Leave it to Fellini to stage an ecclesiastical fashion show. In his 1972 “Roma,” nuns dressed in satin habits stride purposefully down the runway, followed by cardinals on roller skates. The satire escalates, as papal ensembles in mohair, sequins and blinking neon look more Roberto Cavalli than clerical. (The bishops and nuns in the front row are as stoic as fashion editors too.)
For the Italian maestro, it was a poke at the Catholic Church and a wink at the fashion industry. After all, haute couture mecca Milan is just a train ride away. But it also indulged the director’s passion for the art and genius of costume design. He knew that Rome was no setting for drably dressed women. And plenty of other films set in the Eternal City, from “La Dolce Vita” to “Roman Holiday,” showcase enough style to inspire a shopping spree.
“Fellini always used theatrical license, and there is a 20% exaggeration in the color, cut and silhouettes of the costumes designed by Piero Gherardi,” says Oscar-nominated costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, UCLA’s David C. Copley chair for the study of costume design at the school of Theater, Film and Television. “Italian fashion pushes the envelope too.”
In 1960’s “La Dolce Vita,” it’s the scorching, strapless black dress worn by Anita Ekberg when she bathes in the Trevi Fountain that most remember. But rewind back to the opening scene in the nightclub and ogle Anouk Aimee’s seemingly simple black sheath instead. Fellini was reportedly inspired by Cristobal Balenciaga’s sack dress; Gherardi designed the film’s looks.
“The transparent mesh at the decolletage and the back makes it incredibly sexy and restrained,” says Jay Weissberg, Variety’s film critic based in Rome. “Roman women tend to love clothes that create an impression of strength as well as femininity.”
Fellini and Gherardi outdid themselves in “Juliet of the Spirits,” with wigs, outlandish getups and surreal makeup. “You don’t need the dialogue,” Landis says. “The whole story is told through the clothes.” Weissberg names “Donatella” and “Un amore a Roma” as favorites for fashion fiends too.
Celebrated fashion photographer and blogger the Sartorialist likens Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” with its “perfect costumes,” to this generation’s “Philadelphia Story” (but set in Rome, of course). Indeed, Gwyneth Paltrow’s full floral skirts, espadrilles and simple white button-up blouses epitomize Mediterranean chic, thanks to costume designer Ann Roth. Her city outfits — like the strapless sapphire blue gown with opera gloves and the leopard-skin swing coat — capture a debutante who’s a quick study in Italian style.
In 1953’s “Roman Holiday,” Audrey Hepburn’s civilian wear of a white blouse and belted, full skirt — a uniform of anonymity — dominates most of the most playful scenes. The outfit also contrasts well with her brocade princess gowns and tiaras.
“I love her whole transformation that you see through the costumes,” says “Mad Men” costume designer Janie Bryant. “The princess dress is almost too old for her, and then her skirt and white blouse are so simple.”
For a modern glimpse of Rome and its fascination with fashion, nothing beats the Matt Tyrnauer doc “Valentino: The Last Emperor.”
The perpetually bronzed Italian designer fascinates while recounting his first brush with couture and talks about his love of film. It was the 1941 movie “Ziegfeld Girl” that inspired him to reach great heights.
The final scenes of the docu, showing a party to celebrate Valentino’s 45th anniversary, are a curtsy to both fashion and Rome. Suspended models in his breathtaking gowns soar in front of the Colosseum bathed in Valentino red. The Eternal City seems to be blushing.