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Why High Fashion Was So Much Better in the 1950s

There's a new documentary out of Italy that's making the rounds in film circles, and followers of fashion -- by which I mean everyone, because don't we all need to get dressed in the morning? -- should take note. It's called "Schuberth: l'Atelier della Dolce Vita," and it's a charming profile of Emilio Federico Schuberth, a designer of alta moda (high fashion) in Rome during the heyday of Cinecitta.

Active from the 1940s through the 1960s, Schuberth was the "tailor to the stars." The fashion faithful made pilgrimages to his atelier on the Via Condotti; his creations were worn by Rita Hayworth, Brigitte Bardot, Princess Soraya, Sophia Loren, and Gina Lollobrigida. In a 1954 photograph, we see Lollobrigida chatting with Marilyn Monroe; with its sensuous silhouette and artful draping, the Italian actress's pink Schuberth dress is infinitely superior to the frankly unimaginative white conical-bra-with-skirt number worn by our brainy, busty blonde.

Now, remember that scene in Fellini's La Dolce Vita where ellegantly attired models navigate a catwalk, while there at the back, a shy young woman stands with her clipboard, sweetly melting with excitement to be part -- even peripherally -- of such a stylish scene? That's a Schuberth fashion show. And today, so many years on, that celluloid parade of poetry in motion still has the power to move viewers to want to pursue a career in fashion.

Even those who were destined to follow fashion as a career, the ones born into garment-business families -- like Carla Fendi and Lavinia Biagiotti, who both provide commentary in the film -- take on the air of starstruck teens at an early Beatles concert when speaking of Schuberth. At the height of his fame, Schuberth was called the "Italian Dior." But such is his ongoing relevance that today he invites comparison to designers who rose to fame after him: Gianni Versace, Jean Paul Gaultier.

Today, Schuberth the fashion icon is largely forgotten. Googling the name yields ... a German manufacturer of motorcycle helmets and protective headgear for Formula One racers and industrial workers. Everyone's familiar with Valentino, the designer beloved by movie stars who got his start in fashion at Schuberth's atelier, as the style sorceror's apprentice. But Valentino's first boss was a prescient pioneer, a marketing genius with an ambition that dwarfed his already-small petite stature.

Well before Halston would make his memorable appearance on TV's "The Love Boat" in 1981, surrounded, rock-star-style, by model-groupies wearing his designs, Schuberth knew how to make the scene, a pack of live, Schuberth-clad mannequins always in tow. He was a pioneering publicity hound, delighted to appear in countless promotional newsreels and even going so far as to milk his own daughter's nuptials for maximum attention -- engraved on the wedding invitation was the fashion credit "gown by Schuberth," long before Joan Rivers and an army of red-carpet commentators would focus media attention on award-show attire.