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The Women of Milan

From couturiers and countesses, duchesses and revolutionaries, partisans and poets, Rachael Martin takes a look at pioneering Milanese women

Milan’s 2020 arts programme ‘I talenti delle donne’ (the talents of women) celebrates the contributions of women in arts, culture, business, sport, science and politics. Exhibitions will cover women such as Adriana Fabbri Bisi, Tina Modotti, Margaret Bourke-White and – at a highly-anticipated exhibition of Baroque painters at the Palazzo Reale – Artemisia Gentileschi. In the meantime, let’s look at some other Milanese women who have made their mark in some way. This isn’t a complete list by any means – for example, only two of the women mentioned are still living, and there are many more who have contributed to make Milan the city we find today.


Gigliola Curiel at the opening night of La Scala
Photograph courtesy of Curiel

Curiel is the story of four generations of women: Ortensia, who dressed the ladies of Trieste society at the beginning of the 20th century, niece Gigliola, who came to Milan in 1945 with a small daughter named Raffaella or ‘Lella’, Raffaella herself, and her daughter, also named Gigliola. After the war, the first Gigliola opened her atelier in the area reaching out around Via Montenapoleone. The choice was wise, and Curiel couture soon became desired within the best circles during Milan’s postwar economic boom, when the opening night of La Scala opera house was the society event. Time of day dictated type of dress, and women dressed for the occasion. Gigliola’s most famous design was a cocktail dress known as the curellino, which immediately became popular with the Milanese ladies. Daughter Raffaella had originally wanted to be a doctor, but her mother had other ideas and, when she became ill with cancer when Raffaella was just 18, what had always been her destiny became reality. Gigliola sent Raffaella to train at Balmain in Paris. When Raffaella returned to Italy, she worked alongside her mother, and then took over the fashion house when her mother died in 1969. Raffaella’s daughter, the second Gigliola, has worked with her mother since the early 1990s and the two women continue collaborate in producing exquisite Italian couture, all with its trademark Milanese elegance.

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About Italia!

We step off the tourist trail and head for the hills above the Amalfi Coast to explore the tiny town of Scala, which has all the charm of the coast but without the crowds. We pop over to Pisa, not for the Tower this time but for an intriguing tale about the origins of the Renaissance. Our cover stars, the Dolomites, are the setting for a heady mix of outdoor concerts and hiking to be found on their verdant slopes. Next stop Sicily, and the traditional Easter celebrations in Enna, and finally the extraordinary stories of trailblazing Milanese women in the arts, fashion, and more.