01/05/2014 09:09 BST | Updated 30/06/2014 06:59 BST

Very Little Glamour on Show in V&A's Italian Fashion Exhibition


The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 - 2014 is the first major exhibition to explore Italy's rich contribution to modern fashion from the end of the Second World War to the present. Its intention is to emphasise how traditional Italian craftsmanship in textiles and tailoring was reinvigorated through investment via the post-war Marshall Plan, bringing growth and glamour to a country devastated by war and fascism.

There is a really fascinating story to explore here, which would really illuminate an exciting exhibition. But this hasn't happened here.

First, there are few pieces on display, which is extraordinary considering this exhibition is covering almost 60 years of a major national industry. The display fills only a few rooms and the content is spread very thinly across them.

There can't be more than 100 mannequins on show here. And compare that to the Gaultier exhibition which has close to twice that - and that's for one man.


The pieces on show are also not exciting. There's a couple that catch the eye at the start of the exhibition, such as Aztec-print beachwear from Pucci's first collection and some very elegant evening dresses in lace and ruffles from early pacesetters such as Simonetta and the Fontana Sisters, but it all peters out very quickly after the promising start.

The standard for fashion exhibitions has been set very high by shows such as Isabella Blow, Gaultier and the McQueen exhibition in New York (which is transferring to, ironically, the V&A next Spring). This exhibition falls very short in comparison.

Multimedia exploration is also minimal.

I expected an army of dress mannequins surrounded with film footage of old Hollywood glamour arriving for the Oscars, catwalk shows, design sketches from these iconic fashion houses, and photos of the suits and dresses on the stars of the time. But there was very little of this on show.

And the rooms were silent. Was sound design even considered?

This is all such a surprise as in the galleries next door is the William Kent exhibition, where such attention and focus was given to multimedia, audio-visual content. And that's for Georgian Britain!


Even in comparison to other V&A costume exhibitions such as Hollywood Costumes, or the Bowie and Kylie shows, this stood out for all the wrong reasons. These shows were filled with colour and details on the exhibits were plentiful, including how these looked on the original artists they were designed for via sketches and photos.

Nor was the bland curation of the show the only issue.

Italian Fashion from 1945 to 2014 is a vast wardrobe to draw from, and it's a period that just exudes glamour, celebrities, sensual evening gowns and sharply tailored suits, celebrity designers, catwalks...

I expected the galleries not just to be packed with mannequins but also to be packed with pieces that I recognised, with pieces that screamed glamour. Not at all.

There's more Benetton knitwear on show than Valentino dresses. And instead of sharp tailoring in male trouser suits, there are dull, drab dark brown suits instead. And few pieces were familiar.

Elizabeth Taylor's Bulgari necklace, earrings and brooch set (in typical Taylor style, why just have one piece when you can have three??!!) in emeralds, diamonds and platinum were instantly recognisable as hers. But that was pretty much it.


An embroidered coat worn by Maria Callas was on show but it's not a memorable piece from her wardrobe. And the dress on show worn by Ava Gardner was a very plain black wool dress. It's all a bit deflating compared to the high-octane glamour you're led to expect.

In the contemporary section in the final gallery of the exhibition, Tom Ford's white peep-hole dress I recognised, but more because it had been used heavily in Gucci advertising at the time rather than it being a red-carpet dress. Cavalli's animal-print was easy to pick-out - but again because it was distinctively Cavalli rather than being actually, well, glamorous.

And just think of all the glamour and all the celebrities associated with Gianni Versace - Diana, Madonna, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Cher - yet none of these pieces were available. Instead the Versace piece in this section is from Donatella's era for Versace.

You can't help feeling that this exhibition might have been hamstrung by not having access to as many fashion pieces as they'd have liked. If so, it's a real shame that fashion houses and other private collections couldn't be persuaded to release more, and more familiar, pieces to the V&A.

How this exhibition would have been lifted by one of Diana's Versace dresses, some of Missoni's instantly recognisable and colourful knitwear, or a Dolce & Gabbana corset from their vast back catalogue. This show desperately needed many more statement pieces from which to hang the rest of the exhibition.

It's not like the V&A to under-deliver like this - it has a well-deserved reputation for delivering high-quality showcases - so I'm ok with putting this down as a one-off. But it was a little weird exiting through the gift shop only to find the products available to buy more enticing than the exhibition I'd left behind.

Victoria and Albert Museum, London to July 27, 2014

Ticket Price: £13.50 (concessions available)

Image credits: Installation images of The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 - 2014 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London