that, in 1936, Zoe went to the railway station in Traversetolo, with trains running either to Milan or to Rome, determined to board whichever arrived first. She ended up in Rome.

Linen clothes (1963)Fondazione Micol Fontana

Linen Clothes, 1963 (From the collection of Fondazione Micol Fontana)

Giovanna and Micol followed her there shortly after, where, in 1943, they would open their soon-to-be famous atelier on Via Liguria for around 500 lire (approx. €0.26 today). As the November 1979 New York Times obituary for Zoe revealed, they opened their studio on the very same day that American troops invaded Anzio and pushed back the Nazis.

Each of the sisters had a distinct personality that made them well-suited for creating a fashion powerhouse that would come to dominate the industry and begin to shift the capital of high fashion from Paris to Rome and Milan. Zoe was seen as the creative mind behind Sorelle Fontana’s design, while Giovanna handled the financial side. With her knack for sales and marketing and her vibrant personality, Micol became the global face of the brand, eventually traveling to the United States over 100 times. In fact, she referred to herself as the piccione, or "pigeon," since she flew across the ocean so often to sell Sorelle Fontana’s dresses to Americans interested in European fashion.

Micol Fontana and Ava Gardner (1954)Fondazione Micol Fontana

Micol Fontana and Ava Gardner, 1954 (From the collection of Fondazione Micol Fontana)

The sisters began by sewing clothes for the elites of Rome, eventually landing contracts to dress stewardesses for Alitalia and other high-visibility clients. But they truly broke through with a show they staged for American buyers and the media in Florence on February 12, 1951, along with six other fashion houses, such as Emilio Pucci. This show was so successful that it entirely shifted the conversation around French domination of the fashion world.

Short Evening Dress, Archive model n.54/F (1950)Fondazione Micol Fontana

Short Evening Dress, Archive model n.54/F (From the collection of Fondazione Micol Fontana)

All three of the sisters had only an elementary school education, having left school early to start sewing in their mother’s dress shop, but Micol would be quoted in her Times’ obituary as saying that, though she “didn’t know a word of English when [she] first went [to America] …the collections spoke for us.”

Floral embroidery (1980s)Fondazione Micol Fontana

Floral embroidery (From the collection of Fondazione Micol Fontana)

Girls Just Want to Have Fun

Micol was highly original and unique, once dyeing her hair green to go to a Verdi opera on her first visit to the United States in the 1950s. She didn’t do so only to invite the shocked stares of onlookers; in Italian, the words for ‘green hair’ contain the word ‘verdi.’ This anecdote, also told in her obituary from The Times, reveals a bold and mischievous streak that characterized the woman throughout her life. The obituary also points out that Micol became identified later in life for her unapologetic lock of grey that could be seen on the front of her hairdo.

Micol Fontana on the stage of "Atelier Fontana. Le sorelle della moda" (2011) by Roberta FontanaFondazione Micol Fontana

Micol Fontana on the stage of “Atelier Fontana. Le sorelle della moda”, by Roberta Fontana, 2011 (From the collection of Fondazione Micol Fontana)

Micol was passionate about fashion, as was her entire family, once remarking in the context of a reference to actress Ava Gardner, “A woman should not just be dressed…She must be dressed right. Her clothes should express her character, her soul. Being a tailor is rather like taking confession”. The Sisters Fontana (they were often affectionately referred to as “The Fountains of Rome”) and, in particular, Micol, showed a lifelong fidelity and devotion to the idea that “a woman’s clothes should express her character, her soul,” and the clothes Micol and her sisters designed continue to express their own ‘souls’ for posterity.

Audrey Hepburn (1952)Fondazione Micol Fontana

Audrey Hepburn, 1952 (From the collection of Fondazione Micol Fontana)

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