This Spring/Summer 2003 ensemble references 18th-century menswear, but inflects it with Cavalli’s signature sexiness and characteristic use of both denim and leopard print (for lining the cuffs). Cavalli replaces the expected breeches with a very on trend and daringly short mini-skirt and substitutes a silk bustier for the man’s waistcoat.

About the Look

O n September 30, 2002, Italian designer Roberto Cavalli showed this ensemble as part of his Spring/Summer 2003 Ready-to-Wear line in Milan, Italy (Fig. 1). The cut of the jacket and the style of its embroidered decoration evoke eighteenth-century menswear (Fig. 2), similar to the 1740s waistcoats seen in Figures 3 & 4. These waistcoats are made of blue silk, not denim, but the large floral embroidery motifs and cutaway style are very similar.

Cavalli’s embroidered denim jacket and miniskirt and printed silk crepe-de-chine bustier embodied well the designer’s sexy aesthetic, which was much remarked in reviews.

While a historicizing and relatively demure look when shown on a mannequin, the runway presentation (Figs. 1, 5-8) emphasized the model’s sex appeal–from the clinging pink silk bustier which revealed ample cleavage to her long legs emphasized by the cropped mini-skirt (shorter in the runway presentation) and her towering red stiletto heels. Cavalli said of the Spring/Summer 2003 collection: “From me, people want excess” (Ilari 103).

The runway show certainly delivered. The coat’s long tails gave the look a great deal of movement as the model moved (Figs. 5-6). You can watch video of the runway show on Youtube; this look appears starting at 2:09 in the video at right.

LookBook, Collezione Donna Primavera

Fig. 1 - Roberto Cavalli (Italian, 1940-). LookBook, Collezione Donna Primavera, Estate 2003, #24. Source: LookBook

Runway Presentation. Milan (Sept. 2003).

Wedding suit of Gustav III of Sweden

Fig. 2 - Designer unknown (French). Wedding suit of Gustav III of Sweden, 1766. Silk with gold and silk embroidery. Stockholm: Livrustkammaren, 31255 (3485: a). Source: Livrustkammaren

Embroidered waistcoat

Fig. 3 - Designer unknown (English). Embroidered waistcoat, ca. 1745. Blue silk faille, embroidered with large flowers an leaves in gold and polychrome, as are pockets, gold embroidered buttons. Kent: Kent State University Museum, 1983.001.0013. Silverman/Rodgers Collection. Source: Pinterest


Fig. 4 - Anna Maria Garthwaite (English, 1688-1763). Waistcoat, 1747. Source: Le Divan fumoir bohémien

Roberto Cavalli (Italian, born 1940). Ensemble, Spring/Summer 2003 Ready-to-Wear. Embroidered denim and printed silk crepe-de-chine. New York: The Museum at FIT, 2003.45.2. Gift of Roberto Cavalli. Source: The Museum at FIT

About the Context

Of the September 2002 Milan runway show, Vogue wrote:

“ROBERTO CAVALLI took the mini skirts at Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci to new heights yesterday. For a man whose reputation for having an obsession with sex precedes him, the clothes he produced for next spring were raunchier, and skimpier, than ever before. Models in seven-inch spiked heels had to negotiate 50-yards of life-threateningly shiny plexiglass catwalk, in sparkly dresses that hardly skimmed their bottoms. If legs were covered, cleavages stole the show with stiff corsetry giving breath-taking wasp waists to swathes of bias-cut silk featuring Cavalli’s signature bold floral and animal prints. To push the point, skin-tight mini cheongsams came in patent red leather stamped with white Chinese dragons, metallic gold leather swimsuits were laced over the stomach and floor-length robes were split from the waist to show off leopard-print knickers. In vast contrast to the gorgeously feminine wiles of Marni and the serene elegance of Giorgio Armani on the catwalk yesterday, Cavalli’s message was clear. If sex sells as well as the shows this week would suggest, he intends to make himself a billionaire.”

Indeed, the show came as Cavalli was just building his brand in America; as WWD notes, he went from $2 million in US sales in 2000 to $40 million in 2002 (Ilari 104). The next month (October 2002) Cavalli would win the Designer of the Year award from Fashion Group International (History of Fashion & Costume). In November he showed the look again at a benefit in Miami (Fig. 6). It was featured yet again at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival (Fig. 7).

Milan RTW

Fig. 5 - Roberto Cavalli. Milan RTW, Spring/Summer 2003. Photo: Source: Vogue

Fig. 6 – Benefit for the Jackson Metropolitan’s Technology Fund – Miami Beach, Florida (Nov. 1, 2002). Photo: Rodrigo Varela. Source: Getty Images

Fig. 7 – 2003 Cannes Film Festival – Runway at Palm Beach in Cannes, France (May 21, 2003). Photo: J. Vespa. Source: Getty Images

Embroidered suede ensemble

Fig. 8 - Roberto Cavalli (Italian, 1940-). Embroidered suede ensemble, Spring/Summer 2003 Ready-to-Wear. Source: Livingly

But the constant refrain in reviews was about Cavalli’s emphasis on sex appeal and the season’s overall sexiness, with critics often suggesting other designers were following Cavalli’s lead. Alessandra Ilari wrote in WWD:

“The desire for excess this season had sex-obsessed Milanese designers frolicking in Cavalli’s zebra-striped shadow like so many Playboy bunnies.” (103)

Bridget Foley made the same point in her Spring 2003 survey article in WWD:

“All during the collections, designers flaunted indulgence as inspiration–and incentive–for their customers to seek out that fashion drug come spring. While Tom Ford went overboard with sexual content at Yves Saint Laurent, he worked it to perfection at Gucci. In fact, sex play kept things steamy all over Milan, with great fun and greater indiscretion at Roberto Cavalli. And Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabanna went sexpot chic….” (40)

Cavalli’s embrace of the mini-skirt made him definitively on trend for Spring 2003 as sales of mini-skirts soared, as WWD explored in an article titled, “Consumers Warm to Minis. Consumers: Show me the Mini.” The vice president of designer apparel at Nordstrom, which ran an ad featuring Cavalli minis in the April 2003 issue of Vogue, specifically remarked on the success of Cavalli’s denim embroidered skirt:

“Chanel satins and tweeds, Dolce & Gabanna’s silver astronaut skirt, Cavalli’s denim embroidered [skirt] or Versace’s turquoise leather. Those have all been good.” (Lockwood 10)

The Spring/Summer 2003 collection notably included one other eighteenth-century style embroidered ensemble (Figs. 8-9), though this time the cutaway jacket was paired with a cropped pant and midriff-baring vest. Notably the jacket in this case is lined with leopard print–animal prints are a Cavalli signature.

Indeed, while reactions to the show focused on the sex appeal of the season’s looks–bustiers were a theme for the collection–the historical play on class and gender should not be overlooked. Choosing to make an 18th-century man’s court suit out of denim, a workwear fabric, rather than a luxury material like silk, subverts expected hierarchies. Where the embroidered decoration in the 18th century would have been done by hand, the Cavalli embroidery was doubtless done by machine–a democratization of embellishment born of the Industrial Revolution.

Embroidered suede jacket, worn with suede skinny pants

Fig. 9 - Roberto Cavalli. Embroidered suede jacket, worn with suede skinny pants, Spring/Summer 2003. Model: Sasha Pivovarova, IMG New York. Photo: Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott. Source: Roberto Cavalli (2010): 68

Two women's coats flanking an 18th-century man's suit

Fig. 10 - Jean Paul Gaultier (French, 1952-). Two women's coats flanking an 18th-century man's suit, Spring/Summer 1994. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996.482.6a, 1996.117a-c, 1994.576.3. Source: The Ceaseless Century (1998): 77


Fig. 11 - Jean Paul Gaultier (French, 1952-). Ready-to-wear, Spring 1994. Photo: Condé Nast archive. Source: Vogue


Fig. 12 - Jean Paul Gaultier (French, 1952-). Ready-to-wear, Spring 1994. Photo: Condé Nast archive. Source: Vogue

The inversion of genders is a similar provocation, with a woman wearing a menswear look and at the same time confidently asserting her sexuality. Other designers have also revived 18th-century menswear silhouettes for womenswear, notable among them Jean Paul Gaultier in his Spring/Summer 1994 ready-to-wear collection (Fig. 10). These 18th-century revivals were styled quite differently (Fig. 11-12), however, without Cavalli’s sex appeal and without the embroidered embellishment that was so typical of court dress, instead presenting rather plain coats. The two Gaultier coats in Fig. 10 lack waistcoats but hew closely to their 18th-century model except in terms of material (cotton organdy on the left and blue silk/linen chambray on the right). Several of the 1994 Gaultier coats similarly featured denim as their material, but upcycled denim made out of jeans–emphasizing its workwear character versus the embellished surface of the Cavalli. Notably patchwork denim was how Cavalli had launched his own career (Fig. 13).


Fig. 13 - Roberto Cavalli (Italian, 1940-). Ensemble, ca. 1971. Cotton, wool, leather, metal. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007.171.2a–c. Source: The Met

Its Afterlife

The Cavalli ensemble featured prominently in the Museum at FIT’s 2015-16 exhibition, “Denim: Fashion’s Frontier” (Fig. 14), which “explore[d] the multifaceted history of denim and its relationship with high fashion from the 19th century to the present.”

On the show’s exhibition website, Curator Emma McClendon wrote of this Cavalli look (Fig. 15):

“This coat mimics an 18th-century man’s cut-away coat in both its overall silhouette and the elaborate floral embroidery that encircles its edges. By rendering the look in faded denim and pairing it with a matching mini skirt and bustier, Roberto Cavalli created a look perfectly in line with his distinctive, sexy style. Called the “King of Sex” by Women’s Wear Daily, Cavalli was known for his high-low combinations and over-the-top opulence.”

As part of the Museum at FIT’s permanent collection, the ensemble, a gift of the designer in 2003, captures well not only Cavalli’s aesthetic and Spring 2003 trends, but also the versatility of denim and the historical allusion and reinvention that 21st-century designers so often pursue.

"Denim: Fashion's Frontier"

Fig. 14 - Installation shot. "Denim: Fashion's Frontier", Spring 2016. Source: Museum at FIT

RTW Ensemble

Fig. 15 - Roberto Cavalli. RTW Ensemble, Spring/Summer 2003. Source: Museum at FIT

About the Designer

Fig. 16 – Roberto Cavalli, January 2004. Source: Alinari Archives

Born in Florence in 1940, Roberto Cavalli (Fig. 16) after studying at the Florentine Academy of Art found success early with an innovative technique for printing on leather, which earned him commissions from Pierre Cardin and Hérmes (Leaper). He launched his own ready-to-wear line in 1970, which “specialized in patchwork garments made from denim and printed leather,” (Hill 145). You can see an example of this signature patchwork in the Met’s collection (Fig. 13). In 2003, WWD summarized what Cavalli saw as his legacy to-date:

“Cavalli takes credit for patchwork (his first hit, in 1971), embroidered and printed leather, not to mention propelling ornately decorated stretch denim, crinkled silk shirts and racy animal prints into fashion.” (Ilari 104)

He saw bustiers, like the silk crepe-de-chine one included in this ensemble, as the next hot trend (104). The Cavalli brand had annual sales of $200 million in 2003 and 16 boutiques worldwide. By 2014, Cavalli sales topped $234 million and had expanded to 190 monobrand stores (Muret).

In 2010, Cavalli celebrated its 40th anniversary as a brand and Rizzoli published a celebratory volume that included an editorial shot of the embroidered Spring/Summer 2003 look in suede (Fig. 9).