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La Mendola Debuts "Clothing for the Emancipated Man"

Clothing for the Emancipated Man collection by La Mendola at Hess's Department Store, 1968.

If you were a fashion-forward tourist in Rome in the 1960’s, a must-stop was the La Mendola Boutique at the the top of the Spanish Steps at 16 Piazza della Trinita dei Monti.

At La Mendola you didn’t purchase off the rack so much as design your own. The shop was a “try on everything” sort of establishment; when you found something that fitted you to a T, you were whisked into the back of the shop amidst an astounding array of Italian fabrics. You selected your fabric of choice and within two days to a week, your choice was custom-made to your specifications by skilled Italian seamstresses and delivered to your hotel. It was the sort of service customers flocked to the boutique to receive.

A La Mendola label from a 1960s dress

Custom printed silk with a La Mendola signature, 1960s

Michelangelo “Mike” La Mendola and John W. “Jack” Savage were the American proprietors of La Mendola. Savage (from Herminie, PA) and La Mendola (from Rockford, IL) had come to Rome in 1960 and first worked out of a salon before opening their Trinita dei Monti location. La Mendola had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and got his first big break through Hess’s Department Stores. Savage had worked as a fashion model and actor in Rome and studied drama and design at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. 

The boutique was frequented by many of the most fashionable movers and shakers of the decade: Elizabeth Taylor, Ursula Andress, Paulette Goddard, Natalie Wood, Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, Carol Burnett, Anita Ekberg and Judy Garland, to name but a few. Tourists mixed and mingled with the stars in the exclusive little shop.

Ali MacGraw in La Mendola, 1968

What made La Mendola famous was their “magic dress,” a maxi-length, long-sleeved dinner gown which could convert into a short street-length blouson dress via an elastic belt. A matching print chiffon overskirt could be added to the long version to create a dancing gown. This overskirt could either be used as a cape for the shortened dress, or draped sari-style over one shoulder.

But La Mendola and Savage didn’t just design for women. In 1968 at the height of their popularity, the duo turned their creative juices towards men and created what they called their Emancipated Male collection. They debuted their fifteen-item collection - entitled Clothing for the Emancipated Man - at the Hotel Americana in New York City on January 9, 1968 at 11 am.

A La Mendola ad in Vogue, January of 1971.

Mirella Petteni in La Mendola, 1967. Photo by Johnny Moncada for Linea Italia.

The opening of "Clothing for the Emancipated Man," at Hess's Department Store, 1968

Among the designs from the collection:

- a formal velvet plaid jacket in checks of scarlet, flame, turquoise, acid green and black and white worn over an acid-green ruffled shirt with ruffled cuffs and a heavy black deep-pleated French silk crepe “skirtrouser” and black patent leather shoes,

- a spectator sports outfit with a reversible open-front shirt and white tweed and Scots tartan with tweed kilts and knee-high boots,

- the Evening Kiltrouser Suit, a beaded, one-button jacket with matching jeweled knee-high socks and slippers, worn with a ruffled shirt, black French silk kiltrousers and a matching cigarette bag,

The Emancipated Man on the runway, 1968

- a tailored jet wool jacket with thin, inch-high bugle beading solidly jeweled in chalk stripes, worn over a white silk crepe shirt with a standup collar and a jeweled shirt front and cuffs made of row-on-row white silk crepe tubing. Heavy black silk crepe pants flare at the bottom, touching black patent leather shoes,

- a frock-tailed riding and hunting costume with a plaid double-breasted frock coat, orange high-necked sweater, leather belt and knee-high suede boots,

- a hooded silk jersey form-fitting coverall in a modern art print of cacti and cactus flowers worn over swim trunks in a matching print, with ankle-high boots with the uppers in the matching print and gold-leaf trimmed sunglasses,

The  Emancipated Man on the runway, 1968

- a beach outfit consisting of a zippered laminated golden tunic concealing bikini swim trunks,

- a Lounge-Around Leisure Outfit consisting of a zippered shirt and fully-flared, pleated pants with a wide leather buckle, and

- a high-necked knickerbocker sweater jumpsuit with terra-cotta wool chalk-striped chaps cut out front and back with a brass buckled belt and buckle-trimmed shoes.

The  Emancipated Man on the runway, 1968

The talk around the show was that perhaps these clothes marked the return of men, like the males of the animal kingdom, to their original bright plumage. And the emcee of the show, Gerry Golden, explained the clothes weren’t for the man of today but for the one of the future. 

Perhaps in the course of time he’ll be proven right, but speaking from the vantage point of fifty years in the future? We’re not quite there yet.

The Spanish Steps in Rome. The La Mendola Boutique was at the top of the steps, to the right.


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