by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Costumes That Made Them Stars

By Roderick Conway Morris
GORIZIA 11 August 2009
Mario Tursi/ASC
Silvana Mangano in Visconti's 'Death in Venice'



Umberto Tirelli started his theater and film costume atelier in Rome in 1964 with 'two sewing machines, five seamstresses, a milliner, a secretary and a driver-storeman.' It became a favorite atelier with Italy's top directors, from Visconti, De Sica and Pasolini to Fellini, Mauro Bolognini and Zeffirelli. Tirelli's collaborations with leading Italian and foreign costume designers have had a profound influence on the style of modern cinema.

Tirelli himself died in 1990, but his team has kept the atelier going very much in the spirit of the maestro, making costumes for numerous subsequent hits, including Martin Scorsese's 'Age of Innocence,' Anthony Minghella's 'English Patient' and Sofia Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette,' all of which won Oscars for costume design.

Costumes from these and more than 30 other productions have been brought together for a sumptuous exhibition: 'The Oscars' Atelier: Costumes from the Tirelli Workshop for the Big Screen,' curated by Raffaella Sgubin at Palazzo Attems Petzenstein, where the show continues until Sept. 6.

Following in the footsteps of the pioneering costume designer Gino Sensani, a number of film directors in Italy in the second half of the 20th century came to believe that historical dramas should strive for a higher level of visual accuracy. The costume designer Piero Tosi, a rising star, was strongly of this opinion, as was his principal promoter, Luchino Visconti. In the 1960s Tosi and Visconti invited a third champion of this philosophy, Umberto Tirelli, to work on their production 'The Leopard' (Il Gattopardo).

These advocates of authenticity agreed that if actors were to feel and move in a convincing way, they should be dressed in the costume of the day, right down to the undergarments. One result of this was that, just as dress was becoming looser and less formal, women were abandoning their girdles and some would soon be burning their bras, in the Italian film world the whalebone corset was brought back with a vengeance.

Claudia Cardinale, displaying a tiny waist in the extended ball-scene finale of 'The Leopard,' emerged bruised from the experience, although maintaining throughout her radiant smile on screen. (Ms. Cardinale's dazzling white ball gown is exhibited here as a Tirelli-made replica, the fabric of the original now being in a rather reduced condition.) Romy Schneider, who played the Empress Elisabeth in Visconti's 'Ludwig' (with costumes by Tosi-Tirelli), also suffered similar travails from the required tight-lacing, made worse by many riding scenes. Nearly 20 years on from 'The Leopard,' while shooting 'Lady of the Camellias,' the producer Manolo Bolognini took pity on his actresses, allowing them to loosen their corsets in certain scenes - in the face of vehement protests from Tosi. Beautiful costumes from both of these films, as well as ones from Visconti's last production, 'L'Innocente,' are among the exhibits.

Tirelli was an avid collector of antique historical clothes and accessories, seeking them out in places as diverse as flea-markets, the wardrobes and attics of Rome's grandest families and closing-down sales of old-fashioned haberdasheries, from which he amassed a huge stock of buttons, broaches, feathers, ribbons and trimmings. His archive eventually contained 15,000 pieces spanning four centuries (in 1986 he donated 300 pieces to the Costume Gallery of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence).

He also had a genius for spotting young talent and nurturing it - a primary reason why the atelier managed to continue so successfully after his death. Two of his earlier protégés are represented by half a dozen films each here, including, for Gabriella Pescucci, 'Once Upon a Time in America,' 'The Age of Innocence' and 'Time Regained,' and, for Maurizio Millenotti, 'Anna Karenina,' 'The Importance of Being Earnest' and 'The Passion of the Christ.' The younger generation at the atelier show no less flair, as is demonstrated by Mariano Tufano's costumes for 'Nuovomondo,' Carlo Poggioli's for 'Silk' and Massimo Cantini Parrini's for Renzo Martinelli's forthcoming 'Barbarossa.'

Visconti, Tosi and Tirelli took their shared mania for authenticity to its logical conclusion in 'Death in Venice' (1971), for which almost all the costumes, including Silvana Mangano's unforgettable belle époque outfits and enormous hats, were original pieces. The action takes place in 1911 and five of Mangano's costumes (dating from 1908-1910) can be admired here. They come from an era when couture was as luxurious and finely made as it has ever been. And the presence of these striking antiques also serves the useful purpose of showing how the lushness and variety of the fabrics, the craftsmanship of the cutting and sewing, and the perfection of the finish of the best of the Tirelli atelier's costumes can hold their own in comparison.

Milena Canonero won an Oscar for Stanley Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon,' for which the costumes were authentically stiff and the female characters appropriately corseted in the 18th-century style. But the costumes she designed for Ms. Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette' - of which there are several examples here - although opulently, indeed exaggeratedly, colorful and rococo on the outside, were deliberately free of restricting supports underneath - so that the actors could move in a much looser, more contemporary manner. The hybridization was also extended to the shoes designed by Manolo Blahnik - and even a pair of rubber-soled sports shoes makes a fleeting appearance in this period-bending extravaganza amid all the silks, satins, taffetas, flounces, bows, roses, fur and lace trimmings, so expertly and nimbly confected by the Tirelli atelier.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023