Hard-Edged Chic

Rosemary Hill

  • Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli by Dilys Blum
    Yale/Philadelphia Museum of Art, 320 pp, £45.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 300 10066 3

The second child of Maria-Luisa and Celestino Schiaparelli would, it was hoped, be a boy. When, instead, another daughter was born in September 1890, they were at a loss as to what to call her. At the last minute they christened her after her German nurse, Elsa. This ‘Wagnerian’ name displeased the little girl. It was, she recalled, her ‘first disappointment’ and she was not prepared to accept it: ‘The struggle had begun.’

Schiaparelli grew up in Rome, in the Palazzo Corsini in Trastevere, in a cultivated and wealthy family: her struggle was not material but personal. Maria-Luisa often commented on the contrast between her two daughters, the elder so beautiful, the younger so plain, thereby fuelling a determination to prove her mother wrong that was to last all Elsa’s life. She was a gawky child, small and dark. As time went by she filled out but never grew beyond five feet, with thick eyebrows and a heavy jaw. An ugly duckling who became an ugly duck, she managed to make the ugly duck style fashionable. For more than a decade between the two world wars, smart women in Europe and America wanted to look like ‘Schiap’.

Schiap was the person, or the persona, that took the place of Elsa. In her autobiography, Shocking Life, Schiaparelli frequently refers to Schiap in the third person, a trick which gives the narrative the same fractured, Cubist quality as some of her designs for clothes. The character of the real woman remains elusive, just as the lines of the body are difficult to trace beneath the hard-edged, highly wrought jackets with their padding, trompe l’oeil details and visual puns.

If there is more to be known about her as an individual, it is not Dilys Blum’s ambition to discover it. Her book, written to accompany an exhibition – she is curator of Costume and Textiles at the Philadelphia Museum – is a detailed and scholarly chronicle of the couturière but makes no attempt to break new biographical ground.[*] Even so, it tells a compelling tale. Schiaparelli’s was a career that began, like her arch-rival Coco Chanel’s, almost by accident, and was peculiarly a product of its time.

Her childhood in Rome was marked by a spirit of defiance and self-dramatisation, and a growing desire to re-create herself as something brilliant against the solid, somewhat dreary backdrop of her parents’ respectable social round. She dressed up in old clothes she found in the attics of the Palazzo Corsini, and became interested in the structures of 19th-century dress. She was sent first to a convent school, where she found the religious atmosphere so exciting that she confessed to an alarming and improbable range of sins, and was removed to a Protestant establishment, ‘a dreary cell of hard discipline’ which she hated.

At the age of 21 she published a book of her poems, and in 1913, en route to London, where she was being sent to look after the children of a family friend, she made her first visit to Paris and designed her first outfit. The visit was fleeting and the outfit not a success. It was a ball gown made up of lengths of silk draped and pinned into place, but the pins came out halfway through the evening and her partner was obliged to ‘tango her off the floor to safety’. In London a 24-hour courtship preceded her marriage to Wilhelm Wendt de Kerlor, a follower of Madame Blavatsky, and, in 1916, the couple decided to go to New York. It was then, in the years she spent in America during and after the First World War, that Schiaparelli found the intellectual and artistic stimulation for which she longed. She met Francis Picabia’s wife, Gabrielle, on the transatlantic crossing and through her came to know Duchamp, who had arrived in New York with a glass globe full of Paris air, and Man Ray, who took the first of his many photographs of her. Her powerful, unbeautiful face suddenly fitted. He saw and brought out in her a dark glamour.

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[*] The Schiaparelli exhibition will be at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris from 17 March until 29 August.