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The Reluctant Adventurer: Italian Fashion and Why I Enjoy Being a Girl, Sort of.

Saturday, April 18, 2015


Simonetta embroidered silk evening gown. Published in Harper’s Bazaar, October 1952. Photograph by Genevieve Naylor. Genevieve Naylor/courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery, New York.

Look at that picture. Look. At. It. 

That woman is surrounded by art that’s been around for hundreds of years, and it’s ogling her. 

It’s the foofy dress.

I mean, it’s the hair, makeup, the weensy waist, and the stunning, jaw-dropping splendor of the foofy dress.

A couple weeks ago, I went to Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945 (a.k.a. Samples of the Beautiful Sh*t You’ve Never Been Able to Afford But Can Totally View at Your Leisure, at Least Until The Museum Closes) at the Portland Art Museum and was at once, both overjoyed and bummed out about being born a woman.

The exhibition, which traveled all the way from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, takes a comprehensive look at Italian fashion from the end of the Second World War to today.  (a.k.a., How to Reinvigorate Your Devastated Economy Using Just a Few Catwalk Shows in Florence and a Couple Audrey Hepburn Films!)

My takeaway, however, having the attention span of a gnat, was that subjugation/objectification and pay inequality aside, it is SO much more fun to be a woman than a man. (Also, balls are weird and I don’t want them.)

Look at this insanely festive Roberto Capucci silk evening dress from the collection that allows your body to double as art:

Caption: Roberto Capucci, silk evening dress, 1987-88. Courtesy Roberto Capucci Foundation. Photo ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

You are a walking party when you wear a dress like that. 

You don’t need to do or say anything interesting…you might be talking about the last episode of Real Housewives, but the dress? The dress is discussing Fellini’s use of non-linear storytelling and his influence on Scorcese’s Mean Streets. It’s that fascinating.

Mila Schon sequinned evening dress and silk coat. Given by Princess Stanislaus Radziwill. Worn to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, 1966. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Don this Mila Schon evening dress, and you don’t even need to speak. Everyone will assume you’re Auntie Mame and adore you by proxy.

But all the fun isn’t just in women’s wear! Check out this fun piece of men’s wear: 

Tom Ford for Gucci, man’s velvet evening suit, Autumn/Winter 2004/5. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Oh, wait…I’m sorry…what I meant to say was, SNORE. 

There were a few men’s suits and what one might call an “outfit” in the show, but overall it was a pretty stark reminder of how effing ridiculously boring getting dressed must be for men. 

“What should I wear today? Pants, maybe? Yeah, PROBABLY PANTS.” (*kills self*)

So I know I should just be totally thrilled to be a girl since I get all the fun of gussying up, but walking the show and seeing these stunning dresses on their teeny tiny mannequins gave me the strangest blend of wonder with a dash of melancholy.

My favorite dress was one that they don’t have a photo of in the press kit, but I found online at the Metropolitan Museum’s site. (I could only find the back of it on Pinterest.)

It was a 1958 Alberto Fabiani seafoam green floor-length satin and silk ball gown with a ruched velvet capelet and buttons down the front. The giant bow on the back was a little overkill-y but the stunning gathered chiffon and architectural touch of the crossed pleats at the top more than made up for it.

I stood in front of it in a sort of fugue state while the rest of my party moved on to the 70’s. 

I almost cried.

I know it’s weird.

I blame Cinderella and Vogue.

Sometimes I see a dress and I get a longing in my chest that’s unlike any other kind of longing. 

I get longings for love, sex, food, meaning, and purpose every day, for instance. I’m used to those. This is different.

I think it’s because it’s because I’m longing for something that doesn’t exist.

No one has a life that dress fits into, and no one has a body that fits into that dress.

Well, clearly at least one woman did, but you get my point.

In my mind, there is no event that could happen in my life that would be worthy of that dress. 

And not because my life hasn’t been filled with great events, but because the dress is so perfectly beautiful and fairy-tale-like that just putting it on would set you up for disappointment.  

Even if you wore it to a royal wedding at the Oscars, the event itself could never compare to the feeling of promise and anticipation you felt just putting it on.

But the real longing, I think, is for a moment, any moment, where I feel as perfectly beautiful as I should feel in a dress like that.

I can imagine the woman who wore it in the show in 1958 getting ready to go out on the catwalk and lamenting the tiny belly pooch she attributed to that second helping of puttanesca or her arms, which she always thought made her look ape-like.Women are experts at body-flaw-finding. I know I am.

Have I always dreamed of wearing a dress like that? Definitely.

Do I know that no matter how much I diet or exercise or how small I get, that I will still be able to pinpoint, with laser focus, the part of my body that looks the worst in it the moment I turn toward the mirror?

Without question.

So that’s where the melancholy part came in.

Life as a body-hating feminist causes some very difficult moments of cognitive dissonance. This informative and absolutely lovely show was one of them for me.

All that being said, GO. There are only two weeks left and aside from the room with fashion from the 80’s, which they should just shred when the show is over, seeing these dream-like dresses in person beats Pinterest by a million.

Also, you learn stuff about post-war Italy and stuff. Or something. 

Attention span of a gnat.

Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945
Show ends May 3!

Portland Art Museum

RECOMMENDED FOR: Fashion lovers, skinny bitches, Europhiles, Cinderella.

NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Hippies, art-haters, Cinderella’s sisters.

Courtenay Hameister is the Head Writer and Co-Producer of Live Wire Radio, a syndicated radio variety show distributed by Public Radio International. She is currently working on a book that will be released through Audible.com in 2015. Follow Courtenay on Twitter at @wisenheimer.


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