I am not a fashionista by any means. I simply don’t have the money, the time, nor the moral inclination to value clothes all that much. When I think of a well-dressed woman, my mind immediately conjures the image of Holly Golightly, the character from Truman Capote’s novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.
In the 1961 movie, she was played by Audrey Hepburn and her infamous Givenchy “little black dress” illustrates perfectly my ideal notion of a well-dressed woman. The perfect formula is a sense of minimalism, which combines simplicity and elegance to compose a style that is both classic and timeless. Perhaps for this reason, I have a very hard time identifying with most of what passes for haute couture these days.
However, when I learned that the Victoria and Albert Museum was organizing a special exhibit dedicated to the glamour of Italian Fashion, I decided to attend and try to educate myself further. The exhibit attempts to explain and illustrate the rise of Italian fashion from the end of the Second World War all the way up to the present day.
More than 100 dresses, suits and accessories are being shown from established fashion houses such as Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Missoni, Prada, Pucci, Valentino and Versace, as well as the next generation of designers such as Giambattista Valli, Fausto Puglisi, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli. I wish that I could have taken pictures so that maybe others could critique the clothes and help me understand the artistic principles at work, but photography was forbidden for security reasons.
On the bright side, I learned that in the forties, Italian fashion was largely unknown and Paris was the epicenter of the haute couture world. This is when Italian designers such as Jole Veneziani, Pucci and the Fontana Sisters organized catwalk shows such as the Sala Bianca in Florence, capturing the attention of American journalists and stylists. Hollywood then full heartedly embraced Italian Fashion, Italy became a common location for American movies and stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor became poster girls for Italian couture. As a result, by the seventies, Milan was vying with Paris for the title of fashion capital of the world.
On the negative side, with the possible exception of one dress worn by Audrey Hepburn, there wasn’t much in the collection that piqued my interest because the simplicity and elegance that I mentioned earlier were almost nowhere to be found. Instead, what I came across was flamboyance, vibrant colors, excess and designs that were, shall we say, too avant-garde for my peasant tastes. A case in point is the Bulgari emerald and diamond necklace originally worn by Elizabeth Taylor. I had never seen so many diamonds and emeralds in one piece of jewelry before, but less is sometimes more. That necklace would have looked big on an elephant, never mind a woman.
So maybe this is why so many people nurture a disdain for high fashion. The world of haute couture seems to forget that the clothes we wear are just an ornament that adorns the main work of art itself, the human being. Not every woman can be made to look like Audrey Hepburn, but every woman can elevate her appearance by dressing in an elegant, but simple manner that eschews flamboyance and excess in favor of functionality and common sense. Hence the magical combination: elegance and simplicity. I guess that despite my most valiant effort, I will never understand the world of haute couture after all.