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The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945 – 2014

Rachel Giles

V&A, London, until July 27

I'm staring at a paper couture pattern for a coat made by Fendi, from the year 2000. It's placed on a tailor's dummy. The designer has divided every part of the paper coat into squares measuring about two inches by two inches. This pattern is a work of art: a model of precision and geometry. Each square contains a scribbled little word, so reading across, you get an impression of some secret code or song lyric:

Fuxia blu rosso

Giallo giallo giallo

Blu blu blu

Next to the paper version, on another dummy, is the finished coat. Every square has now been transformed into a piece of hand-sheared, hand-dyed mink. I've never seen fur look like this; it's a coat of many colours, like a garment designed by Paul Klee. Who'd have the imagination, the gall, to make a polychrome fur coat? The Italians, of course.

The Fendi coat sums up the essence of this show: Italian fashion is a fusion of glamour and artisanal brilliance; not mere frippery but a form of cultural self-expression, arising from centuries of traditional craftsmanship, in leather, fur, textiles and wool. But not only that: it's shown to be an industry that pushes creativity and extravagance to the limit.

Italian fashion's 20th century renaissance was driven by economic necessity. In the wake of the Second World War, the country's economy was in ruins. With Marshall Plan aid, the country started to rebuild itself. Across Europe and the US, there was a hunger for glamour after the deprivations of the war; Italy stepped in to provide that magic.

Businessman Giovanni Batista Giorgini organised high-end fashion shows from Florence's Pitti Palace, inviting buyers from North American and European stores. They were a huge success, and re-established Italy as a destination for luxury fashion and couture.

In the 50s and 60s, Hollywood helped to reinforce Italy's image as the mythical land of beauty and glamour. The films Roman Holiday and Cleopatra were made in Italy, and the press showed film stars on and off-set, on shopping trips in Florence and holidaying on the Amalfi coast.

In the 70s, manufactured ready-to-wear took highend fashion to a wider audience. Between 1970 and 1985, fashion exports from Italy increased by 300 per cent, thanks to entrepreneurial designer brands such as Missoni, Moschino, Versace, and Armani.

To us, living in an age of mass production, something hand-made is a rare, precious thing. There are many opulent gowns in this show, but a simple 1950s smoky-blue silk handbag and matching embroidered cotton handkerchief draw admiring comments from onlookers. These belonged to wealthy American, Margaret Abegg, who donated her extraordinary couture wardrobe to the V&A. Abegg's silk evening gown, designed by Maria Grimaldi, looks like it has been dipped in espresso; its waves of silk fall from the waist, capturing light and shadow in their form.

The show brings us up to the present in the final room, which explores the cult status of global fashion designers. Inside the tent-like space, we're invited to draw near to some sacred objects. A pair of D&G jewel-encrusted ankle boots and a Prada metallic handbag have been placed inside glass cases and sparkle like inert holy relics. Ethereal music is playing, and a huge video screen shows grainy slow-motion footage of impassive models' faces and sensual wafting fabrics. It's all about transcendence: from the dull, the ugly, and the average.

Contemporary Italian designers seem very much influenced by Catholic iconography, whether borrowing from its opulence and visual beauty or subverting it. A D&G dress reproduces mosaics from Sicily's Cathedral of Monreale; a brocade Valentino evening dress wouldn't look out of place in the Vatican. And Paolo Roversi, who photographs for Romeo Gigli, calls his models 'the madonnas of fashion.'

The whole point about these clothes is that they're not for everyone. We can marvel at the craftsmanship, file past the dummies, and dream. Italian fashion is a heady blend of poetry, emotion, precision and technique: left and right brain working in perfect harmony. But it's never very edgy, humorous, challenging or dark. For that, I await Alexander McQueen at the V&A next year.

This is a serious celebration of Italian fashion and its considerable influence on global culture. It's luxuriously produced, with faux marble and wood text panels. If at times it feels a little like a trade show for the Italian Tourist Board, to its credit the exhibition doesn't gloss over the scandals and corruption that have tarnished Italy's image in recent years. Video interviews with the designers themselves are naturally upbeat, concluding that there will always be a demand for luxury and craftsmanship.

I emerged feeling like I'd eaten a very expensive five course meal - wanting more but knowing I shouldn't; a bit bloated, yet curiously empty.