Federico Fellini’s 1960 groundbreaking film, a landmark pointing to important changes in Italian and European society, is a spectacular morality play which has lost none of its relevance in today’s celebrity obsessed world. La Dolce Vita introduced the world not only to the Italian fashion, style and elegance, but also to the profession of unscrupulous, unlicensed celebrity photographer. Marcello Mastroianni plays journalist Marcello Rubini, a tabloid columnist who aspires to be a more serious writer, but knows he will never be, because, like society, he is fascinated by the decadent hedonistic pursuits which are seemingly everywhere.
Piero Gherardi, self-taught in art and architecture, created the overall look of La Dolce Vita. He was costume and set designer, as well as art director. This is a stylish film as a whole, as Gherardi placed equal emphasis on the costumes for both female and male leads. Every scene in La Dolce Vita strikes you as a beautifully styled photograph and the film still guides sartorial aspirations around the globe.
The clothes are again key elements in the construction of cinematic identities. The film may be stylish overall, but it really belongs to Marcello Mastroianni. His character is underpinned by a unique, individual style. His sexually alluring masculinity is established in the very first scene and the character of Marcello Rubini was instrumental in creating what we recognize as the “Latin Lover”. In tailored slim suits with single-breasted jackets and slim ties or fitted tuxedo and bow-tie, crisp shirts with peeking French cuffs, large cuff-links and Persol dark sunglasses (worn indoors and at night – Mastroianni practically invented that – they became more than an elegant and cool accessory, they were an anti-conversation piece, having the ability to shut people out), he stands apart from the paparazzi dressed in wide-cut tweed suits or sweaters and slacks. In his formal clothing, he stands in the shadow, detached and observant.
Mastroianni looks dapper, yet nonchalant and casual from the very beginning to the very end of the film. Dressed to perfection, without looking overly styled, Marcello Rubini, or, better said, Marcello Mastroianni is the quintessential example of the sartorial Italian, the personification of proverbial Italian masculine style. “The day when everyone is very, very elegant,” Mastroianni told GQ in 1964, “I will start to go around dressed like a tramp.”
Anouk Aimée, as wealthy playgirl Maddalena, is Mastroianni’s equal in terms of both elegance and moral depravity. Her costumes are my favourite women’s clothes in the film. We only see her in two little black dresses and a V-neck sweater over a white top, but these are more than enough to make a style statement. The first dress is knee-length, the other one is a sequined evening gown with a low-cut back, long sleeves and side-slit skirt – iconic. Her sophisticated wardrobe epitomises 1950s glamour and early 1960s chic. Her fabulous cat-eye shades, which she wears even at night (“Everything is wrong tonight”… “I’d like to hide, but never manage it … Rome is such a bore … I need an entirely new life.”), inspired Tom Ford create his retro-looking cat’s eye sunglasses which he called “Anouk”. Anouk Aimée drifts through La Dolce Vita with the hauteur of a feline.
It is said (Vanity Fair, September 2012) that it was Cristóbal Balenciaga’s sack dress of ’57 that inspired Fellini’s vision in La Dolce Vita. According to Brunello Rondi, Fellini’s co-screenwriter, “these sack dresses struck Fellini because they rendered a woman very gorgeous who could, instead, be a skeleton of squalor and solitude inside.” There are no sack dresses in the movie, but Fellini smartly presents beauty while exposing the darker, superficial flipside of the ‘sweet life’.
Anita Ekberg’s gravity-defying strapless dress (with a sweetheart neckline and a layered overskirt with a contrast underlay and worn with a white mink stole), blonde locks, fuller figure and American accent juxtaposed with the old Rome in La Dolce Vita. The famous dress from the Fontana di Trevi scene was designed by the Fontana sisters, whose feminine silhouettes attracted international customers, particularly from the film world.
All the costumes in the film were noteworthy, showcasing women from the demi-monde to the respectable to the most glamorous. It also seemed to me that Federico Fellini’s movie reaffirmed the status of the little black dress (there are countless pieces in the film) – the ultimate fashion statement. The black and white dress was also center-stage (I especially like the striped dress below).
In the closing scenes, Rubini wears a white suit instead of a dark one, black shirt and black scarf. He is transformed, he is no more on the safe side, and the clothes symbolize his increased vulnerability.
photos: stills from the film captured by me from the DVD edition available in this Federico Fellini collection