01 June 2014

LIFE: Le Fontana (Sisters) of Rome

CHIAVARI, Italy - While today’s global fashion industry is dominated by Italian designers – Armani, Versace, Valentino, Prada and Gucci to name just a few, a little more than 50 years ago there was no such thing as Italian fashion.  It didn’t exist. 

  Italy's First Official Fashion Show, Florence, 1955
In war-stricken Italy of the 1940s, there was no organized clothing manufacturing at all.  The Italians made fabric, silk, wool, gorgeous blends, but not clothes. Those who could afford it had their clothes made-to-order by dressmakers and tailors, while the general population relied on clothing sewn at home, with everyone following fashion trends set by the French.

But during the 1950s and 60s, when many Hollywood films were being shot at Rome’s fabled movie studio, Cine Citta’, Hollywood celebrities like Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor began to fall in love with the clothes the studio’s dressmakers were turning out.   
Elizabeth Taylor
As more and more celebrities were photographed in front of iconic Roman landmarks wearing luxurious high fashion Italian clothes made by the studio’s wardrobe department, American department store buyers recognized a marketing opportunity and decided to try to sell Italian fashion back home. It wasn’t long before the budding Italian fashion industry rivaled it’s most fierce competitor, Paris. 

Much of the credit for the transformation has to be given to the Fontana sisters, Zoe, Micol and Giovanna, a trio of dressmakers from Parma. Their first fashion show took place in Florence on 12 February 1951, where they showed their line of clothing along with Emilio Pucci and four other designers. It was Italy's first official fashion show.  

Linda Christian
But it was when movie stars Linda Christian and Tyrone Power were married in Rome in 1949, and the Fontana sisters made Linda Christian’s gown at their small atelier in Rome, that they become one of the most important fashion houses in Italy.  Royalty and celebrities alike, including Princess Maria Pia of the House of Savoy and Margaret Truman, daughter of the President of the United States of America, commissioned their wedding dresses from the Fontana sisters.

In 1954 British born film star Audrey Hepburn chose a Fontana design for her marriage to James Hanson. Unfortunately for him, Hepburn met the American actor Mel Ferrer two weeks before the wedding and James Hanson was left standing at the altar. Hepburn told the sisters to give her wedding dress to the "most beautiful bride you can find." The gown eventually sold for $23,000 at an auction in London. 
 Audrey Hepburn, The Reluctant Bride
The link with Hollywood continued and insured a steady flow of publicity for the Fontana sisters. They went on to design for Princess Grace of Monaco, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy, all of whom stood in front of the famous three-paneled mirror in the Fontana atelier fitting room.  The publicity paid off. Italian and international celebrities began flocking to Rome for the over-the-top gowns the trio of dressmakers were designing.

In 1953 they began designing costumes for Ava Gardner's role in The Barefoot Contessa, and it was a Fontana design that Gardner wore in the “casino” scene of the same film. Gardner loved their dresses so much she wore one to the Hollywood premier of “The Barefoot Contessa” in 1954. 
Ava Gardner, Pretty in Pink
It was a rosy-pink body molding sheath designed with a halter neckline, the full-length gown completely embroidered with matching pink sequins.  She wore a matching tiara, pink crystal earrings, long pink kid gloves, pink slippers, and carried a long pink fox stole. Talk about  being pretty in pink!

To mark Micol Fontana’s 90th birthday, the Capitoline Museum in Rome held a retrospective of Sorelle Fontana's work with a display of dresses they made from 1949 to 1991. Although Giovanna appeared with her sister, wearing her trademark large glasses and immaculately coiffed hair, it was Micol who gave the interviews, saying that "life begins at 90".

The Fabulous Fontana Sisters

1 comment:

  1. Love, love this. My mother was a high fashion model during the late 50's and early 60's. Brings back so many memories. And Audrey H. My favorite! Thanks for a wonderful article!