Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fontana History

I've wondered about who Fontana was since I found this swanky 50s dress pattern -- that dress would take some serious attitude to wear, if because of nothing other than that jacket. Sadly, the pattern sold some time ago, but I still think about that pattern, and have continued to wonder who Fontana was (is?) and how he/she designed such beautiful styles, because each Fontana I've ever seen has been fabulous.

Well tonight, my friend Lizzie pointed me toward Kerry Taylor Auctions, which just happens to be having a very special auction. Peruse the listings and you will see lots of cool vintage clothing, some fashion sketches by none other than Vionnet, Jacques Fath, and Desses, lots of purses and hats, but the crowning jewels? Vintage Givenchy, worn by none other than Audrey Hepburn herself! Be still my heart -- many of these were worn at events or in movies. If I only had the cash........

So I started reading the listings, and found some interesting Fontana facts. I knew Fontana was special! Read it and weep for the lucky little Italian girl and her incredible good fortune:

Lot 333 The ivory satin bridal gown designed for Audrey Hepburn by the Fontana Sisters for her marriage to James (later Lord) Hanson in 1952 which did not take place, un-labelled, of heavy ivory satin, with wide boat neckline, pleats of fabric to the bodice front converging on a bow at the waist, three quarter length sleeves, zip fastened to the back with trained skirt, bust 92cm, 36in, waist 66cm, 26in; together with a letter of provenance from Amabile Altobella; a quantity of press cuttings relating to the gown; and a photograph of Audrey at a Fontana fitting wearing the original gown, (qty).

The Fontana sisters were renowned for their highly romantic ball gowns and bridal gowns. The sisters Zoe, Micol and Giovanna founded their business in Rome in 1944. They counted among their clientele many celebrities including Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Grace of Monaco and Jackie Kennedy. In 1952, whilst Audrey Hepburn was filming `Roman Holiday' with Gregory Peck in Rome, she approached the Fontana sisters to ask them to make her bridal gown. Signora Micol Fontana said that the 23 year old Hepburn was 'young, fresh, on top of the world'. She used to slip away from the set to take refuge in the sewing rooms and discuss the dress. `Audrey wanted complete discretion and had lots of fittings'.

Some weeks later when Audrey called off the planned wedding to James Hanson she asked the eldest of the sisters - Zoe to give the dress away. `I want my dress to be worn by another girl for her wedding, perhaps someone who couldn't ever afford a dress like mine, the most beautiful, poor Italian girl you can find.' Zoe's search centred on the town of Latina which had been founded by the fascists in 1932. The dress was given to a poverty stricken young Italian girl called Amabile Altobella, which coincidentally was the same Christian name as the Fontana sister's mother. Amabile visited Rome just once to have the dress adapted by the Fontana sisters for her to wear at her own wedding to farm worker Adelino Solda with whom she remained happily married, producing three daughters and five grandchildren. Amabile said `I have had a happy marriage, so the dress brought me luck'.

The town council gave the young couple kitchen furniture and even organised a honeymoon for them in Paris. After the event she carefully wrapped the dress in tissue paper and stored it away without disturbing it for decades. It was not until 2002 when Micol Fontana, the last survivor of the three sisters traced the gown for a retrospective exhibition of their work, that it was re-discovered.

Can you even imagine something like that happening to you, because I sure can't! Never mind how the dress has now ended up at auction, because I want to think happy thoughts about it, but wow. What a great story. And if you want something else dreams are made of, check out the listing of the dress that belonged to Audrey, but was identical to Jacqueline Kennedy's wedding dress when she married Aristotle Onassis. Talk about great minds thinking alike.

I must go and ponder this for a while.

Pattern: 1950s Woman's Day pattern by Fontana


  1. I'm totally impressed with your research and, more importantly, how delightfully you share it!

    Another Librarian (my reference questions aren't nearly as fun!)

  2. What a fantastic stry - thanks so much for posting it! Lucky Amabile!

  3. What a lovely story and blog! I look forward to visiting often.

    Kindest regards,

    Angela Iliadis