Glamour is a concept. It’s not something that can be touched, but it’s dizzy and dazzling, enticing and enigmatic, and it lends a mystique to everything from movie stars to sports cars. The V&A’s new exhibition, The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014, sets out to prove that glamour is actually underpinned by something tangible: manufacturing, factories, entrepreneurs with a vision, designers and seamstresses. Hard work and dedication. Traits that themselves are not glamorous, but can create the illusion of it.

Fashion show in Sala Bianca 1955 Archivio Giorgini

There’s a lot that could be considered ‘glamorous’ on display in the exhibition, but it’s all underscored by the idea that fashion (and by extension, glamour) transformed the fortunes of an ailing economy in the aftermath of the Second World War. The first room introduces Giovanni Battista Giorgini: the man who saw the potential in Italy and staged the country’s first fashion show in 1951, persuading US press and buyers to give the local designers a chance.

Many of those designers names have long since fallen into obscurity, but they, and their meticulously crafted garments, set the standard for what the ‘Made In Italy’ stamp stands for. In the show’s second room, Italy conquers the world, with the help of Hollywood. Films including Cleopatra and Roman Holiday were shot on location and designers were quick to leverage the global power of their stars. The image of Elizabeth Taylor, resplendent in Bulgari jewels, is probably the most recognisable of the whole show. Italy was the height of chic; a place where modern women came to purchase.

elizabeth taylor bulgari

Wising up to the commercial power of fashion, Italian designers moved towards ready-to-wear in the 1970s. Spearheading the movement were two less familiar names, Walter Albini and Elio Fiorucci, but more recognisable brands quickly emerged: Missoni’s knits, Trussardi’s va-va-voom leather eveningwear and Krizia’s pleated jumpsuits.

The finale is dramatic. Recent designs from Prada, Marni, Miu Miu, Gucci and Giambattista Valli are showcased underneath a sweeping silk ceiling and, up-close, the details in a hand-painted Dolce & Gabbana dress and a hand-embroidered Valentino evening dress are wonderful. But it’s impossible not to connect these big-name global counterparts to the relatively obscure designers and artisanal craftsmen who created our contemporary notion of Hollywood glamour.

Glamour of Italian Fashion

Jole Veneziani’s 1959 densely printed cocktail dress and matching wrap and Tom Ford’s peek-a-boo, form fitting white Gucci gown are stylistically decades apart, but the latter’s showiness is rooted in the former’s convention and tradition. Ford might be more famous than the clients he dresses, but his clothing knows its place in fashion history.

Fashion is so often a story of opposites, and in a little over 50 years, Italian fashion has grown from ‘local’ to global. Much of what made it great remains and many contemporary designers have made a conscious decision to preserve the heritage that’s embedded in the local factories and production districts. But this is an industry in flux, driven by profit and the bottom line. In the final room, a selection of fashion professionals, including Franca Sozzani, editor of Italian Vogue, give their verdict on the future of fashion in Italy. The takeaway? The world might have changed, but our desire for glamour will never abate. Italian fashion just has to work out how to keep up.

The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014 is showing at V&A from April 5th to July 27th. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the museum’s website.