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The Costume Exhibit at the Wallis Annenberg Center Epitomizes Italian Glamour

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Sophie Elkus |
October 25, 2011 | 2:26 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter


Costume exhibit pieces wow
Costume exhibit pieces wow

The newest exhibit at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts features the work of Italy’s most famous haute couture designers for a different kind of runway: the stage. More than 80 costumes were contributed to the display from the likes of Giorgio Armani and Valentino, each piece rich with the history of a famous opera singer or ballet dancer who once donned it under theater lights. Housed in the MGM building in Beverly Hills since the Annenberg Center is still under the construction, the exhibit is open until Nov. 13.

The gallery enticed visitors with opera music piped through speakers and neatly laid out the couture by designer. The first room featured work by Roberto Cappuci, the “godfather of post-war Italian couture.” His gowns of fiery red and orange were similar to the popular ombre effect of modern fashion, and once worn by June Anderson and Anna Caterina. One particularly stunning black beaded gown featured a 13-foot train. 

Fendi’s collection was executed by none other than Karl Lagerfeld, during his era as a designer for the label. His usage of colorful dyed fur pepped across denim dresses was surprising combination of fabric and texture, yet chic and in line with Fendi’s stylistic heritage. Mongolian fur capes in tones of ivory and peach epitomized the luxury that comes as no surprise from a mastermind like Lagerfeld.

A few steps into the main room of the gallery leads visitors into a paradise of the instantly recognizable Missoni zig-zag pattern. The exhibit showed printed sweaters, dresses, and pants reminiscent of the label’s current collection with Target. These getups, however, are offered at no discount: they were created for the 1990 World Cup opening ceremony in Italy. Sketches on the wall show the famed print’s history of revolutionizing knitwear throughout the years since its creation in 1948. The label outfitted many opera stars, including men, who wore heavy wraps in pieces like Lucia di Lammermoor, shown at the famed Thetro alla Scala in Milan.

The collection of Valentino couture featured glamour and sophistication that has become expected of the label. Ruffles and sophisticated draping similar to the current Spring/Summer 2012 collection was displayed with accents of feathers, beads, and sequins. The male costumes were just as decadent. One particularly dazzling ensemble featured fabric of pink satin ruffled lace with matching feathers, but it didn’t stop there. Crystals sewn down the edges of its jacket completed the look. Some may call it overdone, but when in comparison with the gowns Valentino created for female opera stars- complete with delicate rose fabric swirled into rose shapes- it is easy to see the need for the men to keep up.

Romeo Gigli offered a drastically differed approach to stage fashion. Rather than awe audiences with traditional glamour, the designer offered more modern-looking creations of feather and mesh. Corsets of hundreds of feathers stitched together seemed fit for an animalistic character leaping across a ballet stage. The collection’s key piece, a “queen of the night” costume of mesh tunic made entirely of sequins, was one part Lady Gaga at next year’s MTV awards and one part Starry Night by Monet. 

At first glance, Enrico Coveri’s skintight dresses were a surprising part of the exhibit that seemed more modern in comparison with Valentino’s enormous trains and luxurious, old-fashioned silhouettes of Cappuci. One dress seemed fit for Beyonce on stage; made entirely of gold sequins in a contemporary cut. Upon closer examination visitors will realize the collection was created for a 2000 piece called “Il Grande Gatsby,” a show telling Gatsby’s story through the music of Porter and Gershwin. The costumes clearly evoked the jazz age but also were modern enough to wear today.

As if the exhibit could not become more glamorous, the last room in the gallery featured countless Versace creations that stole the show. The enormous display of patterns, sequins, draped fabrics and saturated colors was food for the eyes, each piece worthy of the Met Gala. Designed for 30 ballets and operas, the label offered couture for theater stars like Luciana Savignano, who once wore a black leotard with translucent Swavorski crystals. The attention to detail was unbelievable on Kira te Kanawa’s slinky black gown, complete with intricate colored beads and crystals. Even Valentino’s take on a “prostitute teddy” ensemble was a work of art easily imaged swirling across the stage on a more sophisticated and elite version of Dancing with the Stars.

The exhibit’s pieces were designed to be viewed from a distance, so stepping back to capture the full experience was necessary. The costumes may have awed audiences years ago as their crystals shined under stage lights, but they are just as stunning on display. A trip to the Wallis Annenberg Center will take visitors back to a time when theatrical glamour was a necessity, not a luxury, for a peek into the wardrobes of the ballet and opera stars who were lucky enough to wear such elaborate works of art.


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