Fellini: Up Clothes and Personal

Costume exhibitions generally pose a challenge to their organizers and their audiences, simply because clothes are created to be worn, not displayed. Fashion designers show off their wares on runway models. Curators, however, must come up with other devices to bring empty garments to life.

The idea of turning costumes from the films of Federico Fellini into museum pieces seems particularly problematic. The late Italian director often selected his actors solely on the basis of their physical appearance, choosing from the carnivalesque parade of characters who lined up for casting calls at the door of Rome's Cinecitt… Studio. Among these he found the voluptuous madonnas, the dwarfs, the gluttons, and the crazies who would fill up his oneiric cinemascapes. The look of the costumes constructed by his designers was dictated by those actors' physical appearances, with the clothes heightening the personalities suggested by the actors' features. Fellini's leading men and women were also defined by a signature style: Marcello Mastroianni in his elegant slim suit and Anita Ekberg jutting out of a black dress in La Dolce Vita, Giulietta Masina's frail Gelsomina wearing a black bowler in La Strada.

Fellini: Costumes and Fashion, now on display at the Bass Museum, is an ambitious attempt to evoke the distinctiveness of these characters. The show, organized by the Il Centro per l'Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato, Italy, features 80 costumes from Fellini's best-known films, resurrected from designers' closets and the vaults of costume companies, and then meticulously repaired. Fellini had his lengthiest association with costume designer Danilo Donati, with whom he worked on seven films, starting with Satyricon in 1969 and continuing through 1987's Fellini's Intervista. Piero Gherardi, Gabriella Pescucci, and Maurizio Millenotti were some of the other theatrical artists whose designs were featured in Fellini films. The clothes were created at a number of prestigious Italian costume houses or in a huge workshop set up at Cinecitt….

Almost all of the costumes are displayed on faceless black-velvet mannequins at the Bass, and these anonymous supports make it easier for the viewer to envision the clothes in their original context. (One incongruous, frowsy department-store mannequin wearing a spangled bikini points up how wise a choice the black-velvet forms were.) Exhibition curator Ida Panicelli, director of the Prato museum, decided not to organize the garments by film, but rather according to how they represent common themes in Fellini's work: The Spectacle; The Church; Food and the Joy of the Table; Seduction and Love; Women; and Travel, Death, and Dreams. Enlarged stills of significant scenes from Fellini's films (Mastroianni and the sea creature from La Dolce Vita, the ocean liner Rex from Amarcord, Donald Sutherland in pouffy wig and face powder from Casanova) are hung next to or behind some of the clothes. And video monitors showing a montage of clips from the movies in which the costumes were worn are placed around the galleries, creating an appropriate cacophony of musical snippets and Italian dialogue.

All this results in a daring display that comes off surprisingly well in the Bass's rather cramped quarters, successfully illustrating the importance of fashion in the realization of Fellini's fantasies. The exhibition also includes clothes by contemporary Italian designers -- some made specifically for the show -- inspired by Fellini's movies; these include Moschino, Valentino, and Dolce & Gabbana. While inventive, they seem superfluous in this context, paling next to the original costumes.

At the entrance to the museum, three mannequins wearing bright-color tunics from 1970's The Clowns stand on a two-tiered yellow and red platform that recalls a circus ring. The clown outfits more closely resemble those worn by Picasso's harlequins than they do the attire of Barnum & Bailey buffoons. Ample enough to allow movement, although not bulky, they look sleek and could even be called chic. Constructed from cotton, taffeta, or velvet, the circus costumes are painted or embroidered with sophisticated designs that correspond to the fashions of the time in which the movie was made. One, covered in large sequins, recalls Paco Rabanne's gold metal fish-scale dresses; another looks like a Pucci print. Two other clown mannequins are mounted high on the walls on either side of the platform. They look as if they have jumped up there, or were flung from a trapeze. Hanging mannequins on walls to create a sensation of movement is a frequent display technique here, and it makes the costumes appear animated.

In the main gallery, mannequins wearing examples of magnificently tailored clerical robes are gathered on an altarlike platform and clustered on wooden block-shape stands. An absurd ecclesiastical fashion show from Fellini Roma plays on a monitor on the floor, and the costumes here, from Casanova, similarly exhibit Fellini's irreverent attitude toward the Catholic Church. These include nuns' habits in sinfully rich velvet and cardinals' robes in a shade of red more suitable to a Roy Lichtenstein painting than to the Vatican's chambers.

In Casanova and other films, Fellini reconstructed historical scenes from his point of view. Reflecting his skewed version of events, the films' costumes combine period design with elements that are somehow inappropriate or weirdly modern. Several tunics from 1969's Satyricon (in the Food and Joy of the Table section) are shaped like those worn in ancient Rome, but their crushed-velvet fabrics in deep yellow, orange, and brown distinctly recall the "rich hippie" look worn by stylish young Europeans at the time the movie was made.

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