Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Bellissimo Italian Style and Comfort

No one has confused me with a slave to fashion. So, if you can pardon the splintered metaphor, I felt a little like a fish out of water taking in the Italian Style fashion exhibit at the Portland Art Museum over the weekend.

Photograph_by_Gianpaolo_Barbieri_for_Gianfranco_Ferre_advertisement_FW1991-660x1024Wife Carole and daughter Sophia soaked in the aura of the dresses, couture culture and Italian sensibility of Armani, Versace and Gucci. I gravitated to the historical role the fashion industry played in pulling Italy out of the economic doldrums after World War II.

Carole and Sophia oohed and aahed at the artisanal quality of Italian fashion. I marveled at the evolution of ready-to-wear goods that gave Italian fashion houses access to a vaster international clientele.

They were wowed by the striking lines and often outrageous combinations that set apart Italian style. I was dumbstruck by how a country known for its penchant for petty political divisiveness somehow found a way to unite regional collections of artisans under the “Made in Italy” motto.

Carole and Sophia celebrated beauty. I celebrated breakthrough advertising from campaigns such as the one launched by the Colors of Benetton.

We all had a good time, just for different reasons.

One thing we agreed on was the influence of Italian fashion on American movies in the 1950s and 1960s. The exhibit included clips from movies that featured Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck adorned in authentic Italian fashions – and riding Vespas in Rome. It was the equivalent of watching Nike-designed uniforms on every team in the College Football Playoff.

The guiding principle of Italian fashion designers was to have their work stand out in a crowd. It certainly did. Some of the designs are almost laughable, but would get noticed if you wore them to a party. If you dropped the name of the designer, those laughs would turn to envy and phone calls the next day to try to find something equally outrageous.

A subplot for Italian fashion designers was to outdo the French. It has taken a while, but they appear to be achieving that objective, too. When we think of high fashion, an Italian name usually pops into your mind.

Roberto_Capucci_Evening_Dress_1987-88_4.5K-830x1024Americans have a thinly disguised love affair with Italy. We clamor for its wine, food and lifestyle. If we could afford it, we would drive Ferraris, even if we needed a trailer to haul around our stuff.

When we are asked where we would like to vacation, Italy is almost always on the list. We clearly want what they have, even if we don’t exactly understand what it is. The mere mention of Tuscany makes many Americans tremble – old cities on hills, ancient churches and statues of naked guys. Not to mention all that Tuscan wine.

What we may overlook from Italy is its contribution to mass style. Designers had the good sense to realize there was a lot of money to be made in clothes with style that we wear everyday. That casual comfort look and feel persists today. And while many of the labels on the clothes we wear today say “Made in China,” they really should read “Originated in Italy.”

When it comes to fashion, most Americans would say, “I’ll have what they’re wearing.”



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