FASHION HAS GROWN ever cozier with fine art institutions. Even museums without a costume history focus are embracing couture garments as objects of artistic appraisal within the same halls as paintings and sculptures—bypassing some of the old worries over divisions between craft and art. It's taken a while, but Portland has finally joined the fray with the Portland Art Museum's new exhibit Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945, which explores Italian fashion's rise from the rubble of WWII to the present.
Those who appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of bespoke fashion will relish Italian Style's eyefuls. Carefully preserved and restored dresses made by mid-century sartoria like Maria Grimaldi and the designer Mila Schön are presented for scrutiny along with more recently released looks from Prada, Miu Miu, Fendi, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and more. The exhibit—originally created for London's Victoria and Albert Museum—is heavy on womenswear and accessories (V&A Fashion Curator Sonnet Stanfill, in town for the exhibit's Portland debut, theorized that women may have a greater tendency to hang on to their clothes), but it also features a small room devoted to men's suiting and a smattering of gorgeous Italian motor vehicles—from a Vespa surrounded by Pucci-clad mannequins to the mint-condition Ferrari parked off the main hall.
Speaking of Pucci, a large window on the landing on the way up to the exhibition's second floor is worth a pause. Covered in a classic Pucci pattern, it's also accompanied by a placard indicating the designer's particular connection to Portland. A young Emilio Pucci, Marchese di Barsento, attended Reed College in the mid-'30s, where he designed uniforms for the school ski team, as well as the griffin design that still adorns the sweatshirts sold in the campus bookstore. He also earned himself a bit of notoriety in Reed's intellectual circles as an earnest defender of fascism.
Fascism, in fact, played an important role in the fortunes of Italy's fashion industry. During the war, the National Fashion Board was established, promoting the use of Italian textiles and encouraging Italy's fashion producers and consumers to distance themselves from the industry in Paris. After the war ended, fascism could hardly have been considered a unifying force for Italy, but its traditions and pride in garment making proved stalwart. To this day, "Made in Italy" immediately conveys quality and longevity—in clothing, shoes, leather, and virtually every other consumable product.
Nonetheless, the Italy of today faces problems that touch its fashion industry directly. Economic troubles are one, as well as the fact that the artisanal skills on which its industry has earned its reputation are dying out. This kind of manufacturing impasse is not unique to Italy, or to fashion, of course. In addition to contextualizing how Italy came to be associated with glamour and quality—from the Sala Bianca runway shows to the fascination of celebrities and wealthy American clients in the '50s and '60s—Italian Style concludes with an exhibit room filled with Portland designers who represent the legacy of quality and style: Alexa Stark, Elizabeth Dye, Adam Arnold, Sonia Kasparian, and Anna Cohen, as well as examples from Nike's "Made in Italy" line. We may not have a fascist-controlled National Fashion Board to regulate and promote the new generation of skilled designers and tailors among us, but one hopes that having their work displayed in such incredible company will catch the attention of passing collectors.
In addition to the exhibit itself (an absolute must-see for anyone with an interest in fashion), the Portland Art Museum has a full calendar of events scheduled throughout its run. The lectures, panels, and tours (some of which, full disclosure, I'm involved with) are an opportunity to broaden your understanding of the history, culture, and future of Italian fashion—and our own.
Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945, Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park, through May 3, $17-20, portlandartmuseum.org
• Now through Saturday, take advantage of Lizard Lounge's "Sweetheart Sale," with 20 percent off accessories: jewelry, watches, scarves, candles, and wallets. Lizard Lounge, 1323 NW Irving, now through Sat Feb 14
• Woonwinkel prepares for Valentine's Day with a jewelry focus on Matchbox Studio, with bubbles and raffle prizes, too. Woonwinkel, 935 SW Washington, Wed Feb 11, 5-8 pm
• Fine jewelry brand Sydney Evan boasts fans like Gwen Stefani and Jennifer Lawrence, and it's coming to Mario's for a trunk show/preview. Look for whimsical charms and juicy colors—this is the kind of occasion jewelry that's more fun than stately. Mario's, 833 SW Broadway, Thurs Feb 12, 10 am-5 pm
• In yet more Valentine's Day news, lingerie/loungewear specialists Jane's Vanity are teaming up with Verdun Chocolates, Spellbound Flowers, French Quarter Linens, and Studio Bea jewelry for an array of gifting options, plus fine champagne tastings from Vinopolis and LVMH. French Quarter Linens, 530 NW 11th, Thurs Feb 12, 4-6:30 pm
• Dig a Pony is turning themselves into a hive of Valentine's Day activity with the "You Da Best" pop-up: Look for gift-ables from cards to accessories with local makers like Morgaine Faye and Tomahawk. Dig a Pony, 736 SE Grand, Thurs Feb 12, 4-8 pm
• The big week for jewelry continues, with Mercantile's exclusive multi-day trunk show for Suzanne Kalan. Mercantile, 729 SW Alder, Thurs Feb 12-Sat Feb 14
• Not to be left out, Twill is also having a V-Day/jewelry trunk show event, this one featuring Candy Wong. Twill, 3352 SE Belmont, Fri Feb 13, 4-7:30 pm