If I could magically possess three iconic fashion items, past or present—this being the grown-up variation of my favorite childhood parlor game, “If you could only eat three nationalities of food for the rest of your life”—they would be: 1) Elsa Schiaparelli’s lamb chop hat, circa 1930s; 2) Emilio Pucci’s kaleidoscopic terrycloth beach bag, shaped like a beach ball, circa 1960s and 3) Gianni Versace’s Kelly green strapless gown—part of the Elizabeth Taylor online Christie’s auction—with twin circles of rhinestones outlining the bust, circa 1990s.
That I had the chance to own items two and three, but didn’t (for reasons primarily related to using the money for such unglamorous things such as rent or major appliances), can still cause me considerable anxiety. They were that magnificent.
Such is the power of Italian fashion. Of course, I love a classic Chanel bag or vintage Saint Laurent gypsy blouse or safari look as much as the next fashion girl—perhaps more—but there’s something about Italian designers that feeds my soul, that speaks to my inner Fellini starlet. This, no doubt, has everything to do with the bravado that lies at the heart of Italian design, the heady combination of craftsmanship and showmanship.
How fabulous was Schiaparelli’s lobster dress, a perfect white chiffon gown emblazoned with a Salvador Dali-painted red lobster splashed down the front of the full skirt? Worn by Wallis Simpson in the famous Cecil Beaton photograph, just prior to her engagement to the Prince of Wales, it makes me weak—not to mention hungry—just looking at it. (Fun fact: Dali suggested that Simpson smear the “lobster” with mayo, according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s companion book to its exhibit “Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations.” She did not.) La dolce vita, indeed.
But, however glam the package, it’s the ideology that truly packs heat.
“I’m interested in archetypes, especially archetypes with historical resonance such as the nun, the maid and the prostitute,” said Miuccia Prada in Impossible Conversations. Incidentally, my wardrobe definitely leans heavier on the latter archetype. Schiaparelli, many decades earlier, espoused on courtesans, who she believed “used to know more about the soul of men than any philosopher. The art is lost in the fog of snobbism and false respectability.”
Few women have the chutzpah to be full-fledged modern-day courtesans, which is why the filter-free Lady Gaga, an Italiana and our century’s ultimate courtesan, fascinates me, along with the rest of the world. Who doesn’t secretly desire to cook pasta in a transparent black Fendi frock on national TV, sing duets with Tony Bennett and wear custom Giorgio Armani galactic evening gowns to award shows?
And, yet, all it takes is me slithering into a Dolce & Gabbana leopard-print cocktail dress and a vertiginous stiletto to become that courtesan. Such is the beauty of Italian fashion–at once classic and avant-garde, unapologetically bold yet refined in its execution, and dripping with the spirited sensuality that, as Schiaparelli, Pucci and Versace would come to prove, can transform a simple garment into a legend worthy of lust.
Click on the photos below for Tara Solomon’s take on these iconic designers and looks