Clothes and the city: Milan’s other fashion history

By Niamh Cullen

I’ve spent the past week doing some research in Milan. As it’s pretty much a new city for me – I’d only been there on a couple of brief visits before, to do some shopping or meet friends – a little historical sight-seeing was practically obligatory for this weekend. The promise of a ‘museum of contemporary history’ was what – as a twentieth-century historian –initially drew me to the Museo di Milano, a smallish museum space dedicated to the city and housed in an eighteenth-century palazzo just off the designer shopping paradise of Via Montenapoleone. As it turned out, the contemporary history museum was a mirage, but I was deeply impressed by what I did find there.

The eighteenth-century rooms house a permanent collection of paintings recounting the urban history of Milan from the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. Recently, they have also integrated an exhibition of eighteenth and nineteenth century clothing into the original collections. The result is an excellent combination of urban and fashion history which shows us not only dresses, waistcoats and paintings but crucially, allows us to imagine the daily life of the city and the ways that the lives of the nobility were integrated into its goings on. As such, it is much more than the sum of its parts.

The opening rooms of the exhibition carry portraits of various members of the Milanese nobility, juxtaposed with the typical, ornate costumes that such men and women would have worn in the early eighteenth century. Several rooms are set up in a similar manner, but with simpler dresses in place of the full regalia for women – under-dresses, house dresses or perhaps nightdresses – allowing visitors to reflect on the domestic interior of the rooms, where such portraits would have been most typically on display. The simpler dresses also point to the home as the place where eighteenth-century noblewomen spent most of their lives.

Then a room with a dramatic dark dress with a structured back typical of the mid-nineteenth century, signals an abrupt change. The heavy material signalled that this dress would have been worn to go out in the city, during the day. The surrounding paintings are all of church interiors, one with a woman sitting in a pew, praying. The trip to mass would of course have been one of the few regular outings a woman could make in public. Right up to the end of the nineteenth century, it would have been unthinkable for a woman of a certain class to traipse the city streets, let alone enter a restaurant or cafe. The urban arena was the province of men.

Another room shows a nineteenth century man’s tailcoat – more sombre in colour and less elaborate in design than the eighteenth century ones – alongside a multitude of city scenes. While the cafe as a locus of intellectual discussion and exchange was at the heart of the eighteenth-century life of the city, one painting shows a cafe near the Piazza Duomo, renowned as a reading room because of the range of newspapers it carried. Officially called the Cafe dei specchi, or Cafe of Mirrors, it apparently earned the nickname of Cafe dei muti or of the mutes, because of its silent, reading customers.

Later rooms carry further scenes of ordinary life in the nineteenth century – crowded central streets, market scenes or the jubilance of carnival – all giving a real sense of how life was lived in Milan, a century ago. Paintings of Garibaldi’s triumphant entry into Milan as the city was incorporated into a united Italy in 1861, and of Milanese soldiers being awarded for bravery displayed alongside the changing army uniforms gave a further sense of politics and national causes intersected with urban life in Milan.

And urban life in Italy matters: Italians are used to organising life along urban lines, and the city has been around a whole lot longer than the nation. Perhaps this is why Italians have such a strong sense of civic identity; both of the importance and unique identity of their own city, and of the crucial role of the city itself in their lives; as an arena of commerce, trade, meeting, intellectual exchange, political struggle and communal celebration. This exhibition brilliantly evokes this vibrant civic history through the medium of clothes – showing where and by whom the different outfits were worn, and using them to personalize the scenes shown in the paintings so that we could imagine the individual experience – demonstrating what fashion history can do at its best. The Museo di Milano did not attempt to bring history to life – a challenge usually best left alone – but used the exhibits to artfully suggest the variety of experiences of the past, leaving the visitor to imagine the rest.

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