A Spectacular Italian Fashion Exhibit Hits Portland

This week, the long-awaited Italian Style exhibit makes Portland Art Museum the only West Coast stop for its vintage Valentino, Prada, Missoni, and more. (Not to mention a special additional exhibit devoted to our local fashion designers)

By Eden Dawn February 3, 2015


Founded in 1892, the Portland Art Museum opened when we were known more for our logging and ports, than as a food and design mecca. In the 123 years since PAM set up shop on Park Avenue, our little city went from a dot between San Francisco and Seattle to a hub known internationally for our makers, artists, and lovers of style. Well suit up, design-inclined: the museum goes from being the oldest museum in the Pacific Northwest to the coolest this week as it ushers in Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945, a full-on style onslaught that can only be described as epic, with events, programming, and eye candy for months to come. (Check out Portland Monthly's in-depth feature on the show and what it means.)

The Main Event

Photograph by Gian Paolo Barbieri for Gianfranco Ferre advertisement, Fall/Winter 1991. Model: Aly Dunne. ©GIANPAOLOBARBIERI

On loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the incredibly large and thorough 150+ piece collection runs through two floors of the museum, highlighting how Italy rose from post-war devastation in the 40’s to the height of luxury and style and is split into easy-to-digest sections. Some of the highlights include:

Dressmaking Moving through Italian Style’s dress section is like marching through the women’s movement itself. The collection begins with the likes of Sorelle Fontana’s nipped waist and the full skirts of the ladylike ’50s, which garnered a Hollywood-heavyweight following (including actress Ava Gardner). In the ’60s, less precious, but still glamorous, collarless beaded jackets and shift dresses by color innovator Mila Schon and other designers took over. As the decades progressed, so did the garb, with Valentino using his signature red to turn dressmaking from dainty to downright sultry. The rise of working women—and the accompanying shoulder pads—was marked by bold plaid pieces by the late Gianni Versace before his 1997 murder. (The emotional outpouring that followed accelerated the rock-star status of the iconic designer.) A final section of the show pays homage to the new class of Italian designers—as prominent as the celebs they dress—with a glamorous dip-dyed look from Prada, red-carpet couture from Giambattista Valli, and a floral fantasy from Dolce & Gabbana. 

Mila Schon sequinned evening dress and silk coat . Worn and given by Princess Stanislaus Radziwill. Worn to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, 1966. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Tailoring Thanks to films like 1960’s La Dolce Vita, which captured the Oscar for costume design, a wave of Italian-inspired style swept popular culture, and the nation's casual cool became a benchmark for men the world over. The tailoring section of Italian Style runs from John F. Kennedy’s 1963 Litrico spezzato (a jacket and pant ensemble that don’t match) to a Carlo Palazzi traditional double-breasted trench coat with cinematic spy appeal. Slim, midcentury modern looks give way to Piattelli’s wide lapels (and even wider ties) of the late ’60s and ’70s, before Armani launched Italian suiting’s American Gigilo phase, with boxier fits and wider cuts. But tailoring extended beyond menswear, as evidenced by a nearly pettable floor-length Valentino wool and sable coat or a pristine, winter-white wool gabardine coat and day dress by Laug. The beauty lies in the fit.

Accessories The Italians do many things right—a ripe Chianti, a juicy Caprese salad, iconographic art—but they really know how to accessorize. Hats, shoes, gloves, jewelry: the Boot overfloweth in these areas, with several stellar examples on display in Italian Style. Shoes abound, in suede, chiffon, and grosgrain satin, mounted on sturdy vintage heels from Frouiz, Massi, and Cavallera. Shiny new stilettos from Prada and Miu Miu provide the counterpoint, with classic Ferragamo in between. Luxurious leather goods range from decadent ’60s Gucci hatboxes to alligator Fendi bags, alongside elegant postwar suede gloves with hand-chain stitching. If shoes and purses aren’t your thing, look to the vintage 1959 Bulgari brooch that once belonged to Elizabeth Taylor. 

The Portland Exhibit

Designer Sonia Kasparian. Courtesy PAM

In a special companion piece to Italian Style, the museum devoted a separate section to our local fashion scene. The special exhibit entitled Italian Influence: Portland (which was curated in a collaboration between myself and the museum's Education Department) features garments and video installations from local designers that mirror sections from the larger exhibit to demonstrate Italy's global fashion influence. Designers include: Adam Arnold (tailoring), Elizabeth Dye (dressmaking), Anna Cohen (knitwear), Sonia Kasparian (couture), Alexa Stark (new wave), and Nike’s special “Made in Italy” line (sportswear).

 “Our goals are to encourage visitors to consider the influence and inspiration of the past seven decades of Italian fashion design on designers and manufacturers working here today,” says Stephanie Parrish, the museum's associate director of education and public programs. “In addition, the video interviews with each designer included in this project focus on the design process itself—the materials, methods, craft, and creative insight that goes into a single garment, from couture to athletic apparel. Visitors engaging with these local designs, designers, and design processes will definitely have a new lens through which to see the 150+ pieces on view in the main exhibition.” 

In an additional focus on the local scene, the museum has planned multiple events highlighting the work coming from here. This includes a two-part conversation series moderated by Marjorie Skinner (Portland Mercury) and myself with industry guests such as former longtime Oregonian fashion columnist Vivian McInery, designers Holly Stalder, Kate Towers, and Michelle Lesniak, plus Portland Garment Factory owners Britt Howard and Rosemary Robinson. Furthermore, those interested in how things are made can even sign up for the best field trip since middle school:  a bus tour of local studios. 

In short, the next three months allow lovers of fashion to jump into luxury and get up close with garments most will never see. Learn more, do more, take advantage. Who knows when our city will ever get an opportunity like this again. 

Italian Influence: Portland with designers Alexa Stark, Elizabeth Dye, Adam Arnold, Sonia Kasparian, and Anna Cohen.

Italian Style Events

Feb 8: Behind the Scenes of Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945 - Exhibit curator Sonnet Stanfill discusses how she traced more than 70 years of Italian style, going over the research process, the difficult choices, and the star objects.

Mar 8: The Real Dolce Vita - Film critic (and this feature’s essayist) Shawn Levy speaks on Italy’s post–World War II ride as a trendsetter in film, culture, style, and pop culture. 

Feb–May: Italian Style Film Series in partnership with the Northwest Film Center - The Northwest Film Center and Portland Art Museum partner to curate a special selection of films showcasing the influential style of Italian fashion. 

Mar 26, Apr 2: A Conversation on Local Fashion - Eden Dawn (Portland Monthly) and Marjorie Skinner (Portland Mercury) craft a conversation series with guests covering the history, growth, and next directions of the local fashion scene.

Apr 11: Portland Style Tour - The museum teams with Know Your City for an afternoon tour of Portland’s fashion and apparel scene. Meet with local makers at their design studios and workshops.

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