The amazing glamour of Italian Film Divas

They had fame, beauty, wealth and a privileged existence of a star, all features which the public always finds fascinating and attractive. The elegant and fashionable appearance of the stars made them particularly appealing personalities. The new female stars of post-war Italian cinema such as Silvana Mangano, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and others were without doubt glamorous, but not like Hollywood glamorous, rather more  conventional. The beauty contests in Italy of the late 1940s and early 1950s provided an opportunity to many of them to start a career in Italian cinema. These included Silvana Pampanini, Silvana Mangano, Lucia Bosé, Gina Lollobrigida and later Sophia Loren. 

Films of the post-war era in Italy, tried to project hope for a new and more positive society. The roles these new female actresses embodied were of strong and determined women; initially set in the regional countrysides to demonstrate empathy with the local agricultural working population Later, the movies were set in industrial cities such as Turin or Milan, to show the aggressive economic recovery Italy was pursuing as an industry nation.


These films were meant to provide Italians with entertainment but also a level of escapism. Unlike the Hollywood actresses at that time, the Italian appearance was more natural and less contrived. With very feminine shapes and  usually dark-haired.


Famous roles such as in Giuseppe De Santis’ Riso amaro  (1949) marked the national as well as international success and made a star of Silvana Mangano. The same is also true of the Bersagliera, a character played by Gina Lollobrigida in Luigi Comencini's Pane, amore e fantasia (1953). In these films, Lollobrigida plays the part of a young, poor and beautiful peasant girl. She is dressed in figure-hugging rags that show her hourglass figure off to full effect; her hair is unkempt,and she wears hardly any makeup.


Sophia Loren demonstrated her charisma and acting talent in de Sica's L'oro di Napoli in 1954, where she played next to Silvana Mangano. This movie kick-started her Hollywood career, when she began to star in a number of US movies such as It started in Naples with Clark Cable.

Parallel, the Italian Fashion industry was starting to evolve. Triggered by Italian fashion shows hosted in 1951 by a Florentine merchant and aristocrat Giovan Battista Giorgini, slowly an international identity for Italian fashion was being created. Giorgini had the contacts among the global fashion press and key buyers from US department stores who were invited to the runway shows held at the Villa Torrigiani in Florence with the overarching goal of  showcasing Italian fashion to American buyers. Many of the models were from Italy's nobility as were a considerable number of the fashion designers themselves.



Many designers of this era were  from Italy's nobility  such as the Marquis Emilio Pucci, Biki, Simonetta Visconti and the Princess Giovanna Caracciolo (Carosa).Not only the clothes projected this air of European aristocratic elegance, but the models, as well as the designers. This was a very different  style and value proposition for American buyers.  Not only could you purchase elegant and chic clothes in Italy, but with it came this aristocratic charm and endorsement. Obviously, the grand setting for these fashion shows in historical Italian palazzi further enforced this  historical and cultural heritage proposition.


This created a tempting and compelling quality of Italian glamour to the clothes and enhanced the international reputation of the ‘Made in Italy’ label. This coincided with the filming of a number of influential Italian movies, such as Dolce Vita by Frederico Fellini in 1960, Rocco and his brothers in 1960 and L'avventura with Monica Vitti.  

By the 1950s, Italian fashion houses were frequently called in to create the costumes of many of Italy's stars; a trend which also became popular with Hollywood productions shooting in Italy. Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn were well-known patrons of the Fontana sisters’ atelier, for example, and Gardner even stipulated in her film contract for the Barefoot Contessa (Mankiewicz, 1954) that both her on and off-screen wardrobe were to be exclusively designed by the Italian fashion house of Fontana.

The famous Italian Couturier Emilio Schuberth  helped to enhance and define the image of many of the young Italian stars through clothes, and creating this elegant "italian look".  Schuberth firmly believed that the overall look would create the image of the star, not just a dress, as this created an overall persona which had to appeal to millions of movie goers. 


Hence, Schuberth helped to create the style which was associated with Lollobrigida in the 1950s and 1960s: the bust and very narrow waist,  both of which were systematically accentuated by sumptuous gowns. Loren's even fuller figure was highlighted in a similar way that conformed to her more specifically Neapolitan image. He was famous for his voluptuous evening gowns which showcased the stars at grand events, such as film festivals and receptions, which attracted the readers of newspapers and illustrated magazines. 


Though out the 1940’s-1950’s, the chic flocked to Schuberth for his tailored, fitted and frankly fabulous frocks. Schuberth dressed also many Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth, Brigitte Bardot, Ingrid Bergman, Princess Soyaria of Iran and Bette Davis. 

The 1950s to 1960 featured designers such as Emilio Schuberth, Sorelle Fontana (the Fontana sisters), Contessa Simonetta Visconti, Roberto Capucci, and Alberto Fabiani from Rome, Jole Veneziani of Milan, and Florentine-born Caprese designer Emilio Pucci. 

 Italian designers, including most notably Emilio Pucci, nevertheless realised that these same stars also required casual wear, which were  both comfortable and elegant. Their bright, casual yet chic day wear was important in that it set fashion trends that the fans of these Italian stars could follow. 


As many of the actresses continued to develop their facade of elegance, they also started to choose different type of roles. In conjunction with up-grading their private image, they chose roles representing bourgeois or upper-class women, such as Lucia Bosè. Thanks largely to her collaboration with Antonioni, Bosè—once a humble sales girl in a Milanese patisserie shop, went to become one of Italy's leading film stars of the 1950s. In films like, "Cronaca di un amore" (1950), Lucia portrayed an upper-middle-class look  where she was portraying the adulterous bourgeois woman, Paola, in — Antonioni's thriller about the wife of a wealthy industrialist who, together with her lover, plots his murder. Through films like Luciano Emmer's "Le ragazze di Piazza di Spagna" (1952)—the tale of three dressmakers who work for a fashion house located near the Spanish Steps in Rome: one of whom (Marissa, played by Lucia Bosè), because of her grace and elegance, is chosen by the head of the atelier to become one of her fashion models—Bosè demonstrated how, through an emphasis on clothes and fashion and an elegant poise, she could successfully climb the social ladder. In keeping with this shift, the emphasis was placed on the importance of her bearing and refined poise rather than on her physique; a theme that we see repeated in Antonioni's 1953 film "La signora senza camelie". The film which parodied the real lives of some of these stars from beauty pageants, Lucia is required to display her body, whereas with fame (and upon marrying her producer husband) she is required to adorn and cover her body in expensive Italian-made furs and jewels.

In the late 1950s, both Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren competed for the attention of the paparazzi. The press rejoiced in their supposed public rivalry and Cannes became a key battleground where the divas competed for the eyes and imaginations of film audiences.


Loren gained the upper hand in 1962 when she won the best actress Oscar for Two Women by Vittorio De Sica.

Even so, she still had to compete at Cannes with other rising Italian stars – Claudia Cardinale, Monica Vitti and Silvana Mangano – for attention.

One should also not forget that Elsa Martinelli, one of Italy's top stars in the 1950s, had in fact established herself internationally as a fashion model prior to entering the world of cinema and continued to be a very important fashion trendsetter throughout this period (and beyond).

From the days of neorealism on via the 1960s, Italian cinema thrived on its succession of great actresses. Combining grit, glamour and inimitable star power, timeless style icons, beautiful actresses of the Italian national scene and who also conquered the Hollywood scene in the golden years of Fellini's cinema. Let us highlight a few of them.

Anna Magnani

There is no doubt that Anna Magnani was more associated with dramatic roles. Her compelling, earthy authenticity in pictures such as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City brought her to the attention of Hollywood where she went on to make several films. She won a best actress Oscar for The Rose Tattoo, Daniel Mann’s 1955 film.  She also appeared in – The Fugitive Kind (1960) – opposite Marlon Brando. On her return to Italy, she took on the title character in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma (1962). Magnani was different than the many Italian actresses emerging as fashion ideals during the 1950s and 1960s; she had a new type of glamour. Her style was always more modern than her contemporaries. In dark black slips, aprons, and button-down shirts with bursting seams, she brought to life a new kind of femininity, one that knew her best angles. She often dressed in black, clothes that narrowed her waist and exposed her neckline, both beautiful features of hers. 

Monica Vitti

Think of the modernist cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni and one actress inevitably comes to mind: Monica Vitti. She was an ever-present in many of his films such as L’avventura, La notte, L’eclisse and Red Desert playing hypnotically beautiful, often incomprehensible characters in films of great weight and seriousness. From the late 1960s onwards, she transformed into a brilliant comic actress, going for parts that offered up social critique through comedy. Vitti found perfect collaborators in directors such as Ettore Scola, Mario Monicelli and Dino Risi.

Sophia Loren

One of the most famous Italian actresses of them all, Sophia Loren had a similar entry into the world of film as Silvana Mangano but the two were very different. While Mangano never intended to be a diva and often felt uncomfortable with the trappings of stardom, Loren was far more driven to be an international star. Like Mangano, she married a producer (Carlo Ponti) but she gave him a freer hand to shape her career.

Her breakthrough came at the age of 19, when she played a pizzaiola who misplaces her wedding ring in an episode from The Gold of Naples. Between 1955 and 1960, she made a string of films in Hollywood, acting opposite the likes of Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Anthony Quinn, John Wayne and Clark Gable. De Sica’s war drama Two Women was the first picture to truly test her as an actress. Indeed, her work with De Sica – also including Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Marriage Italian Style (1964), Sunflower (1970) and The Voyage (1974) – would provide Loren with many of her most substantial roles.

Gina Lollobrigida

For many it is simply the "Lollo", but Gina Lollobrigida represents one of the most famous female faces in the world of entertainment ever. From a young age, she was interested in the field of the arts, and later enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. It was in 1947 when she participated, in the Miss Rome pageant. She became second, and continued to win third place at  Miss Italy. From that moment Gina launched herself into the world of acting. The first successes came, such as Hammer Bells (1949) and Fanfan la Tulipe (1952). She made her English-language movie debut in John Huston’s farce Beat the Devil (1953), starring with Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones. Lollobrigida’s other notable films included La donna più bella del mondo (1955; Beautiful but Dangerous) and Carol Reed’s Trapeze (1956). She starred with Anthony Quinn in Notre-dame de Paris (1956; The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and with Yul Brynner in King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba (1959). In 1961 Lollobrigida appeared with Rock Hudson in the romantic comedy Come September. She later earned praise for her performance in the comedy Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968).

She also be came an accomplished and sculptor with works exhibited in Spain, France, America, Russia , China and Qatar.

Claudia Cardinale

Born and raised in Tunisia, Cardinale made her first Italian feature, Mario Monicelli’s heist comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street, in 1958. She played the younger sister of a fearsomely protective Sicilian crook and, for producer Franco Cristaldi (whom she later married) she showed enough promise to be launched as a major new star and sex symbol. She then went on to receive praise from none other than Pasolini for her role in Pietro Germi’s crime thriller The Facts of Murder (1959), a film which Cardinale herself has always considered key in her development as an actress.

During the 1960s and 70s, her filmography quickly developed into one of the most impressive of all European actresses, with appearances in future classics of Italian cinema such as Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963)Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) and Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West. She often shone as part of an ensemble cast, but – much like Magnani, Mangano, Loren and Vitti – filmmakers would not hesitate to cast Cardinale in films of a smaller scale and build narratives around her. Two such roles came in the early-mid 1960s, in Valerio Zurlini’s Girl with a Suitcase and Visconti’s Sandra.

Gianna Maria Canale

Gianna Maria Canale was born on September 12, 1927 in Reggio di Calabria, Calabria, Italy. She was an actress, known for Le chevalier de Pardaillan (1962), Teodora, imperatrice di Bisanzio (1954) and Il ponte dei sospiri (1964). She was married to Riccardo Freda. She died on February 13, 2009 in Florence, Tuscany, Italy.Florence-born Italian leading lady whose anatomy figured prominently into a number of '50s and early '60s spear-and-sandal plots whether a fetching princess or evil temptress.

In 1947, at the Miss Italia beauty contest, which was won by actress Lucia Bosè, she placed second. Husband Riccardo Freda met her initially when he offered her a role in one of his films. They got married in Brazil, where they shot two films together, but eventually returned to Italy where she was frequently directed by her husband. Her sultry, dark-haired looks were featured in many magazine spreads in the 1950s and she was often thought of as the Italian version of Ava Gardner. Crowned 'Miss Florence' in 1947.

Rossana Podestà

Rossana Podestà was born on June 20, 1934 in Zliten, Murqub, Libya as Carla Podestà. She was an actress and director, known for Helen of Troy (1956), Le ragazze di San Frediano (1955) and Io, Amleto (1952). She was married to Marco Vicario. She died on December 10, 2013 in Rome, Lazio, Italy.Podestà's most memorable role was as Helen in Helen of Troy, produced by Robert Wise in 1956. She could not speak English so she learned her lines by rote with a voice coach. The movie gave Podestà international exposure, and she performed alongside a young Brigitte Bardot. Thanks to her starring in the Mexican film Rossana, she became very popular in Latin America.

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