The history of Italian fashion Following the launch of my “Italian Fashion History Experience“, that takes you on a journey along the traces of Italian fashion in Florence, I will write a series of posts dedicated to the subject.

This first article is about the most significant moments that brought the production of “Made in Italy” in the spotlight of the fashion world.



In 1861 the “Regno d’Italia Unito” was finally proclaimed after many years of devastating struggles. Italy was finally an unitarian state, but someone said (that sentence was wrongly attributed to the politician D’Azeglio) that it was finally came the time to “create Italians”. Italy needed an identity, which could be build by art, history, culture and, of course, by fashion. Italians didn’t exist patriotically speaking. They were just the result of strategical and political decisions.

Fashion strongly contributed to form the national identity, mostly from the second part of the 20th century, after World War II, because of the foundation of the Italian Republic.

So Italy was a new-born reality and was made by a myriad of marvelous cultural differences, which contributed, decades after decades, to shape a genuine Italian taste.




Virginia Oldoini

The Risorgimento was a relatively brief period of time, spanning just over 20 years, from 1848, to 1870. Led by House of Savoy and Minister Camillo Benso di Cavour, the free modern unified state of Italy was supported by intellectuals and Europe’s most advanced nations.

From the first Italian-style dress, which was made in velvet and produced entirely in Italy, to the Neapolitan and Calabrian hats, seen as symbol of liberalism, through the patriotic styles inspired by the costumes of Verdi’s operas, Italian fashion began its path.

One woman and her outfits shaped this initial journey through Italian fashion. She was a muse, a powerful figure, who inspired literary and cinematographic imagination.

Virginia Oldoini, the countess of Castiglione, was the key-figure of this period.

She was sent by Cavour to the French court as his emissary to plead the cause for Piedmont and Italy, with Napoleon III. The countess, who was considered a famous beauty, won the Emperor’s favors and his support for the Wars of Independence, a decisive factor in the victory of Italy over Austria.

Her wardrobe was inspired by the last courtly-romantic period: the rigor of the corset and the high waistline enabled the skirt to play a dramatic role with its volume. The crinoline offered a last glimpse of corolla silhouette, typical of romantic women, who were changing their elegant profile, into sensual shapes, made possible by the tournure.

She used to wear complicated coiffeurs, embellished with pearls and flowers. One of her dresses, was displayed at the National Fine Arts Exhibition of Turin in 1880.



The Italian Kingdom


Boldini, detail

In the space of time between the expedition of the Mille in 1860 (a group of volunteers, led by Garibaldi) and the decision to make Rome the capital of the Kingdom, the dream of national unity was fulfilled.

Umberto I and Margherita were the first royal couple.

The impressive urban transformation of Rome and the establishing of Turin and Milan as financial districts epitomized the impetus of these years.

The bourgeois ladies were the protagonist of this decade, portrayed through the lens of Alinari brothers (a historic Florentine photographic firm) and through the paintings of Giovanni Boldini, the great artist of high-society ladies, such as Lady Franca Florio of Palermo and the aristocratic and lovely bearing blonde Queen Margherita Maria Teresa Giovanna of Savoy (to whom in 1787, Emilio Treves, publisher and promoter of Italian Fashion, dedicated “Margherita, The Italian Ladies Journal).

Margherita opened the court to intellectuals and artists, who were fascinated by the first Queen of Italy. She had exquisite taste and she hoped to see the birth of Italian fashion.

She renovated the traditional school of Burano lace (in Venice) preserving traditional methods, patterns and fine antique example. Nevertheless she was fascinated also by French fashion and she mostly used the services of French dressmakers.

The new decade brought a change to the female silhouette and to social life. The arrival of more dynamic events and social occasions, offered by travels, sports and trips, led fashion to become more practical.

The ethereal look of romantic ladies made way to a more sensual and sophisticated allure.

The tournure made women’s life apparently more comfortable and practical. The truth is that those kind of supports trapped women into trains, draped heavy fabrics, hoop-skirts, not to mention tight corsets.

By 1880 Italian aristocracy had regained power and glamour, which were lost over the time, living a  so-called decadent lifestyle, transposed by Gabriele D’Annunzio in his novels.


High society took refuge in a luxurious cocoon, cloaking itself into an aesthetic cult and new beauty canons, rejecting the classicism.

Fashion changed in an eclectic way. The skirt became simpler in shape, but not in style. The petty-coat was ousted by the “kidney-bean”, a small cushion tied at the back to create a small volume.

The corset was firmly present in female’s wardrobes, continuing its function of holding the women’s body. The upper part of the dress gained volume and opulence. The Renaissance-inspired gigot sleeves made a come-back. They came in precious silk and were embellished with rich embroideries. Yellow was the fashionable color of that time, a reminiscence of Japan, an emerging land, which inspired the eclecticism of the period.

I would like to spend a few words about Giovanni Boldini, one of my favorite artists.

He was a master of taste and elegance. His hands gave life to a gallery of illustrious portraits, most of the time women, who were achieving an independent spirit, depicted with excellence and virtuous strokes of brush on canvas. His paintings seduced the observers, not only for the detailed fashionable outfits he captured, but also for the perception of the innate vitality of the protagonists. He transmitted us the dazzling and suggestive image of a modern world, at the apex of its social power. The legendary Belle Epoque.



Belle Epoque


Lina Cavalieri

In 1911, Italy celebrated 50 years of Unification.

The country was recognized as part of the other European Nations.

Vittorio Emanuele III embodied the bourgeois spirit of Italy, young and self-confident.

Aristocratic ladies still relied on French haute couture models (that were ruled in the period by Paul Poiret).

Nevertheless, poverty was a big problem to solve and a lot of Italians decided to search for a better life in America.

New politic parties, the Catholics and the Socialists, raised and gained power through elections in 1913 and they deeply influenced the political scene.

In this mood at the beginning of the century, a new feminine figure was born, the proto-feminist.

Rosa Genoni, a great example of the new women’s generation, tried to recover and recollect the incredible Italian culture and art, creating a collection inspired by the masters of Renaissance, displayed during the Milan International Exhibition of 1906.


In the meantime Mariano Fortuny, in Venice, was creating his own method to pleat silk, with carved wax cylinder.

Fashion and industry began to be strictly related. Ateliers, dressmakers, new fabric concepts were displayed during industry and labor-related exhibitions in Turin, with a huge testimonial: one of the dresses of the most beautiful woman in the world, Lina Cavalieri. D’Annunzio underlined the importance of actresses, femmes fatales, and singers, to be the new divas, the new muses. In fact Lina Cavalieri, the worldwide famous singer, was chosen as Piero Fornasetti’s muse.

The applied arts flourished all among Europe and Liberty style was soon considered a global phenomenon.

It had an intricate decorative language, a feminine attitude, which was the natural result of 19th century’s aesthetic influence.


Giacomo Puccini and his operas were a good example to describe the new interest for exotic tastes and mysterious lands.

Fashion was an applied art and it found its important place, reflecting the graceful attitude of Italian ladies. The true elegance was determined by how many changes per day a lady could afford: the morning dress, the afternoon dress, the evening dress.

The splendor of night gowns was predominated by symbolist decorative applications, which contributed to give women a dramatic charms.

The upper class was introduced to innovations and to specific dress codes. The chance to afford the latest fashion determined their power. Dress codes were for rich only.





Giacomo Balla’s bag and Luce’s dress

Futurism was the apogee of that attitude of faith in the future and progress that positivism had incubated in the previous decades. The contemporary society had another perception of space and time and the cult of speed was basically the starting point of this avant-guard artistic movement.

Practical and useful banished forever the redundant decorations of the past. The Futurist Manifesto and its dictates were expressed in art, literature and of course in fashion.


De Pero waistcoats

Thayat in Florence created the Tuta (jumpsuit), an experimental garment for everyday occasion, from morning to evening, essential and elegant, perfect for busy men and women.

The triumph of vibrant colors of Fortunato Depero’s waistcoats were another example of avant-guard garments, made by dynamic cuts and shapes, bringing to life concepts like asymmetry as well as the rejection of dress codes.

Giacomo Balla contributed too, with a series of sketches, to depict the “futurist garments”, with asymmetrical cuts, brilliant colors and irreverent shapes (for the time). He poured also his creativity into ladies handbags. The shape of the bags should remain traditional, but in terms of decorative aspect, Balla’s projects remained unsurpassed for their ability to be transgressive and provocative.

He also designed his daughter Luce’s dress, bringing into its pattern and silhouette, the same daily dynamic applied to his paintings.



Between the wars


Isa Miranda

The decades between the two World Wars saw the increasing demand of a renovate Italian fashion on the market. The first big department stores made its debut.

UPIM and La Rinascente, promoted by D’Annunzio, opened in 1919.

The products sold in those stores were made totally in Italy, with Italian resources and UPIM was instituted to certify their authenticity. The garments of Italian ateliers and dressmakers were made with fabrics, which were produced during a period of autarchy.

Fascism prohibited imports from abroad. Fibers were artificial, recycled and were exclusively produced using local resources.

After World War I, fashion changed dramatically. Women had been called to substitute men’s jobs and the need to wear comfortable and easy-to-wear garments was increasing. The most fashionable colors were blue, black and khaki. Skirts discarded straight-line cut, which made quite impossible a fast walk, and hemlines rose significantly. Inspired by the severity of military uniforms, fashion acquired densely-buttoned fastenings, high collars and metal buttons.

The five hundred-years old undergarment, the corset, finally disappeared and fashion began to take distance from the  traditions, opening the Modern Era.

For the first time women’s hairstyles were cut short and make-up got heavier, inspired by the divas of silent movies. Dresses didn’t show women’s waistline, long necklaces were added to the outfits and backs were bared, adding a glam factor with silk fringes and sparkling rhinestones.

New trends came also from the United States, an emerging and young nation, that gained power thanks to the victory of war.

Dresses had an orientalist taste, pretty much in vogue at the end of the roaring 20’s. Thematic balls were organized, inspired by the chinoiserie trend. Charleston and fox-trot were the all-the-rage dances.

The economical power and free spirit of United States clashed with the severity of the uniforms of the totalitarian regimes, which commanded the masses to conform to a standardizing and austere order, imposed through discipline and violence.

In fact in 1930’s, women’s silhouettes reflected the hierarchical and military style that swept Europe and elsewhere. A squee-profiled virago of Teutonic inspiration, poured into long and spectacular siren gowns for the evening and donning wide-shouldered outfits for the day.


1939 women’s fashion

Italian cult movies of that time produced divas and models of the so-called “white telephones” cinema. These muses had to influence the mainstream with their poses, grooming behavior and style. The “star” culture was uses by Fascism as a propaganda tool.

But at that time it wasn’t easy to be in fashion, because of the restrictions and the scarcity of goods, imposed by Fascism. Rayon  and viscose were promoted to substitute silk. Both fabrics were man-made textile fibers, created to respond to the the demand for lower priced imitation of silk materials.

Gucci was forced to use cork to replace leather and women created singular and sophisticated hats with paper.

Women also used to restyle old clothes, applying their creativity to style their out-of-fashion outfits. That was a common daily practice of bourgeois families.

Among them Elsa Schiaparelli found her way to express herself. Born and educated in Rome, Elsa Schiaparelli moved to Paris in 1922 and opened her first atelier. It didn’t took long before her surrealist fashion made her the most famous fashion designer in the world.



The Republic


Pitti’s “Sala Bianca” fashion show

The Italian republic was born on June 2nd, 1946.

On 18th April 1948, the Christian Democrats, the catholic-based political party, won the election and settled into a stable period of power.

The economic boom started in middle of the 50’s. The regions of northern Italy became a major industrial power. The advent of television (the regular programming began in 1954), the progress and the radical change of lifestyle, influenced by mass production and low-cost compact cars (Fiat 600 and Fiat 500), the development of motorways, made Italy able to live one of the most exciting period in its history.

At the same time, modern Italian fashion was born, so acclaimed that, along with cinema and music, it became a distinction mark.

In Florence, fashion shows promoted by the Marquis Giorgini started in 1951 and soon they became a driving force of a group of brilliant fashion designers, destined for fame and glory.

They had the chance to show their first collections in the salon of Giorgini’s residence to selected American buyers.

Marucelli, Simonetta, Fontana, Schuberth, Pucci, Gallotti, Noberasko, Carosa, Fabiani and Veneziani instantly earned the admiration of the international market.

Fernanda Gattinoni opened her atelier soon after World War II and she was one of the few Italian designers to dress the American actresses, as Lana Turner and Audrey Hepburn.

Biki, short for birichina (cheeky) started with luxury lingerie and her favorite customer was Maria Callas.

Rome became the favorite place of American movie stars, who were dressed by the leading atelier of the capital city: Sorelle Fontana.

Swarms of stars, paparazzi and actors enjoyed a long season of sparkling glamour. The hot-spot of this season was Via Veneto, where Italian fashion was matching the beauty and quality of the rival French fashion.



The years of Pop


Galitzine Pajama Palazzo and Mila Schon outfit

Italian fashion saw also the arrival of ready-to wear fashion in the 1960s.

The decade was a time of fast-paced and extraordinary development in arts and fashion.

The cultural shake-up sparkled by the new needs and new spending power of the young generation, along with the advent of the pop-music culture, triggered a desire of youthfulness.

The younger generation and a changing market imposed a new approach to life, arts and also fashion. The first generation after WWII, was determined to dream, living life to the full.

The artistic Italian scene were strongly connected to the European one.

Paris and London regained their roles of fashion capitals and creativity was the key word that inspired the 60’s trends.

New fabrics and materials, the explosion of brilliant shades of colors, new experimental cuts and shapes, the geometrical use of black and white and the super short and scandalous skirt’s hemlines opened undiscovered horizons.

Pierre Cardin was one of best interpreter of 1960’s trends and surprisingly he’s completely Italian and not French as he pretended to be!

Germana Marucelli and Alighieri Boetti’s creations were inspired by the new trends, offering rational and artistic elegance to dresses’ shapes and fabrics’ prints.

Irene Galitzine, who belonged to an important noble Russian family, came in Italy to find asylum after the October Revolution and started her career in fashion at the atelier Fontana in Rome. She soon opened her first atelier. Her most celebrated design was the ultra 60’s “pajama palazzo”, a chic and informal tunic and wide trousers ensemble that became her trademark.

Roberto Capucci started to work in Paris, where he designed and produce a ready-to-wear line. Later he became very famous for his extravagant and sculptural gowns, commissioned by Roman aristocratic women and for galas all around the world. But his most exquisite production started in Paris at the beginning of the 60’s, making his first creations a rare treasure to find.

Mila Schön opened her first atelier in 1958. Her trademark creations were the famous unlined and reversible dresses. The secret laid in the invisible seams tucked into the ribs of the fabrics. She had an incredible taste for prints and colors and her silhouette were ultra-feminine and graceful.



From 1970s to 2000


Walter Albini and Krizia

During the 70’s the role of fashion capital headed to Milan, which was considered the beating heart of “Made in Italy”.

This term was interpreted by those designers, who understood the women’s need to feel modern.

The transition from the 60’s to the 70’s changed the sensibility of those designers, who were capable to add to their style an entrepreneurial vivacity, flexibility and the attitude to feel the zeitgeist of this new decade, before others did.

Valentino, Capucci, Armani, Pucci, Missoni, Krizia, Callaghan, Walter Albini, Basile, Di Camerino (to name a few) made “Made in Italy” a worldwide phenomenon.

The 1970’s were fertile, picturesque and wicked.

It is curious that in this difficult period, Milan, the epicenter of the most tragic social and political struggles, showed its vocation to become the capital of style.

Middle-class ladies prefered to adopt a low-profile, because of the rotten eggs threw by protesters, so they used to choose tailor-made ensemble, a nostalgic reminiscence of 1960s’ elegance. The most daring ladies used to wear Afghan coats, parkas, jeans, velvet trousers and check shirts. They were determined to run away as far as possible from the ethereal Doris Day model.

The image of a young Miuccia Prada, dressed in Yves Saint Laurent, animating the left-wing scene, had become mythical.

This Anti-Fashion trend was pioneered by several brands: Krizia, Missoni, Basile, Walter Albini and Armani. They were moving from the simple concept of “being well-dressed”, to adopt for the first time e definite lifestyle.

The tailor became a stylist, the wardrobe was part of a dream and a more structured image differentiated the designers on the market and in the audience’s imagination.

Those designers left a significant imprint on taste, but also on the country’s economy.



The euphoria of the 1980’s produced names such as Dolce&Gabbana, occupying the fashion scene with their fresh talent. In Italy a tough time of fear (domestic terrorism increased tensions among citizens) had achieved its climax and fashion answered to that with the insolence of designers.

Shocking colors, acid tints and female authoritativeness were expressed through hyperbolic padded shoulders. Barbie was back: the glorification of the body, its sexuality and the top-model’s myth, contributed to shape a woman of irrepressible, unreal beauty.

This was the golden age of Valentino, Versace, Trussardi, Enrico Coveri, Gianfranco Ferrè, Moschino, Fendi, Laura Biagiotti, Alberta Ferretti.

A whole new series of designer labels were protagonists, such as Max Mara, Luciano Soprano, Romeo Gigli.


At the end of the 80’s, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tangentopoli scandal, which heavily shocked Italians, Prada found its way of expressing her conceptual fashion, based on mortification.

Her punitive aesthetics were a result of the revaluation of the ugly and the unpleasant, which required mental gymnastic to be understood. This was the secret of her success.

The 90’s were infact considered a decade of expiation. A reduction in the consumption of luxury goods and clothing changed radically people’s lifestyle. The superficial comfort and the ideal of status were not enough for consumers. The minimalism found its moment, replacing the opulence and the excesses of a high-profile wardrobe.

A new generation of aggressive and iconoclast designers was emerging: Marras, Gucci (by Tom Ford), Alessandro dell’Acqua, Salvatore Ferragamo, Maurizio Galante.

The death of Gianni Versace in 1997 rocked the fashion world. Around the end of the millennium, freedom emerged again and frivolity seemed to be allowed again. Taste was modified by the arriving of flourishing colors and androgyny was replaced by femininity. The reinvented prints of Emilio Pucci signed this moment of evolution and Roberto Cavalli made the comeback of the sensual woman possible.



My final thoughts

Made in Italy is the base concept of Italian fashion.

This precious and old term refers to traditional artisanal crafts, which have miraculously survived to us. Even if the Italian State is relatively young, and Italians are the result of a commanded unification, the power of fashion has been able to make people feel a patriotic glamour.

Fashion is the glue that makes Italians stick to their country, proud of having international designers, born and raised under the sunny Italian sky.

The history of fashion in Italy has been rich and exciting and we’re all proud of its glorious past as much as excited for its brilliant future.