At the time of our visit to Rome, the Museo Dell’Ara Pacis was also hosting an exhibit of the designs of the Roman couturier Valentino to celebrate his retirement after a forty-five year career. At first, we thought it was a strange juxtaposition: The 2000-year-old marble altar exulting the Emperor Augustus and the tribute to twentieth century fashion designer Valentino. The effect, however, was stunning.
We entered the museum through a darkened hall. On either side of us, row upon row of pale, stark-faced mannequins reached the ceiling. Solemnly they greeted us as our eyes scanned back and forth across the line-up of black, gold, and silver gowns and took in details of beading, pleating, gathering, and weaving.
This hall opened into the central daylight-filled gallery. There, the massive altar, its enclosure and a hundred adorning ladies were before us. Angled at either side, were tiers of the same stark mannequins dressed in red evening dresses. Standing regally, their arms outstretched, they paid homage to the beauty and glory of ancient Rome. Down the center aisle of the pavilion were a double row of white-gowned mannequins frozen in a stately march towards the altar.
Off to the side of the main hall was a deep, mirrored pit set into the floor. Rotating on a pedestal at its center was a single mannequin dressed in a wide-skirted gown of large yellow, blue, purple, and turquoise squares outlined in black. As we looked down, the spinning dress against the mirrors created a riveting kaleidoscope effect that made us giddy.
A row of gaily-gowned ladies led us downstairs. Once there we studied the displays of dresses worn by famous women. Accompanying each design was a video of the woman and her clothes in action. Each one posed, turned, acted on the big screen, or received awards in her Valentino creation.
By far, the dress that most delighted me was the one worn by Julia Roberts the night she received the Academy Award for best actress. It was a stunning black column with a flowing black and white tail. In her video, she laughed and strutted like a royal bird in her Valentino. It was perfection.
This exhibit had a very personal significance, too. When I was a teenager I sewed all my clothes. Vogue pattern books always carried a few Valentino designs. More difficult and expensive than the other patterns, the Valentinos were my hands-down favorites. They were meticulously cut, visually exciting, and always moved perfectly when I wore them.
One, in particular, stands out in my memory. It was a lean silhouetted, two-piece orange pants suit. Its long sleeveless tunic top skimmed over slim pants that flared at the bottom. It looked effortless but was very difficult to sew. I wish I still had that suit. But, I don’t. I lost it in one of my many moves during my nomadic college years.
On this day, I was honored to stand at the foot of the altar of Emperor Augustus and within inches of Valentino’s creations and admire the detail and care that had gone into their construction. I even bought the catalog so I could hold onto everything. It has photographs of the Ara Pacis and nearly every dress in the exhibit with close-ups of many of the details. My favorite in the catalog, though, is a photo of Valentino with one of his ladies-in-red and the many women who work in his atelier making his jewels. Valentino is great master. But, oh, what gifts these women also have to make his work come alive so exquisitely.
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum