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Italian style in Minnesota: A brief, rakish history

Installing the exhibition "Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945" in the MIA's Target Gallery.

Above and at top left: “Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945” being installed in the MIA’s Target Gallery.

The new exhibition “Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945,” in its opening week at the MIA, showcases the post-war clothing designers that helped glamorize a rebuilding nation: Gucci and Versace and Valentino and all the other vowels. It can feel, intentionally, like a glittering guest visiting from somewhere more exotic. But Italian style has been strutted in Minnesota for a long time—well before World War II—even if it had nothing to do with couture.

Many immigrants to Minnesota from northern Italy settled on the Iron Range, where they worked the mines. It was brutal for the most part—cold, primitive, grueling—and Italians, like other southern Europeans, were openly harassed. Things were somewhat better in St. Paul, where Italians—mostly from two small towns in southern Italy—squatted beneath the old High Bridge.

The Italian neighborhood on the East Side of St. Paul, circa 1938.

The Italian neighborhood on the East Side of St. Paul, circa 1938.

Rome it wasn’t. The High Bridge flats were a swampy floodplain of the Mississippi River. But like Little Italies from one end of America to the other, it was a self-contained world—the Old World—and decidedly rural for a capital city where railroad baron James J. Hill was living a mile away in Gilded Age splendor. Ducks and goats were common, water was fetched from a spring. Many of the men, though working in St. Paul for the railroad, had been farmers back home.

Italian musicians in Minnesota in 1915.

Italian musicians in Minnesota in 1915.

But they also brought their sense of style. The musicians at right were playing around town in 1915. The men in the photo above were hanging out near Hopkins and Bradley streets on the East Side of St. Paul in 1932. By mid-century, after decades of flooding, the families had largely abandoned the High Bridge neighborhood for the East Side. Eventually, the Italians became Italian-Americans, spread out, and what remained of the old neighborhood, now known as West Seventh, moved up and out of the river’s reach. But the joys of the Old World haven’t dissipated, even now. Go into DeGidio’s, Cossetta, or Mancini’s on any given night, and even if the fashions are a couple steps—or decades—removed from the Milan runways, la dolce vita prevails, these last bastions as comforting now in their retro charm as they were nearly a century ago.