The Genteel
January 17, 2021


La Dolce Vita (1960) (Source: FanPop).

Born in Rimini, Federico Fellini grew up in an Italy dominated by Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XII, which provided rich working materials spawning from his dreams and memories. Before he found his passion as a director, he made a name for himself as a caricaturist drawing portraits of famous people. The ability to produce exaggerated images later trickled into film where he created a series of unforgettable characters, some of which were taken to extremes through caricature. He even inspired the term "Felliniesque", meant to describe a seemingly ordinary situation that has been injected with hallucinatory or baroque imagery (often with a side of clowns, processions and a confused Marcello Mastroianni). 

In Juliet of the Spirits, women ooze extravagance with hats that rival those seen at the Royal Ascot.

But his cinematic versatility, love of life and artistic genius could not have thrived without the support of talented cast and crew, who were instrumental in turning his fantasies and obsessions into reality over the five decades of his career. "When starting my films, I spend most of my time sitting at my desk, doodling tits and bums," he once said. "Later, these sketches and little notes end up in the hands of my collaborators: the set designer, the costume designer and the make-up artist all use them as models to get their own work going."

One of the trusted people who helped Fellini create some of the most audacious costumes the world has ever seen was Piero Gherardi. Self-taught in art and architecture, Gherardi first met Fellini on the set of the Fellini's third film, I Vitteloni. In Federico Fellini: His Life and Work, Tullio Kezich wrote of the Fellini-Gherardi relationship: "They understand each other with practically no need for elaboration; it's a sort of marvelous, charmed telepathy that will refine itself and endure for years to come." The pair collaborated on Fellini's black and white films in the 50's and early 60's, including the legendary La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, for which Gherardi won Oscars for Best Costume Design.

La Dolce Vita (1960) (Source: Film Forum).

While the two worked in the neorealistic style of cinema, they adorned it with certain surrealistic images. 8 1/2 flaunts dozens of beautifully dressed people, looking sharp in black and white. From the minimalist outfits of Guido's (Mastroianni) wife, to his impeccable suits with peeking French cuffs, to the rags of Saraghina on the beach, to the overdone splendour of an aging actress who wears a tiara that makes her look like a snail, to the clown procession at the end, every stylistic element in the film is arresting, yet harmonious with one another. Every image and costume carries a message of class, psychological state, and relationship with the environment or other characters. Almost every scene in 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita strikes you as a beautifully styled photograph, dreamlike, a brief moment in time. And then it moves.

In Juliet of the Spirits, women ooze extravagance with hats that rival those seen at the Royal Ascot, colours that jump off the screen, and materials like feathers or sequins that produce a lovely effect when in motion. Gherardi said that he considered a costume as more than a shell for a character; in his mind, clothes defined a personality and revealed parts of character, whether simplified or surrealistic. Gherardi liked contrasting the ordinary with the simplified in order to draw attention to characters and situations with components as complex as visual elements.

8 1/2 (1963) (Source: AnOther Mag).

Costume and set designer Danilo Donati was another one of Fellini's important collaborators. He was the true master of bizarre imagery, outrageous accessories, experimentation and scrupulous attention to detail. He originally trained as a muralist and fresco painter, which, I believe, helped with strong interpretations of history in Fellini's Satyricon. One-of-a-kind fabrics were made for the film so that they would not resemble anything contemporary, thus firmly placing the viewer in the grip of history. Donati's colours are rich, his surfaces often reflective, and his shapes sometimes blown out of traditional proportions - recall the ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma, yes, a Vatican fashion show! Donati understood how characters' costumes interacted with each other, how they formed visual unities and themes. I still can't shake off the powdered faces, luxurious golden gowns and strange headpieces in the Satyricon, a period film set during the height of Roman decadence.

The luxurious output of Fellini's costumiers, coupled with their powerful effect on viewers, make me believe that clothing is one of the most important storytelling vehicles. Stella Bruzi, a cinema and television scholar, said: "Clothes are not mere accessories, but are key elements in the construction of cinematic identities." Just as the set design and script carry the story forward, so do costumes, particularly in European cinema where directors have historically taken more risks. Fashion harmonizes with the plot and the story by providing clues about the characters. It allows for characters to establish themselves in relation to one another; for example clothes help distinguish classes, like the bourgeoisie attire in La Dolce Vita contrasted with the representatives of lower classes in the scene on the beach. Costumes can visually separate one character from the group (we can clearly see that the wife in 8 ½ harem scene is unlike any other woman, with her simple dress and minimal make-up). They can also alienate the character from her surroundings (Anita Ekberg's gravity-defying strapless dress, blonde locks, fuller figure and American accent juxtaposed with the old Rome in La Dolce Vita). No matter the exact role of fashion in cinema, it has the power to capture our minds for a long time to come.

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
(Source: AnOther Mag).

Many decades later, the clothes in Italian films of the 50's and the 60's are as breathtaking as they were then. Consider the Italian cinema style exhibited around the world, most recently as part of the Peroni's Italian Style on the Silver Screen in London's Proud Gallery. Every time I review a Fellini film, I can't appreciate enough the mastery, elegance and talent that went into creating these beautiful characters. Fellini's films - and Italian films in general, lest we forget Antonioni, Rossellini, and Pasolini - are a convincing evidence that Italian style is virtually incapable of obsolescing and that it is still guides sartorial aspirations around the globe. When seeing an onslaught of skinny ties, large glasses, slimmer silhouettes across multiple collections for men, the person I recall more and more is the unforgettable Marcello Mastroianni, draped in Gherardi's ensemble. At one point, decades ago, every North American man wanted to look like him - and it appears that today's generation wants the same. 



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