Italian fashion has been popular for a 1,000 years, and continues to rank among the world’s finest. While French fashion dominated from the 1670’s to the 1970’s, Italian fashion set the standard for dressing well and creating “la bella figura” – a good impression – back in the 11th century. Here’s how fashion spawned the Renaissance – and how it can create a new chapter in your life, too.
It all started in Rome, 2,000 years ago.
As the Roman army marched across the ancient world, laying claim to everything in its path, it sent the best specimens it found back to Rome. Gold and gemstones from Africa, cotton and spices from India. Trade throughout Italy was brisk, and merchants and politicians grew rich. To distinguish themselves from tradesmen and slaves, the wealthiest citizens used clothing and jewelry to show their wealth, and built beautiful, well-appointed houses. Just like they do today.
When the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th Century, it threw Italy and the rest of Europe into chaos. For the next 500 years – even with Charlemagne’s help – invaders, plagues, feuding families, and economic strife defined life in the west.
Fashions changed very little for centuries. The tunic styles worn by the Romans were still common throughout Europe in the 11th century. From England to Italy, clothes looked pretty much the same: simple lines in simple styles requiring minimal sewing.
Meanwhile, as Europe struggled, the Byzantine Empire flourished. The wealth of Rome became the wealth of Constantinople (now Istanbul) as trade grew from Southern Spain to China. While many in the west struggled to survive, art, science, medicine, and education flourished throughout Turkey and the Middle East. Venice became the western-most port of the Byzantine Empire.
When Muslim Turks invaded Constantinople in 1071 and cut off Christian access to Jerusalem, Pope Urban II called for help. The First Crusade began in 1095, with eight more following over the next two hundred years. Each time European soldiers came, fought, and returned to their homelands, they brought back exotic treasures from the Mid East. Silks, spices, oils, fruit – the Europeans just couldn’t get enough.
Neither could the Italians.
Venice became the gateway of trade from east to west, and these former Northern Italians who had fled to the marshlands of Venice in the 8th century to escape constant invasion from the north, soon became the richest people on earth. Artists and tradesmen flocked there to do their bidding.
The riches quickly spilled over to other parts of Italy.
Craftsmen guilds – or medieval trade unions – began appearing all over Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. While those in Britain, France, and Germany focused on farming and food, Italian guilds were all about food and clothing. Butchers, bakers, wine makers, cloth dyers, silk weavers, furriers, shoemakers – the history speaks for itself.
Want to know why Italian leather is regarded as the best in the world? Because they’ve been perfecting it for 800 years. No other country comes close.
By the mid-13th century, Italy had become the European leader in art, architecture, and clothing. They picked up where the Roman Empire had left off with beautiful homes, gorgeous clothes, delicious food, and amazing music. They were constantly changing, constantly adding new things, and it was then that the Italian fashion industry began to emerge.
Clothing styles hadn’t change for centuries; then all of a sudden, they were changing every few years. As wealth and trade grew, so did power and status. Prominent Italian families began to flaunt their wealth through fashion, and other European families quickly followed suit.
The House of Medici did it best.
Originally from Florence, the Medicis made their money in the textile industry, trading wool. They later got into banking. At their peak of prominence during the 15th Century, they were the wealthiest family in the world and owned the largest bank in Europe, the Medici Bank. They also exerted enough political influence to produce four popes, two queens of France, and become the hereditary Dukes of Florence.
They also loved fashion. The textile trade had made them rich, but knowing how to wear clothes well made them formidable. Paintings from the era show a wealth and opulence unseen until that time, which made them very intimidating. When 14 year old Catherine de’ Medici arrived in Paris to marry Prince Henry in 1533, no one at court thought she was particularly pretty. But they all agreed she dressed beautifully and carried herself in a manner well beyond her years. She influenced fashion in France for the next 45 years, just as her family continued to do in Italy.
Italian fashion finally gave way to French fashion in the 1660’s because of Louis XIV. The Sun King had an insatiable appetite for beautiful things, including art, music, architecture, and fashion. He turned a hunting lodge into the Palace of Versailles, and changed men’s fashions 69 times in his 72 year reign. The French fashion industry was built on Louis’ love of clothes, and the courtiers’ need to keep up with changing fashion.
French fashion reigned supreme until the 1940’s, when Paris was shut down during the German occupation. With nothing new coming out of Paris for nearly a decade, American, British, and Italian fashion began to gain a foothold in the world market.
Twiggy, the Beatles, and mod styles put the spotlight on British fashion in the 1960’s. Ralph Lauren and Diane von Furstenberg garnered American fashion headlines in the 1970’s. And while Italian fashion houses had been quietly filling couture orders since the 1950’s, Giorgio Armani changed all of that when he dressed Richard Gere for “American Gigolo” in 1980. Fashion-conscious men loved the Italian style and flocked to Milan for clothes – just as they had for centuries during the Renaissance.
So while Gucci, Versace, and Armani haven’t been around as long as Lanvin or Chanel, Venetian glassmakers Barovier opened up shop in 1295. Torrini Firenze Jewelers debuted in 1369. Farmacia SS Annunziata has been making perfume since 1561, while Piana Clerico has been selling luxury cloth since 1582. All of them have been a part of the Italian fashion industry since before Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, or the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock.
So what Italian fashion secrets can you glean from all this history?
1. Start with quality
2. Add artistry
3. Finish beautifully
4. Wear proudly
Fashion brought Italy out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance. If you’re looking for a change in your life, perhaps a little fashion makeover can do the same for you.
Want to learn more about how to determine clothing quality so you can crack the ranks of the “old money guard” – like Coco Chanel and Jacqueline Kennedy did – with very little money but a little-known secret? Clothing Quality Secrets can help.