“FASHION ALLOWS ME to explore the wearer’s intimate secrets, needs and desires, but also a person’s weirdnesses, fads and nervous disorders,” said Milanese polymath Cinzia Ruggeri in 2013, six years before her death at the age of 77. “I loved this aspect of fashion as the purpose of my work was not to create continuously and greedily, but rather to engage and explore these themes. . . through dress-up.” A beguiling expression, dress-up; in Italian, abiti compamentali. In Ruggeri’s work, the habit of behavior is emotional, interactive, carefree, serious, whimsical, cheerful, surprising, and—above all—something to be deeply and intensely inhabited.
A white chiffon dress with LED lights that can be turned on and off – for a “shy wearer or a wearer with some sort of speech impediment to expressing themselves and even opening up”. Textiles covered with liquid crystals that change color depending on the body temperature of the clothing. A collared white shirt that unrolls into a tablecloth with cutlery. A dress made of salami cord that wraps around the body like a sausage. A shirt featuring a tiny puppy dog on a chain, allowing him to slide from his appliquéd kennel to a nearby embroidered bush. A blue dress and matching jacket with a fabric that ripples like the sea and can be worn on one hand with an octopus-tentacled glove. A pair of thigh-high green leather boots in the shape of Italy (get it?), with matching clutches from Sicily and Sardinia. A dress season with beads and treats for dogs deliberately hidden in their folds. A round red leather purse with a glove attached to the outside for use in the art of self-defense: Guanto Borsa Schiaffo (Slap-Glove Bag), 1983. A black leather purse in the shape of the designer’s beloved Scottish terrier, Scherzi, whose name means ‘joke’ or ‘prank’. The behavioral garment knows that it has an effect not only on its wearer but also on the surrounding world, because fashion is more than function: it is relational, social, communicative. The behavioral robe is invested in imagination and innovation because, as Ruggeri said, “we must only live in the future”.
While her work has spanned decades and disciplines (she had her first art exhibition in Milan in 1960 and her last, an installation of multimedia works, in 2019), Ruggeri is best known for her 1970s and 1970s couture and ready-to-wear collections. After studying art at the Accademia delle Arti Applicate in Milan, she apprenticed at Carven in Paris before returning to work for her father’s company, which made women’s suits and coats. Like other forms of Italian design, fashion underwent a profound practical and ideological evolution in the late 1960s. New textiles were available, as was high-quality manufacturing on a larger scale. The role of “stylist” emerged as a guidepost between small boutiques and fashion companies and the latest methods of mass production. At the same time, fashion stood alongside other creative disciplines as part of an avant-garde that sought to destabilize post-war modernist ideals of “good design.” Instead of plain, simple and efficient, the Italian “radical design” according to Germano Celant’s 1972 coinage was colourful, bombastic, irregular, heterogeneous and unpredictable. These works often critically aimed at the domestic space and in particular at the built urban environment: Take, for example, Mario Bellini’s modular sofa, which rejected the home as a fixed social environment, or his 1972 “Kar-a-sutra”, a family car turned into an orgy mobile filled with plush pillows for amorous frolics; interiors that exhibited excessive imagination and bad taste, like the playfully garish furniture of the Memphis Group; or the speculative, futuristic cities of the architecture firm Superstudio, which, existing only as collages or prototypes, never have to be built, the idea being as important as the material reality.
The “robe of behavior” is emotional, interactive, carefree, serious, whimsical, cheerful, surprising, and most importantly, something that needs to be deeply and intensely inhabited.
When Ruggeri launched her self-titled second line in 1982 (she introduced her first, Bloom, with a focus on blouses, in 1977), she was also styling covers for the influential Milanese magazine Domus. Collaborating with collectives such as Studio Alchimia on sets and Occhiomagico on photography, Ruggeri created wild tableaux that brought together radical design across disciplines and embraced the movement’s belief in the entire aesthetic environment: each component as important as the other, all surfaces convey meaning and interact with them playful complexity. The March 1982 issue – accompanied by an editorial entitled “In Praise of Fabrics” – shows a swirl of purple, mint green and salmon pink, from which emerge three brightly colored floor lamps and a model of a Ruggeri creation called the Statue of Liberty Dress: a short, Boxy pink number with luminous cones of fabric that expand in inflated volumes thanks to small compartments placed inside the garment. May 1982 shows a model perched on a row of contemporary red lounge chairs in Milan’s futuristic World Trade Center, all glass and steel, while Luigi Colani’s 1977 Megalodon airplane takes off in the distance. The Ruggeri model’s dark pant suit features LED lights along the outer seams of the pant and jacket as if they were runways, and is amply titled “Evolution of the tiered silhouette to explore excursions through wintry geometries with glowing signals for UFC ( Unidentified flying clothes).”
Domus took fashion seriously, arguing for its importance alongside art, architecture and design, and its ability not just to comment or display, but to show to produce social and cultural change. 1985, issue #660 was accompanied by a Domus Moda Supplement entitled “Art as Fashion”. The French art critic Pierre Restany made an eloquent assertion: “Today, art and fashion appear as existential languages par excellence, whose immediate goals are to nourish the ego and dynamize consumer behavior.” Fashion, like art, produces complicated images that express what it means to exist in the present. You can do it, you can even do it be, an image to be read and interacted with like a sign system, always open to interpretation but never reducible to the surface. “Getting dressed is the first thing you do in the morning: scruffy, sophisticated, ‘normal’,” Ruggeri wrote in 1983. “Whether we like it or not, the garment is the (always wanted) spectacle of ourselves.”
The radical Italian designers were image-savvy, often producing and disseminating their ideas through photography and photomontage in the dynamic realm of magazine publishing. In the October 1985 issue of art forumIngrid Sischy presented a project with Ruggeri, in which she described the artist’s material “polygamy”, her “ambient ambience” and “her bricoleur ideas”, which merge idiosyncratic images, textures, forms and associations. Photographs of Ruggeri’s clothing, accessories and objects are collaged against a light marble background with neon accents – pink, yellow, orange, green. Ruggeri is famous Homage to Levi Strauss1983–84 (now in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), a fir green double silk dress with a tiered shape along one side of the collar and skirt floats alongside a green evening glove with a chime dangling from his fingertips and a pair of the designer Scarpe scale (Stairs Shoes), 1984, in soft pink. The second page of the double page faces that Ziggurat Dress, 1984–85, another tiered form, this time made of mesh and wire, hanging around the model’s legs like a body-independent architecture, with a ziggurat-shaped goblet supporting a crystal pendant that clangs against the stem with each sip taken . The layout is a vivid, rugged vision of what Sischy has described as Ruggeris esprit de l’escalier– “the witty retort you make up after the conversation is over and you head downstairs.”
“Cinzia says . . . ‘, a retrospective traveling this month from Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma to London’s Goldsmiths Center for Contemporary Art, integrates Ruggeri’s extensive fashion archive with her later, object-based works that are equal parts witty and unusual: a mirror to reach out of out to hug the viewer; an anthropomorphic black velvet chaise longue lying flat on the floor like a cartoon shadow, arms raised overhead to form a glove puppet dove; beaded lightbulbs and dangling jewels. One can make a historical connection between Ruggeri and Surrealists such as Eileen Agar, Meret Oppenheim, and Elsa Schiaparelli, but one can also look to contemporaries and followers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Rei Kawakubo, Alexander McQueen, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and more recently Jonathan Anderson for Loewe and Demna for Balenciaga to see the impact of their thinking about sculpture, performance, technology and clothing in space and movement. For Ruggeri, like these designers, the way we dress is part of the way we live in the world. It powerfully addresses everything the body, including the mind, can do.
Emily LaBarge is a London-based writer.