Piero Tosi: Costume designer whose attention to detail raised the bar in Italian cinema
Piero Tosi was the greatest of Italian cinema’s costume designers, an admirer of beautiful clothes who approached his job with intense attention to detail. The actors in the films Tosi worked on may not have always delivered convincing dramatic performances but, it was noted, they certainly were superbly dressed.
Tosi’s career covered the rise and fall of post-Second World War Italian cinema – he worked from the late 1940s into this century. Closely associated with Luchino Visconti, the foremost director of epic Italian cinema, Tosi worked on a dozen of Visconti’s films, including Rocco and his Brothers (1960), The Leopard (1963), The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971). Among the stars he would dress were Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon, Sophia Loren, Peter Sellers, Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde.
Tosi, who has died aged 92, won many awards for his work, including two Baftas. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design five times, he never won. If this rankled, Tosi never let on and in 2013 he received an honorary Academy Award for his personal achievements in costume design, the first costume designer to ever be awarded such.
Born in 1927 in Sesto Fiorentino, near Florence, Tosi claimed that as a youth he found himself mesmerised by a performance the Allied forces put on at the Santa Maria Novella railway station. As soon as the war was over, Tosi enrolled in Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti.
Aged 20, Tosi landed his first professional job as costume assistant on a stage production. Tosi then met Luchino Visconti via his schoolfriend Franco Zeffirelli (then working as assistant director and Visconti’s lover) who gave the youth a job as costume assistant on his 1949 Florentine production of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.
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In 1951 Tosi moved to Rome. He was in the right place at the right time as Italian cinema came of age and would described the city as a place of “great energy, of great hope”. His film career began via Visconti assigning Tosi to find clothes for Anna Magnani to wear in Bellissima (1951). Noting the clothes worn by local women at street markets, Tosi dressed Magnani in such, helping the aristocratic Visconti to garner praise for his film about a working-class, stage-struck Italian mother.
Visconti’s 1954’s film Senso gave Tosi the opportunity to work with period costumes for the first time. Again employed by Visconti on Rocco and his Brothers (1960), the director’s final neorealist effort and an international success, Tosi’s ability to dress actors in simple but stylish clothes won him acclaim. Dressing Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale in exemplary historic costumes for Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) won Tosi his first Academy Award nomination.
So exquisite were the costumes Tosi created (with the help of Rome tailoring house Umberto Tirelli) for The Leopard that many commentators mistakenly believed the film employed historic costumes. A tough taskmaster, Tosi insisted Cardinale wear a tight whalebone corset that forced her waist measurement from a natural 68cm to 53-54cm. Cardinale said the corsets gave her bruises.
“I believe that an actor’s costume has to mirror the character wearing it, and also life,” Tosi once said. “Therefore, it is especially important to know the historical period where the movie is set and to research into traditions.”
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Visconti’s 1971 adaption of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice won Tosi his second Academy Award nomination. Here he created almost 700 period costumes, obsessively styling Dirk Bogarde and Bjorn Andresen – including hair and make-up.
Tosi would work with many celebrated Italian film directors, amongst them Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Marco Ferreri and Liliana Cavani (whose disturbing 1974 feature The Night Porter featured costumes by Tosi). Three more Oscar nominations followed: for the Visconti production Ludwig (1973), for the flashy, modern comedy La Cage aux Folles (1978, shared with Ambra Danon) and for working on his old friend Franco Zeffirelli’s opera adaptation La Traviata (1982).
Tosi declined international offers of work, refusing to travel (Claudia Cardinale accepted Tosi’s honorary Oscar on his behalf), instead accepting an offer to teach his craft at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, a post that dominated his final years. He left no descendants.
Piero Tosi, film costume designer, born 10 April 1927, died 10 August 2019
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