Duchess Simonetta & Her Quest for Beauty

The next dress I will be recreating is this design by Simonetta of Italy, born Donna Simonetta, Duchess Colonna di Cesaro. It is pattern #101, from 1958, a beautiful Vogue Couturier design.

1958 Simonetta, Vogue Design #101

This will be my second recreation of a Simonetta design. Below is the Vogue Couturier Pattern #2380, and the recreation next to it that I made earlier this year.

Vogue Couturier 2380 by Simonetta

Simonetta was a leading designer of post-World War II Italian high fashion (“alta moda”). She designed ultra-feminine clothes, mixing minimalism with a strong sense of color and volume; her silhouettes had a slender waist and an accentuated hip-line.

She was the daughter of a Roman duke and her mother's lineage was descended from the Russian aristocracy. She grew up in a world of high culture and fashion that disappeared after WWII. Her aristocratic exposure and close training in high elegance and sophisticated taste, throughout her childhood, trained her eye to design for elegance, simplicity, and luxury.

Below is a dress by Simonetta housed at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, De Young Museum.

Below is another dress housed at the MET from 1958, the same year that this Vogue Couturier #101 pattern was released. Notice the similarity of ideas: it has a stole, pleats, and even a bow.

Here is another photo of a Simonetta gown published in the Nov. 1. 1957 issue of Vogue Magazine, worn by Duchessa Maria Grazia Salviati. The dress carries Simonetta's signature feminine silhouette, again with pleats and bows. It is considered among the high points of her gowns. The dress was made in white rhodia satin, with rhinestone and silver sequin embroidery.

Duchessa Maria Grazia Salviati wearing Simonetta, Vogue, Nov. 1. 1957

Below is another Simonetta gown from the Nov. 1. 1957 issue of Vogue Magazine, worn by Contessa Paola Senni, wearing Simonetta's splendid embroidered ballgown in cherry red satin. (I can't help but point out the pleats and the large bow along the waistline).

Contessa Paola Senni wearing Simonetta, Vogue, Nov. 1. 1957

The young duchess met her future husband, the young designer, Alberto Fabiani, in 1950, and married several years later, in 1953. They both participated in the famous Florentine Fashion Show of 1951 that took place at the Grand Hotel, which is considered to be the birth of Italian couture. The original group of seventeen Florentine Italian designers put Italy on the map as a leader in fashion. Both Simonetta and Fabiani were described as young, very elegant, hard workers, and ambitious. Below is a blouse and pant ensemble that Simonetta designed and showed at the first Florentine fashion show:

Simonetta's design shown at the first Florentine Fashion Show at the Grand Hotel in 1951, Vogue, Sept 1, 1951

Below is one of my favorite patterns released by her husband, Alberto Fabiani. I can sense how they influenced each other's designs.

Alberto Fabiani - Vogue Couturier #1691

Simonetta was often photographed in her own designs. Here she is, posing in her own black silk coat for Vogue Magazine in 1951. You may not notice right away, but her left sleeve is shorter than her right; that's because she often had one sleeve made shorter than the other, to be able to show her off her bracelets and jewelry!

Donna Simonetta Colonna Di Cesaro, Vogue, May 15, 1951

She had a reputation for having a quick business mind, and extended her reach beyond the Alta Moda, making her designs available to home sewists through Vogue Patterns, Advance Import, and Spadea Pattern Company. Although a Duchess, she worked hard at making elegant styles available to the average woman, and unpretentiously celebrated affordable American clothing. Here she is, photographed in affordable, comfortable, and modest summer ensembles that the average American lady could relate to.

Simonetta wearing affordable American fashions, Vogue, May 15, 1951

Although known for her gowns, Simonetta's lasting influence on American fashion relates both to the simplicity of line in her dresses and gowns, and also to the development of elegant separates sold outside of the Alta Moda, through high-end department stores, such as Bergdorf Goodman and I. Magnin. She was one of the first to blur the line between cocktail dresses and evening gowns, so that her elegant dresses could be worn on a variety of occasions. Many American women were not fond of multiple wardrobe changes throughout the day, especially when it came to evening wear. Before Simonetta stepped into the scene, it was not acceptable to wear a cocktail dress to dinner. In fact, Dior considered it an "unforgivable sin" to wear a cocktail dress to dinner! Simonetta was one of the first to rebel against the strictures of the old order, and freed women to wear one dress throughout the evening.

Dior considered it an "unforgivable sin" to wear a cocktail dress to dinner.

Simonetta Dress/Gown. Photo Richard Avedon. Harper's Bazaar, Oct. 1960

Simonetta had two children, a daughter, Verde, (from her previous marriage), and a son, Bardo, from her marriage to Fabiani. Here she is photographed with her young son, Bardo, in 1960.

Simonetta with young Bardo, Photo by William Klein, 1960. Simonetta Colonna di Cesaro Archive

Simonetta and Fabiani divorced after six years of marriage, but they maintained a business partnership, opening a salon in Paris together named Simonetta et Fabiani, which was quite successful.

The Italians were known for designing dreamy children's clothes and enchanting dresses, and Simonetta tapped into the children's market. During her time in Paris, she broadened her skills and designed children’s clothes, (although not to be confused with a completely separate Simonetta children's clothes boutique, which was founded by Maria Bianca Mazzarini Stronati).

Here is a Vogue pattern that Duchess Simonetta released for children during her time in Paris; notice her signature pleats and bows.

Simonetta and Fabiani preferred working in Italy, and so, in 1965, they moved back to Rome. This brief blog post cannot cover all of Simonetta’s rich life story, which could be written for a novel. In a quick summary, she was detained and incarcerated twice for defying the Mussolini regime. After the war, she became one of the most celebrated Italian fashion designers of her time. She moved her successful Italian fashion house to Paris, then abandoned it all in the 60’s to follow her spiritual Guru to India. There, she established a colony for the care of lepers, as well as a craft training program, teaching those suffering from the disease how to dye fabrics. Eventually, she moved to the Himalayas, and absorbed herself in Eastern spirituality, before moving back to Rome in the late 90’s.

In 2008, Vogue magazine had a chance to sit down with her and interview this fascinating woman. When asked about that chapter in her life. She responded:

“The thing in life is to desire something. It gives you energy. But that’s not the spiritual path, which requires detachment.“

When asked how she balances these contradictory leanings, she responded, “I don’t. I am surrounded by beauty. That’s enough.”

“I don’t. I am surrounded by beauty. That’s enough.” - Simonetta

As I recreate her beautiful Vogue Couturier design, I will be reflecting on her words and the timelessness of both the design and her creativity. I will be admiring her quest to become a benevolent and enlightened aristocrat. She was more than a Duchess or a designer. She had depth, compassion, and a quest to actualize her full spiritual potential and purpose to democratize grandeur, beauty, and elegance. She also had a depth of compassion for humanity, to assist those in need. She is a celebrity dressmaker who deserves recognition and acknowledgment for her ingenuity and accomplishments. Her designs and quest to democratize high fashion continue to influence American fashion to this very day.

Donna Simonetta Colonna Di Cesaro - the first lady of fashion.

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