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Fashion, opera, and the aesthetics of inspiration
The love affair between fashion and opera runs deep and is wrought with drama, controversy, and beautiful clothes.
In the opening scene of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, the young soldier Turiddu is heard singing a siliciana lyric to his now-married-former-then-current lover Lola:
“O Lola c'hai di latti la cammisa"
This ditty literally translates as “O Lola, you whose blouse is as white as milk," though it usually appears in English surtitles as "O Lola! like the snow, pure in thy whiteness!" This initially peaceful moment in Mascagni’s one-act opera leads to tragedy as Turiddu dies in a duel at the hand of Lola’s husband Alfio with both professing love for Lola. The whiteness of Lola’s blouse—and the controversial state of her adulterous affair with her former lover Turiddu—shows the power of clothing as an outward symbol of inner purity in Mascagni’s operatic world.
For anyone who has ever attended or watched a Dolce and Gabbana show, this reference to Mascagni’s opera may not come as a surprise.
The signature beginning of every Dolce and Gabbana runway show, womenswear and menswear, since 1984 has been the famous intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana (such as the Fall 2022 Menswear collection—fast forward to 12:15 for the song).
So deep is the love Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana hold for the opera that they devoted their entire Fall-Winter 2019 Alta Moda collection to famous female opera characters. There is even a SMEG/Dolce and Gabbana refrigerator featuring characters from Mascagni’s opera on it.
When asked “why opera?,” Stefano Gabbana told Vogue: “Opera is drama. Very Italian drama.” Or, in the words of Giorgio Armani, “You can sing with designs on stage.”
The Early Days of Fashion and Opera
Fashion and opera have a long history, maybe not as deep and storied as that between fashion and the ballet, but a significant one nonetheless.
For centuries, fashion designers have served as couturiers for the great opera divas, aristocratic attendees, and impresarios alike.
In the 1950s, one of the Missoni family’s first major orders was from Biki, Maria Callas’ stylist. Well before that, in the 1910s, Coco Chanel collaborated with Ballet Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev on ballet costumes and was good friends with the opera singer Marthe Davelli, who was renowned for her Madama Butterfly in the early 20th century (Madsen, 110).
Yet Helena Mathepoulos contends in her 2011 book Fashion Designers at the Opera that “the love affair between fashion and opera is a comparatively recent phenomenon” that started in the 1980s (Mathepoulos, 6). This is true and not true.
While it is true that collaborations between opera directors and fashion designers have skyrocketed in the last 40 years, links between fashion and opera date back to the beginning of the musical art form.
In a very real sense, the grandeur and celebrity of modern fashion evolved with—and took influence from—the history of opera and opera costume. It is a false dichotomy to separate costume designers from fashion designers, since historically they have been interchangeable with modistes performing multiple functions.
During the heyday of the Italian opera buffa of Mozart and Rossini in the early 19th century, opera costumes ran the gamut from fantastical to realistic. Critics and audiences were just as opinionated about what costume was most appropriate for a particular production as they are today.
In “A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature,” A.W. Schlegel notes:
“The fantastic magic of the opera consists altogether in the revelry of emulation between the different means, and in the medley of their profusion. This charm would at once be destroyed by any approximation to the severity of the ancient taste in any one point, even in that of the costume... Gay, tinselled, spangled draperies suit best to the opera…. This fairy world is not peopled by real men, but by a singular kind of singing creatures….”
Schlegel’s take on costume reflects the taste of the time for more romanticized, rather than historically accurate, clothing onstage.
In the modern day, the fashion designer as costume designer is not always a recipe for success. Famed director and opera purist Franco Zeffirelli once called these collaborations “shameless.” While fashion designers are a great box office draw for audiences, their work often receives mixed reactions from critics and hard-core opera aficionados. For instance, audiences responded negatively to Jonathan Miller’s 1995 production of Così fan tutte, viewing the modern setting and Armani costumes as a “gimmicky” quasi-fashion show that distracted from Mozart’s charming story.
It is important to note that the roles of fashion designers and opera costumiers respectively have changed greatly over time, in no small part due to designers like Coco Chanel and Christian Dior who helped invent the cult of fashion designer as international celebrity. Once upon a time, fashion designers were dressmakers and tailors and did not enjoy the elite status they do today, outside of a few Parisian-based couturiers.
Similarly, opera costume designers have famously walked a delicate line between their own capacity as creatives and as mere functionaries to the director’s overall vision for the production. Nicholas Payne, former Opera Director of the Royal Opera House, noted: “Very few opera directors have ever been brave or humble enough to link their ego with that of an equally famous name to theirs. John Cox did it for his production of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio (he invited Gianni Versace to design the costumes), and Jonathan Miller did it when he persuaded Giorgio Armani to provide the clothes for his 1995 production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte.” (Mathepoulos, 12).
The Fashion Designer as Costume Designer
Skeptics aside, there is no denying that fashion designers make sumptuous opera costumes. Karl Lagerfeld was one of the first designers to make the opera fashionable, if you will. Other designers across all the major fashion houses eventually followed suit, including Miuccia Prada, Giorgio Armani, Valentino Garavani, Alberta Ferretti, Gianni Versace, Christian Lacroix, Tom Ford, Ottavio and Rosita Missoni, Emanuel Ungaro, Viktor & Rolf, Zandra Rhodes, and more.
Marc Bohan, who headed Dior from 1960 to 1989, is an example of a fashion designer who more or less fully converted over to the role of opera costumier. Over the course of his career, Bohan designed costumes for everything from Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Athens Megaron in March 1996 at the personal request of bass-baritone Ruggero Raimondi to Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow, among others.
Of course, there is neither a shortage of operatic sensibility among fashion designers nor a lack of fashion sensibility among costume designers. French designer Thierry Mugler trained with the corps de ballet for the Opéra du Rhin at the age of 14, which unmistakably infuses his design approach at points. That said, the fields of fashion design and costume design are different in application if not intent, though there is expansive overlap.
Here is a quick look at some of the most memorable fashion and opera collaborations of the last 40 years:
Like his influence on fashion as a whole, Karl Lagerfeld pioneered for the concept of fashion designer as costume designer. In 1980, Italian director Luca Ronconi asked Lagerfeld (who was at Fendi at the time) to design costumes for his production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. The production was a major success and one that Lagerfeld later cited as one of his favorite experiences in opera. Lagerfeld would go on to design costumes for Les Troyens at La Scala in 1982, Bellini’s Norma for the Monte Carlo Opera in 2009, and many others.
Miuccia Prada is a longtime opera lover and patron who cites Puccini’s Tosca as her favorite. Her first foray into opera costume design came in 2010 when she created designs for Giuseppe Verdi’s Attila for the Metropolitan Opera.
The Missoni family stands as one of the main patrons of Teatro alla Scala in Milan. They have been associated with the opera since the 1950s and continue to play an active role in supporting the art form. The Missoni brand stepped into costume design in 1983 with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for La Scala and has since created costumes for Richard Strauss’ Elektra for La Scala and Mozart’s Così fan tutte for London’s Royal Opera House.
Giorgio Armani started small when it came to the operatic stage. Rather than costume an entire production, he supplied a dress for the star of Schoenberg’s Erwartung for La Scala during the 1980-1981 season.
Over 14 years later, director Jonathan Miller’s team approached Armani to ask if the fashion house would be willing to supply costumes for a modern interpretation of Così fan tutte for the Royal Opera House virtually for free. While critics and audiences had different takes on the production, when it came to the clothes, there was only praise.
Armani later said of his work on Così that “[he didn’t] ‘do’ opera, because opera productions tend to be in period costumes far removed from modern clothes.” However, the contemporary vision of Miller’s production felt different, as “Miller wanted to do something modern, elegant, with lots of atmosphere and poetry” [Mathepoulos, 13).
Gianni Versace grew up with music and eventually became a prolific designer for the theatre, opera, and musical artists. His most beloved designs for the opera were undoubtedly his creations for Richard Strauss’ Capriccio, staged at the San Francisco Opera’s in 1990 and subsequently at the Royal Opera House London in 1991. Versace’s vision for this production took inspiration from “Bakst’s designs for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, partly by Poiret’s soft 1920s silhouettes, partly by the stye of Coco Chanel[,] … and partly by Sonia Delaunay’s colorful geometric prints” (Mathepoulos, 159).
Versace first created designs for Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (1984), followed by Strauss’ Salome (1987), and Manzoni’s Dr Faustus (1989).
No retrospective on fashion and opera would be complete without mention of Valentino Garavani's work for "The Dream of Valentino," a 1994 Washington Opera production about the life of screen star Rudolph Valentino, staged at the Kennedy Center Opera House. At the time, the Chicago Tribune called the production “sumptuous and sensual, with lush, fabulous art deco settings … and seductive period costumes (by modern-day couturier Valentino) to match.”
In 1989, French designer Christian Lacroix caused a stir when he designed breathtakingly dramatic costumes for a production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen in 1989. Lacroix, who grew up listening to opera, first began creating opera costumes in 1979 for Peter Maxwell Davies’ production of Massenet’s Cendrillion and has since designed costumes for a lengthy list of productions, including Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (2001) Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the Innsbruck Festival (2006-2007), Massenet’s Thaïs for the Metropolitan Opera New York (2008-2009), and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, which premiered at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (2007) and was set for a revival in 2020 at the LA Opera but was cancelled due to the COVID pandemic.
In all, opera and fashion are true sister arts, along with literature, painting, and theatre. The convergence of poetry, music, and drama in the opera serves as a natural parallel to fashion’s focus on tactile creativity, visual poetry, and unspoken narrative. There is no doubt that the interplay between the arts of fashion and opera will grow and deepen, even as the digital age offers new ways of interpreting and preserving them for posterity.
Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.
Mathepoulos, Helen. Fashion Designers at the Opera. London: Thames and Hudson, 2011.
This post was originally published in 2022 in a now-closed personal site.
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