Sundays make me think of church services, but, now you might be wondering, what have church services got to do with fashion. Well, actually, a lot.
In Italy there is indeed an ecclesiastical fashion tradition and often chasubles and vestments follow the latest trends. In Rome there are even historical tailoring houses specialised in ecclesiastical fashion, such as the Barbiconi tailoring house that started as an ecclesiastic hat shop at the beginning of the 19th century and later on began supplying also religious vestments such as chasubles, surplices, and other clerical cloths like clergyman shirts, suits and overcoats.
The connection between Rome and ecclesiastical fashion brings to my mind Fellini's Roma. Many cinema lovers probably see Rome as anthropomorphised by Anita Ekberg bathing in the Trevi Fountain in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Yet for Fellini Rome meant many things: first it was the place where as a young man he had moved following his dreams; then it was the place where he had met the world of cinema and where the world of cinema had revealed itself to him. In the director’s imagination, the Italian Capital was conceived as a glorious woman, or rather, as many different women: Rome was a mother and a lover, at times innocent like a young girl after the First Communion, at others gloomy, grim, bad-tempered and shrewish like a bitter lover or an old prostitute.
Even before starting to shoot Roma, Fellini knew it would have been different from his other films about the Italian capital, La Dolce Vita (1960) or Satyricon (1969). Roma was supposed to be a sort of documentary inspired by his three muses - memory, fantasy and visionary imagination - but little did he suspect that his film would have turned not only into a sort of dreamy documentary made of real memories and surreal atmospheres, but also into a spectacle where his characters don’t walk or stroll, but show off as models on a catwalk.
The pensione where young Federico moves in when he first arrives from Rimini is a spectacle with its gossipy maid, mountainous landlady lying ill in bed, dwarf grandmother and noisy kids running around, or the food scene with the tables of a local trattoria literally invading the pavement, almost occupying the tramway line.
The hellish Baraonda Theatre during the war with its vulgar and rude audience is a spectacle, just like the cars with their horns constantly blaring on the Grande Raccordo Anulare, the ring-shaped highway that surrounds Rome.
In the film there are three catwalks: first we have two prostitutes’ catwalks in two different brothels, a shabby one and a luxury one. The absurd and squalid attires of the women trying to attract the men waiting like travellers in a railway station, contrast with the ecclesiastical garments of the second catwalk.
Organised by an elderly lady, Princess Domitilla, who is hoping through it to revive the time when the aristocracy and the Church were close, this second catwalk is one of the core elements of the film with its novices in black satin, priests on roller-skates and bicycles and bishops clad in psychedelic garments. As the music becomes graver, the garments become more bizarre introducing a Saint Theresa who looks dead rather than in ecstasy and a series of robot-like bishops wearing chasubles, mitres and stoles made of the most extraordinary materials. Hysteria explodes and people kneel down as a Pope with vacant eyes staring behind his glasses, appears sitting on a gold and white throne surrounded by ostrich feathers.
The ecclesiastical fashion show is a sort of summary of the history of the Church: there’s irony, mockery, fun, regret, desolation, tenderness, terror, ecstasy and apotheosis in it. Fellini uses this catwalk of empty idols as a bitter critique of a Church that has turned itself into a glittering show forgetting the teachings of the Gospel.
The costumes for this ironic catwalk were devised by Fellini himself and costumer designer Danilo Donati with the help of the Rome-based historical tailoring house Tirelli. Most of the costumes were made in a workshop inside Cinecittà, where Donati worked surrounded by various assistants, seamstresses and fabric cutters, using the most incredible materials, from aluminum wrap to glass or cloth cut like children’s paper dolls for the surplices to give the garments a lace-like appearance and symbolise the superficiality of religion.
The bizarre and grotesque ecclesiastical catwalk in Roma anticipated in a way the collaboration between the ecclesiastical hierarchies and fashion designers that in later years saw Gai Mattiolo donating four chasubles to Pope John Paul II and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac designing the ecclesiastical robes for the late Pope, as well as rainbow-striped vestments for 500 bishops and 5,000 priests for the 1997 Paris World Youth Day.
Another connection between church and fashion is the “pretino” dress originally made by the Fontana Sisters for Ava Gardner on suggestion of Monsignor Angelini. A slightly different version of the same dress was worn by Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita.
In 1991, Krizia recreated two models of the “pretino” dress: both were mini-dresses, but one was decorated with high-prelate buttons and another, more similar to the model worn by Ekberg, was a black cady and white satin dress completed by a hat.
Fellini’s Roma concludes with a sort of catwalk in movement. The last frames of the film follow a group of motorcyclists driving through Rome at night, but the real catwalk is actually made by the solemn monuments, churches, fountains and streets they pass, from the Garibaldi Bridge to Castel Sant’Angelo, from Piazza Navona to Bernini’s fountains, from Via Condotti to Piazza del Quirinale. The noise of the motorcycles contrasts with the silence of the sleeping city that looks even more fascinating, intoxicating and overwhelming in the darkness.
Fellini’s Roma is a compendium of the director’s life, it’s a hymn to a blessed and damned city, “a city of illusions”, as Gore Vidal calls it towards the end of the film, used by Fellini the puppet-master as the perfect background for his human carnival of hallucinated characters populating his imagination.