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Start Date 21 February 2020
End Date 28 September 2020
Venue Poldi Pezzoli Museum
Location Milan, Italy
Curator Maria Luisa Frisa with interventions by Judith Clark
Designer Stefano Tonchi
In response

Fashion Curating and Cultural Policy in Italy: Gabriele Monti

Exhibition display of dressed mannequins


Fashion Curating and Cultural Policy in Italy

by Gabriele Monti


fragments from the essay published in

Cantista, Isabel, and Damien Delille, eds. 2022. Fashion Heritage: Narrative and Knowledge Creation. London: Palgrave Macmillan (pp. 55-80)






In 1980, Grazietta Butazzi curated the exhibition 1922-1943: Vent’anni di moda italiana at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli: this experience has made it possible to formulate some crucial questions with regard to the cultural status of fashion in its encounter with the machinery of exhibition and the museum at the beginning of a decade, the 1980s, that was fundamental not only for the definition of the “fashion exhibition” as an entity, but also and above all for the characterization of fashion itself as a discipline. A definition that was achieved through a focus on themes and questions like the reconstruction of its history, the conservation of objects and the problem of the cultural practices of exhibition in museums in comparison with commercial forms of display. Reexamining this exhibition means moving between telling the story of an important event and the analysis of its role in fashion studies over years in which, especially in Italy, an awareness of the need to come up with systems and institutions capable of preserving and studying fashion was emerging.




The exhibition curated by Grazietta Butazzi with the coordination of Alessandra Mottola Molfino was a groundbreaking project in the panorama of Italian fashion exhibitions, able to bear comparison with the actions undertaken by Diana Vreeland since 1972, when she began her spell at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York in the capacity of special consultant, and as her first act organized the exhibition The World of Balenciaga. The exhibition at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli tackled the 20th century directly and in order to do so began to define methods of research, conservation and display different from those used for clothing and objects that belonged to a less recent past and that were usually placed in the category of costume: it was an exhibition of fashion, and over the years has become (largely through its catalogue) a point of reference for anyone wishing to take on contemporary fashion.




The research that preceded the exhibition coincided with the study and reconstruction of a crucial period for contemporary Italian fashion, which came into focus as a system during the twenty years of Fascist rule. Butazzi’s work consisted in putting materials coming from museum collections with pieces tracked down in private collections as a result of thorough research. At the same time, the scope of the exhibition and thus of the objects on display was not limited to women’s fashion, but reflected the whole of the two decades under examination through all sorts of materials connected with fashion: underwear, children’s clothes, menswear, sportswear, shoes, hats and shawls, and even included posters and periodicals able to reflect the discourses on fashion conducted at a commercial level and in the press. More than three hundred pieces in all, with over eighty manikins (between full-length figures and busts).

The elaborate exhibition project occupied the whole of the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, both the ground and the first floor, thereby colonizing the entire space. On the ground floor the exhibition was laid out in what are now known as the Salone dell’Affresco, the Stanza dei Tessuti and the Sala dei Pizzi, with a complex structure of showcases designed by the architect Takashi Shimura to contain and display the sequence of themes identified: the project drawings in the museum archives convey the sense of a progressive adjustment of the structure, which eventually developed into a labyrinth of showcases for visitors to pass through, animated by different levels on the inside and by a number of exhibition modules, tinted in different colors, used to display accessories, fabrics, manikins and busts. A group of manikins “in conversation” at the foot of the grand staircase provided a staged introduction to the section of the exhibition on the first floor, where visitors could move between different rooms. Amongst the works kept and displayed in the museum were scattered a series of groups of manikins in dialogue with one another: in the Salone Dorato the installation consisted of manikins sitting and standing in front of the large window, in a model that recalled a conversation piece. The only element that echoed those of the layout on the ground floor was located in the Sala del Settecento Veneto: a showcase devoted to magazines guided the visitor toward the Saletta dei Trecenteschi where another choreographed group of manikins was on display. Apart from this showcase, the elements on the first floor were not enclosed and these allusions to possible conversations between elegant women brought the form of the house-museum cinematically to life, making the most of a space not originally designed to house the activities of a museum.




In 2019 the curator Maria Luisa Frisa started a conversation with the exhibition-maker Judith Clark that turned around two themes: on the one hand the possibility of utilizing Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988) to explore the forms of contemporary fashion; on the other the reactivation of a seminal exhibition and space for Italian fashion studies and for the creation of a museum of fashion. As we have seen, in fact, between 1980 and 1981 the Museo Poldi Pezzoli was the host of the exhibition curated by Grazietta Butazzi. Reactivating this space, today, with an exhibition devoted to the forms of contemporary fashion, and simultaneously reflecting on the intentions behind the exhibition in 1980, signified taking stock of the situation of fashion studies in Italy, in their relationship with the museum and with exhibition-making, understood as theoretical reflections in three dimensions.

Clark very often uses words in the titles of her projects that at once express the choices connected with the display and constitute a methodology of inquiry, one that utilizes the exhibition project to frame questions rather than to offer the visitor simple answers or a didactic narrative. Allusions and conversations are terms that often crop up in the reflections of the exhibition-maker, but it is above all in her work as a curator that Clark puts these words into effect, three-dimensionally: the display makes metaphorical use of terms that we usually assign to reflections couched in the medium of the written or spoken word. It suffices to think of the exhibition Diana Vreeland after Diana Vreeland staged at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice in 2012, or the one entitled The Concise Dictionary of Dress at Blythe House in London in 2010. In this last case, the reference to the literary world was extremely evident: the project turned on the possibility of constructing a three-dimensional dictionary of clothing, in order to explore and at the same time question the very idea of a dictionary. Some of the terms we customarily associate with dress provided the cue for installations conceived by Clark and scattered along a route through the rooms of Blythe House, in an open dialogue between words and objects, between concept and three-dimensional display. The mechanisms that shaped the installations and the exhibition in all its complexity were in turn a question about curatorial practices and the way in which they have changed over time. This sparked off a reflection on the conceptual actions that drive the discipline of fashion curating: defining, archiving, recounting, alluding.

In a way this project has a direct connection with the idea at the base of Memos, i.e. using Calvino’s lectures as a means of imagining and shaping the structure of an exhibition. If at Blythe House dictionary definitions were at the center of the project, at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli the protagonists were the Memos, Calvino’s words, treated as aids to reflection on what changes in and fashion and what stays the same. The word Memos also evoked the legendary notes typed out by Diana Vreeland at the time when she was editor of the American edition of Vogue. Notes that sum up the speed with which Vreeland’s imagination operated, that were used to plan the magazine but that also functioned as mood boards made up of words: every page, in its oscillation between editorial intention and curatorial action, could serve as the starting point for a line of reasoning, or an exhibition. Thus Memos set out to construct a discourse on method, i.e. a reflection on fashion curating and on its ability to handle the different products of fashion itself: not just the objects, but also the images and the words.

On the ground floor of the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Memos was inserted into the Salone dell’Affresco and the Sala dei Tessuti, where part of the exhibition curated by Butazzi had been housed in 1980. At the center of the Salone dell’Affresco was placed a model that reconstructed the design of the architect Takashi Shimura for the display of the exhibition 1922-1943: Vent’anni di moda italiana. The model stressed the importance of the 1980 project, which had looked at the historical origins of the production of the Italian fashion in the Fascist period in a groundbreaking way, developing new methods of research, conservation and display of all kinds of materials linked to fashion, presenting around three hundred pieces in the exhibition. In the Sala dei Tessuti a blowup of one of the photos of the display in 1980—uncovered in the archives of the museum—held a dialogue with some of the pieces that were on show at the time and are now in Palazzo Morando in Milan through a structure of pale plywood that “exposed” its temporary dimension. In this way, through this sign that was a mark of the past and at the same time an indication of the contemporary effort of reactivation, the display was able to make the first reflection on the fashion of the new millennium: what is inspiration and what is citation.

The use of the photographic enlargement to establish a dialogue between the past and the present was an expedient that was positioned at the bottom of the staircase leading to the first floor: the photograph was a further account of fashion, one that amplified its meaning in a sort of play of mirrors, evoking too that “multiplicity” of possible interpretations on which Calvino had insisted in his Memos. So it was not just the designed and sewn garment that was presented, but also the one that had been worn, photographed and described. To these levels were added the garment put on show in a museum, which brought the reflection back to the practices of curating, suggesting that this was what was at the heart of the exhibition, rather than the objects on display.




On the first floor, the continuation of the exhibition was marked by a delicate curatorial gesture, but one that was at the same time very powerful in the way it showed how the exhibition project was inserted into the museum, and above all in making it clear that Memos was first of all a museological incursion that aimed to get people to reflect not just on the content of a work, but also on the mode of its presentation: a small frame, made out of the same pale wood as the elements of display designed for the exhibition, placed on a slender pedestal in dialogue with the frames in the Poldi Pezzoli’s collection, showed that Memos was an examination not just of the qualities of contemporary fashion, but also and above all of the relationship between fashion and museum. Again, in the Sala degli Stucchi, this curatorial attitude was further underlined by a vertical panel in dialogue with the door leading into the first floor of the museum: almost as if it were a second, transparent door, two emblems were intertwined on this panel, that of the Poldi Pezzoli and the one preferred by Italo Calvino, the Festina lente (make haste slowly). This was another museological incursion, and one that prompted a reflection on the themes of the signature, logo and symbols in today’s fashion and in museums, especially the ones that are born out of a collection with a specific owner. This made clear the character of curation as a site-specific action: making exhibitions does not necessarily coincide with the identification of neutral solutions for display, but may entail an interrogation of the space in which the exhibition is located, and inserted.




The intertwining of the museum’s collection and the objects representing contemporary fashion was further emphasized in the Sala Visconti Venosta, where two pieces designed by Alessandro Michele for Gucci held a dialogue with pieces in the permanent collection: a light and sensual white dress that revealed the body was contrasted with a stiff black dress that covered and concealed. The womb and the rib cage embroidered on the two garments brought the sexual and structural dimension of the human body to the fore. Fashion was presented as a discipline that tended to highlight the questions faced by contemporary existence: identity, gender and sexuality, the limits and possibilities of the body.

In the Galleria dei Ritratti the curator’s gaze examined the objects present in the room and then inserted the fashion project, recognizing its extraordinary capacity to probe contemporary life by moving between the two-dimensionality of the image and the three-dimensionality of the object. Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, and her husband Duro Olowu, a designer of Nigerian origin and collector, were represented in a formally traditional portrait, made by Catherine Opie, but one that was conceptually subversive: a reflection on the new geography of cultural tendencies and fashion that has broken away from its traditional centers and is drawing new lifeblood from hitherto neglected areas and culture. Alongside the portrait, a showcase with Karl Lagerfeld’s drawings for Chloé presented the creative process of the designer who transforms details and elements that strike his or her imagination and adapts them to the identity of the brand. This expressive and linguistic “multiplicity” of fashion—which alluded to one of Calvino’s lectures, but again on the basis of the dialogue with the museum and through the logic of the chosen display—was further underlined by the sequences of pieces shown on the manikins: from Prada to Marco De Vincenzo to Francesco Risso’s interpretation of Marni and then to Arthur Arbesser and Massimo Giorgetti’s interpretation of MSGM, the clothes expressed this multiplicity of language through the use of experimental materials on traditional forms, the novel coupling of fine and humble fabrics, elaborate applications mixed with wire, repetitive palettes of jarring colors on geometric patterns and the refined layering of decorative motifs. These manikins had an additional significance because they echoed the 1980 exhibition in a—once again—delicate way through headpieces made by the hair stylist Angelo Seminara that evoked the barely hinted at hairstyles of Grazietta Butazzi’s show. A reference that was not explicit, but required visitors to assume a questioning attitude, to take a slightly longer look at these objects in order to examine them carefully, not so much for their extraordinary workmanship and forms, but as an active part of a discourse on display that suggested possible interpretations of fashion in its encounter with the exhibition and the spaces of the museum.




The Memos project was born in and for the spaces of the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, and was a partial reactivation of the exhibition 1922-1943: Vent’anni di moda italiana, evoking its modes of display on the ground floor and inserting conversations between the manikins and objects selected for the project and the Poldi Pezzoli’s collection into the rooms on the first floor of the museum.

In this way the layout of Memos elicited multiple levels of interpretation of the exhibition: it invited a reflection on the objectives of the exhibition in 1980; it drew attention to the Museo Poldi Pezzoli and its collection by exploring it; it analyzed the forms and themes of contemporary fashion through the curatorial action and the results of the display; it took on the character of a sophisticated museological reflection on staging exhibitions of fashion and on the language of display best suited to presenting fashion. And it is probably in this complexity of the design, and the interpretation, of the Memos project that we can find a reference to Calvino’s work—the Six Memos for the Next Millennium evoked by the title—and not so much in the more direct relationship between the titles of Calvino’s lectures and their possible analogies with the formal results of the design of contemporary fashion.

Thus Memos, in its comparison with the project of 1980, became an opportunity to offer some reflections on staging exhibitions of fashion and, in the way it was conceived as a three-dimensional means of presenting theory, should be placed within the theoretical framework of curatorial studies (Marchetti 2016).




Memos, in the intentions of its curator Frisa, which found expression in Clark’s systems of display, appears to us today as a project that shared with Butazzi and her words an Italian understanding of fashion studies, and one that evoked these theoretical movements through a sophisticated curatorial project: the three-dimensional display sought to take stock of contemporary fashion and its forms, but above all it deliberately reasserted the need to define and organize Italian studies of fashion through means and institutions capable of conserving and exhibiting as well as studying fashion.






Butazzi, Grazietta, ed. 1980. 1922-1943: Vent’anni di moda italiana. Catalogue of the exhibition at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan, December 5, 1980-March 25, 1981. Florence: Centro Di.


Calvino, Italo. 1988. Lezioni americane. Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio. Milan, Garzanti [Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. New trans. Geoffrey Brock. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2016].


Clark, Judith, and Maria Luisa Frisa. 2012. Diana Vreeland after Diana Vreeland, catalogue of the exhibition at the Palazzo Fortuny, Venice, March 10-June 26, 2012. Venice: Marsilio.


Clark, Judith. 2020. The Dark Room: A Paradigm of Exhibition Space. Dune 1, no. 1: 8-17.


Frisa, Maria Luisa, ed. 2020. Memos: On Fashion in This Millennium, catalogue of the exhibition at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan, February 21-May 4, 2020. Venice: Marsilio.


Phillips, Adam and Judith Clark. 2010. The Concise Dictionary of Dress. Published on the occasion of the exhibition at Blythe House, London, April, 27-June 27, 2010). London: Violette Editions.