by Roderick Conway Morris

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Silk: The 20th Century in Como

By Roderick Conway Morris
COMO, Italy 31 July 2001
Private collection
Pierre de Montaut
by Tamara de Lempicka, 1931



Paris's long dominance of fashion rested to no small extent on Lyon's luxurious silk fabrics and the high level of design and artistic input lavished on them.

And so it was that when, in the second half of the 20th century, Italian fashion finally managed to challenge France's hegemony, it was able to do so substantially because fabrics produced in Como had come of age and were now distinctive and sophisticated enough to make an impression on haute couture.

The story of the development of Como's silk designers and manufacturers over the last hundred years and the role they played in Italy's postwar assault on the international fashion world is revealingly and colorfully unfolded in 'Silk: The 20th Century in Como,' at Villa Olmo. Curated by Chiara Buss of the Antonio Ratti Foundation's Textile Museum and displaying fascinating material from private and company collections never shown before, it continues until Sept. 30.

In the 19th century Como was very much Lyon's poor cousin. The disruption in France caused by the Franco-Prussian War gave Como a chance to supply markets that had previously shown little interest in their products, an opportunity repeated during World War I. However, during the early years of the new century, the Italian finished fabrics did not always match up to the growing finesse of their designs.

The great leap forward came in the 1920s, thanks to technical improvements and in great part to a handful of local designers, who attracted attention at international decorative arts exhibitions and changed Como's image from that of being a mass producer of textiles to a center of innovation. Prominent among these was the son of a Como silk manufacturer, Guido Ravasi, who had extensive foreign experience, including spells in Switzerland, Germany, Vienna and Lyon, and proved himself able to move with consummate ease from styles inspired by Japanese textiles and Art Nouveau, to those derived from Futurism, Art Deco and simply his own invention.

Ravasi was a painter at heart, and just as Raoul Dufy and other artists were recruited by Lyon factories to design silks during this period, Como too came to see the important contribution that artists from outside the industry could make.

With this in mind, a competition was held in Como in 1927 for 'The Most Beautiful Tie in the World,' entered by 1,500 artists, who submitted some 7,000 designs, and judged by an international panel (on which Ravasi sat). First prize went to the local Gualdo Porro and second, to Madeleine Tranchande of the Lyon Fine Arts School.

As Buss acutely points out, the winning designs in some ways look surprisingly restrained and traditional compared with some of the more flamboyant contemporary experiments, but they were equally new at the time, and in fact this was the moment when the classic 20th-century tie patterns were born, becoming models that have been endlessly recycled ever since.

As artists found their way into Como silks, Como silks found their way into art. A wonderful example here is Tamara de Lempicka's portrait of the architect Pierre de Montaut, in which she uses to great effect the sinuous undulating lines of a Ravasi 'Pompei' tie to contrast with the flat plains and geometrical steps of the background. The narrow splash of color that Ravasi's tie embodied in an otherwise almost monochrome picture well reflects the role of the tie in 20th-century formal menswear, the last surviving manifestation of the male peacock finery of previous centuries.

The part played by Como textiles in women's wear has been, inevitably, more complex, subject to novelty and changing styles, and freighted with economic and social significance. Fascism, isolationism and war turned Italian fashion in on itself again, and protectionism and scarcity of raw materials accelerated the research and production of artificial fibers, especially for women's wear. By the late 1930s, Italy was the largest producer of artificial fabrics in Europe, and second only to the United States in the world.

Ironically, while the World War II was bad for Como's sales of ties - many of the intermediaries and retailers in central and eastern Europe had been Jewish -- necessity proved the mother of invention in women's wear, and the employment of mixed, artificial fibers and even previously discarded silk waste products, was carried over into the postwar period, when Italian designers made inventive use of a large range of types of cloth - notably mixes of silk and artificial fibers.

The printing of patterns, as opposed to weaving them into the cloth, also enjoyed a boom in the 1930s and 40s. This included the printing of propaganda messages onto dress materials, scarves and ties, and even photographic images of Hitler and Mussolini. Words arranged in decorative patterns - though now stripped, of course, of any political content - were revived by postwar Italian designers in the early 1950s. It was also with a view to concentrating initially on printing on silk that Antonio Ratti, who first made his mark as a designer and draftsman, founded in 1945 a modest independent operation, which was to mushroom into one of the biggest in the business.

The arrival of Hollywood filmmakers and stars in Rome and Cinecitta in the late 1940s and '50s and the newly regained optimism of the early 'dolce vita' years, created an ideal environment for Italian designers and dressmakers to present their goods - and at prices that typically undercut Paris fashions by half. The emerging Italian couturiers might not be from Como - Rome, Milan and Florence were dominant in this field - but the textiles they showcased were for the most part made in the northern lakeside region. And much of the laudatory comment from the international fashion press revolved around the boldness, freshness and quality of the fabrics.

Wisely, in the last section of this extensive and absorbing show, '1970-2000: A Story Yet to Be Written,' Buss, while offering a pertinent array of dresses and outfits, does not attempt to analyze in the same manner trends and transformations decade by decade, since we are indeed now in the presence of unfinished history, and many of the protagonists represented here are still active.

But it is striking just how many textile styles and motifs, heralded over the last 30 years as 'new,' have their origins in the first half of the century, in the work of a comparatively small, sometimes brilliant, group of designers, most of whose names are all but forgotten outside the realms of academic textile and fashion history and of the trade.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023