Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News  |  August 9, 2016

‘Women in the Spotlight’ - Galleria Del Costume, Florence

Previously, most of my blog posts as a Costume Society Ambassador has concentrated on Irish fashion history. However, in a change of theme this blog post is an exhibition review of the Women in the Spotlight at the Galleria Del Costume, in Florence, Italy. This exhibition’s central theme is the role that women designers, seamstresses, dressmakers and couturiers have had in the development and history of Italian fashion from the 20th century to the 21st Century. Each room was dedicated to a particular designer and/or a woman who wore that designer’s creations. Coupled with photographs and information about the designer’s and their customers; the exhibition gave an informative and interesting overview of the social history of Italian Fashion.

The first room was dedicated to the early 20th century Italian fashion designer Rosa Genoni. Genoni rose from a humble background as a seamstress in Tirano to become a renowned couturier. She was influenced by draperies, embroidery and Botticelli’s Primavera (this masterpiece sits in the Galleria del Uffizi across the Arno river from the Pitti Palace).

The next room was dedicated to the wardrobe of Elenora Duse, an early 20th century actress, and featured the work of one of the most important designers of this era, Mariano Fortuny. Fortuny created loose, flowing shapes with wide sleeves that gave Duse stage presence, even when she was not treading the boards. The examples shown here are rare early examples of Fortuny’s work within the remit of Italian fashion. You can see the amazing beaded and embroidered detail of the fabric on the white coat (furthest to the left in the picture on the left).

In contrast to the simplicity of Duse’s wardrobe, the next room displayed the intricate and extravagant wardrobe of Donna Franca Florio; a member of the Italian aristocracy in the early 20th century. Franca Florio married into one of  Italy’s richest families in the 1890s and dressed according to her status. However, her life was not all glitter and champagne; she lost many children at an early age and by the outbreak of WW1 her family had lost its fortune. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition was the 1920s court cape in blue velvet with appliqued gold piping on the edges with figure of eight motifs. The colour of blue was associated with the Italian royal family and gives an insight into the glamourous life that Franca Florio and her fellow aristocrats led in the early 20th century.

Other personal favourites within the exhibition were dresses owned and worn by Antonella Cannavo Florio, a talented pianist and wife to the Italian Consul of Thailand in Rome, Count Emilio Florio. The dresses in this section of the exhibition were attributed to the atelier of the famous Roman couturier Emilio Schuberth. Schuberth was clearly influenced by 19th century romanticism in his 1950s take on mid to late 19th century costume. Schuberth used drapery, embellishment and hand painted floral decorative motifs on the dresses he produced. Most notably, Schuberth was influenced by the wardrobes of the Empresses Eugenie of France and Sissi of Austria, particularly their exuberant crinoline day and evening wear from the late 1850s to the 1860s.

I was also struck by pieces within the Anna Piaggi section of the exhibition, particularly two opera capes that recalled 1920s flappers. Anna Piaggi was a fashion journalist and author, who amassed a large amount of vintage and contemporaneous fashion pieces in her private collection.  In 2009, the Italian government stopped an export of her collection to Christine’s auction house in London as some pieces in Piaggi’s collection were deemed of great national importance to the history of Italian fashion. Thus this meant that eight pieces of the collection were bought for the Galleria Del Costume and saved for future prosperity. The capes came to the Galleria Del Costume in a such a state that they needed extensive conservation and are only exhibited for a short period of item as they are extremely fragile items.

The course of the exhibition flowed smoothly from one historical era to another and the exhibition text was concise and to the point and translated perfectly into English. Additionally, there were photographs, drawings and paintings of the designers and the woman who wore their dresses to give the dresses some socio-historical context. Towards the end of the exhibition, there was a display of wedding dresses that spanned represented dresses from the early 20th century to the 1980s. Pictures on the right display how the varying styles of wedding dress changed with each historical or fashion era. Most notably the flapper style wedding dress of the 1920s and the full skirted dress representative of the 1950s silhouette. The labels in this section of the exhibition also gave some historical context to the wedding dresses; such as the 1940s dress pictured right that was made in a certain way to comply with Italy’s clothes rationing during WW2. After the display of wedding dresses in an aptly white room the interpretation took a different turn and included paintings alongside fashion pieces. These dresses were worn by the sitter’s in the paintings; in fact, some of the paintings even featured dresses that were in the exhibition as in the case of Donna Franca Florio.

Overall, the exhibition Women in the Spotlight  was an excellent exhibition centred on the theme of the female contribution to the development and history of Italian fashion. I went to this exhibition knowing little or nothing of Italian fashion, besides Italian fashion designers such as the houses of Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada. After viewing this exhibition my knowledge was enhanced and amplified; I came away with a good working knowledge of Italian fashion from the 20th century to the modern day.

The display of the pieces on clear glass pieces with the exhibition labels separate from the pieces themselves let the viewer get a sense of these wonderful dresses without labels being in the way of their view. Furthermore, the setting of the magnificent rooms of the Pitti Palace really added to the sumptuousness of the fabrics used in the various dresses.*

Rachel Sayers, Costume Society Ambassador, 2016.

  • Mariano Fortuny dresses belonging to Elenora Duse.
  • Court Cape by Sartoria Ventura, 1920s, worn by Donna Franca Florio.
  • Detail of Paul Poiret coat, 1920, belonging to Marina Cumani Quasimodo.
  • Emilio Schuberth dress, 1949-1955, worn by Antonella Cannavo Florio.
  • Detail of an Emilio Schuberth Dress, 1950-1952.
  • Attributed to the Sartoria Di Sciullo, worn by Giuseppina Rosanova on her wedding day, 27 April 1942.