FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Bonnie Clearwater cast a covetous eye on a pair of wool coats. “I’d love to own one,” she said. “Wear it and you won’t end up looking like a box.”
Capacious, cut to flatter and surprisingly contemporary, those coats were among the highlights of “Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968,” an exhibition at the Nova Southeastern University Art Museum here, where Ms. Clearwater is director.
The show, created in partnership with Bulgari, “is about giving credit to the many Italian designers who provided the foundation for Versace and Armani,” said Stefano Tonchi, the editor of W and a curator of the installation. It showcases designers like Simonetta, Roberto Capucci and Mila Schön, who provided the sumptuous underpinnings for the cavalcade of damask and brocade, leather and lace on the Milanese runways this week.
On view through June 5 are some 90 coats, suits, gowns and dresses, some meticulously tailored for comfort and ease, others more showy, as if they had sauntered off the soundstage of “La Dolce Vita,” or the fabled Via Veneto.
Showpieces include a scarlet redingote and cardinal’s hat, made for Ava Gardner by Sorelle Fontana; an evening jumpsuit and boots by Federico Forquet; a chevron-patterned double-breasted mink coat and black rabbit jumpsuit, both by Fendi; a buoyant silk evening dress, hand-painted with a coral motif, by Valentino; and a Fernanda Gattinoni moiré silk dress and velvet cape worn by Anna Magnani.
Ms. Clearwater’s intent, and that of the curators, was to demonstrate, she said, “that fashion does not arise in a cultural vacuum.”
Far from erupting spontaneously amid the ruins of postwar Italy, Italian fashion, confected for the haute bourgeoisie and, not less, the American movie stars who became ambassadors for Italian style, was the fruit of a collaboration with a rising textile industry, one rebuilt in part with infusions of cash from Americans working through the Marshall Plan.
The point in those years, Ms. Clearwater said, was to promote the image of Italy as a thriving alternative to its economically deprived Communist neighbors across the border.
The show itself aims to familiarize museumgoers not just with legendary labels like Pucci, Fendi, Valentino and Irene Galitzine, but with the many designers who worked, mostly unsung, in the ateliers of Florence and Rome — an exclusive if less familiar coterie including Sorelle Fontana, Germana Marucelli and Gigliola Curiel.
Their designs, often photographed against a backdrop of marble palazzos and classical ruins, were sold to American retailers in an effort to brand not just Italian fashion, but the image of Italy itself. The strategy worked all too well, it seemed, as American retailers rushed to purchase the Italian originals, copy them and return them to their source.
But basta. “It was time for Italy to take ownership of it’s own creativity,” Mr. Tonchi said. “The Italians began thinking, why let others copy us, when we can do a better job ourselves.”
It was also the period when Italy turned from France as a source of inspiration and began looking inward. What set apart their creations from the more showily contrived French couture of the day, and what renders them fresh even now, was a deliberately unfussy cut and emphatically functional approach to design.
The princess Irene Galitzine was acquainted firsthand with the ballrooms and opera house foyers where her opulent fashions were worn. But like many of her peers, she kept one eye firmly trained on practical realities. She whipped up her fabled palazzo pants as a pared-down alternative to the elaborate formal wear of the prewar years.
“She knew that in those pants you could drive yourself to a party,” Mr. Tonchi said, “and that you wouldn’t need two men to help carry your gown.”