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MIA fashion exhibit is a stylish look at history

"Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945" is a look at how Italy grew to be a fashion powerhouse, tracing its path starting at the end of World War II to the present. With a story told through 100 ensembles and accessories, with works from major fashion houses including Gucci, Prada, Versace, Valentino, Armani, Fendi, Pucci, Missoni and Dolce & Gabbana, "Italian Style" is a history lesson with stunning looks and a dash of Hollywood glamour.

"I think a lot of the surprising pieces will be those that were owned by celebrities," said Nicole LaBouff, assistant curator of textiles at the MIA.

"There's a film costume that was worn by Audrey Hepburn in 'War and Peace.' There's a suit worn by John F. Kennedy. I think that's going to be really exciting for people to have that kind of concrete connection with really famous people."

Along with costumes, the traveling exhibit, organized by London's Victoria and Albert Museum, also features film and fashion photography. LaBouff says "Italian Style" starts in the '40s, when "there was little or no fashion industry," and goes to the present, when fashion houses like Gucci and Versace are well-known names around the globe.

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"It shows you how Italian designers and how the Italian design industry went through such a huge transformation in just a few decades," she said.

"I think people will get caught up in that story."

LaBouff points out that Hollywood played a big part in boosting the name of Italian designers.

"The Italian film industry was a draw for a lot of American film producers because it was cheaper to film there than in the U.S. or some other locations and they had really nice weather," LaBouff said. "It was cost saving, but also a luxurious alternative.

"A lot of films started being filmed on location there from the '50s onward, so that meant a lot of American starlets were working on location in Italy," she said. "It was a way for them to learn about Italian designers or Italian jewelry makers and really fall in love with that fashion."

Smart fashion designers made sure movie stars' shopping exploits were caught on film, LaBouff said.

"They would arrange for the paparazzi to come capture these shopping excursions," she said. "It was a huge boon to fashion designers because it was this new marketing angle they had access to. And then that information propelled their name throughout an international network."

As far as the question "Why fashion in an art museum?" is concerned, LaBouff said she surprisingly hasn't been interrogated about that; instead, she says, people are enthusiastic and excited about "Italian Style.

"I think a lot of museums now have gotten over that hump of 'is it really art?' because they've seen other institutions who have a costume collection have really successful exhibitions," LaBouff said.

It's true -- fashion exhibits have become regular occurrences at museums across the globe. And they're a popular draw. A few years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted the Alexander McQueen "Savage Beauty" exhibit and drew more than 600,000 people.

"I think they've seen that there's a really great appeal with these kinds of objects and it's a way to attract a visitor who maybe wouldn't be attracted to other kinds of exhibitions," LaBouff said. "It's a way of drawing in a new kind of visitor."

LaBouff said "Italian Style" is the first major fashion exhibition the MIA has hosted and it's the first American venue for this exhibit.

"I'm expecting everyone to come," LaBouff said." "I think even for more mature visitors, there're a lot of dresses that will be from their era. There will be pieces maybe more mature people can relate to from their youth. And then there's really contemporary pieces, too, that will appeal to a younger crowd. I think it will cross all ages and gender lines."

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