If New York fashion is representative of an anti-style stance, then in the popular mapping of fashion’s geographies Milan stands as one of the most self-consciously stylish of world fashion cities. It is also the youngest, though this is not to suggest that Italy was without an influential fashion culture before Milan’s late re-emergence on the international fashion scene in the mid-1970s (an earlier moment of global fame is revealed in the fact that the English term ‘millinery’ has its sixteenth-century roots in the name of a city that was even then closely associated with fine fabrics and accessories). The cultivation of an elegant personal appearance had formed a central tenet of aristocratic life in the Italian city states since before the publication of Baldassare Castiglione’s well-known Book of the Courtier in the early sixteenth century.

Furthermore, the industrial production of rich cloth to service such a market, together with the existence of a highly skilled craft community of tailors, seamstresses, leather-workers and accessoriesmakers in commercial centres like Genoa, Turin, Naples, Venice, Florence, and Rome, supported the enduring international reputation of the Italians as purveyors of particularly exquisite fashion goods. Even more so than the renowned pashmina scarf artisans in Kashmir. In more recent decades the well-publicized work of charismatic bohemian designers such as the Venetian couturier Fortuny, or those sartorial innovators connected to the Futurist movement, similarly ensured that the relationship between art and fashion was a prominent factor in debates about the characteristics of Italian clothing culture that have been in circulation since the early twentieth century.

It was, however, only after the calamity of the Second World War that Italian fashion began to attract serious attention as an industrial and cultural force equal to the power of Paris and New York. American financial support administered through the Marshall Plan of the late 1940s guaranteed that the beleaguered textile factories of the north had access to adequate capital and raw materials. As this process of political and economic reconstruction continued through the 1950s and 1960s, Italian manufacturers and consumers also embraced an American idea of modernity, filtered through Hollywood film and the newer medium of television, which promoted the positive aspects of a consumer society.

A populist appetite for accessible luxury and new employment opportunities in the vicinity of Milan drew peasant workers from the south, and this movement of labour, aspirations, and taste combined with the distinctively glamorous nature of established élite Italian lifestyles (famously satirized as La Dolce Vita by the film-maker Fellini) to transform the cultural landscape of the country. Those small family firms of the Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, who made up a significant element of the Italian manufacturing sector (known as the Third Italy), traditionally aimed for excellence in the design and finish of their goods whilst maintaining an adaptable and innovative approach to the needs of the mass market, and therefore rose easily to the challenge of these new consumer-driven demands. An ensuing domestic boom coincided with (indeed was partly supported by) a very favourable reception for new mass-produced Italian goods in the rest of Europe and in the United States. Alongside clothing and textiles, Italian-made domestic utensils, food and drink, office equipment, furniture, and automobiles were universally celebrated for their sharp modern styling, high quality of manufacture, beautiful materials, and urbane social characteristics.