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.

She returned to Europe in 1922, with a daughter, but, like Gabrielle Picabia, without her husband, and settled in Paris. Her father by now was dead and the Proustian world of the Palazzo Corsini, like so much of the prewar social order, had gone for ever. There was a sudden acceleration in the pace of change, in art and literature, architecture and fashion; sparks of invention, detectable before 1914, were suddenly fanned into life. The greatest of the prewar couturiers, Paul Poiret, had predicted that by 1958 women would be wearing trousers. In fact they were wearing them by the 1920s, both literally and figuratively.

French couture between the wars was dominated, as never before or since, by female designers: Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Coco Chanel and, now, Schiaparelli. Poiret’s moment had passed. Personally he had been so disturbed by his military service that he never recovered. Professionally he was out of step; his highly feminine clothes, hobble skirts and trailing evening gowns did not suit women who had tasted independence during the war and were not going to give it up. They were ready, indeed determined, in fashion design and elsewhere, to step into the places left by a lost generation of men.

It was Poiret who spotted Schiaparelli’s talent. He, too, liked her peculiar style. She was making clothes for herself and Gabrielle Picabia, and he encouraged her to become a freelance designer. In 1927 she launched her first independent collection in which a hand-knitted jumper with a trompe l’oeil bow at the neck immediately became a huge success. It was witty and simple. Women loved it, as they always love fashion, only partly for its appearance and much more for the image of themselves that it held out: elegant, intelligent, autonomous.

There is much exaggerated talk in fashion journalism and fashion history of ‘icons’, frocks that supposedly changed the world, but this little jumper really did mark a moment in the making of the modern woman. It was offered, after all, to the first generation to grow up with the possibility of owning a dress they could put on without help. They were used to real ribbons and bows that had to be removed and laundered separately, to corsets, hooks and eyes, laces. The word ‘pullover’ had been coined only two years earlier, in 1925, and the idea of such a convenient thing was vastly more exciting than we can imagine.

Schiaparelli’s first private client was Anita Loos, and the knitwear designs were soon being copied cheaply in Europe and America. She was the designer of choice for intellectual and artistic women, the actress Arletty, Kenneth Clark’s wife Jane, and in fiction Muriel Spark’s girls of slender means, who shared one Schiaparelli dress between them. Her influence owed a great deal to the ease with which some, at least, of her work could be pirated, and she took imitation in the right spirit: ‘The moment people stop copying you, it means that you are no longer any good.’ By 1932 she was employing four hundred people.

For all her talent, Schiaparelli’s success was a tale of the times. The idea of the modern gripped the interwar imagination, in fashion as in everything else. ‘She gives her clothes the essence of modern architecture, modern thought and modern movement,’ Harper’s Bazaar enthused. New materials were all the rage. These were the decades that invented cellophane and formica, and Schiaparelli worked with fabrics, long since obsolete, whose names evoke a passion for the new that is now itself evocatively period: Jersela, Rhodophane, Rayesca. She designed for a new way of life, hats small enough to be worn in the cinema and a ‘speakeasy’ evening gown for Prohibition America whose angular Deco bustle could conceal a hip flask. Cruise ships, aeroplanes and sundecks were the intended backdrop for her beach pyjamas, flying suits and dresses that used brightly coloured zips as decorative features.

How much substance there was behind the interwar style, not just in fashion but in architecture and design as well, is questionable. While the look of the modern was endlessly appealing, reality lagged behind. Despite the talk of theoretical functionalism and machines for living in, Modernist flat-roofed houses were built to be run by servants whose duties involved hefty manual labour. The streamlined interiors of the fashionable liner were cosmetic, the engine-room still looked much as it would have done in the 19th century, and beneath Schiaparelli’s multi-faceted evening gowns most of her customers still wore corsets, despite the pronouncement in her Twelve Commandments for Women (number ten): ‘Never fit a dress to the body but train the body to fit the dress.’ A maxim that was strained almost literally to breaking point when she designed costumes for Mae West in Every Day’s a Holiday.

Although Schiaparelli herself, like most of her customers, had never flown, her aviatrix outfits were not pure fantasy. Amy Johnson wore Schiaparelli when she set a new flight record from Gravesend to Cape Town. Leaving Kent in a mist-proof blue wool suit and chenille snood, she changed, in the Sahara, into cream silk toile.

Johnson was celebrated as much for her style as her flying, and she was no more conventionally pretty than Schiaparelli. The hard-edged chic of the 1930s, with its emphasis on angled, planar outlines and deep shadows, gave every jolie-laide her day. Chanel, too, was heavy-featured. Diana Vreeland, with her nutcracker nose and chin, was just beginning her career as an arbiter of style in New York, while in England, as Blum points out, the influence of Schiaparelli and Man Ray was making itself felt through the work of the beetle-browed portrait photographer Mme Yevonde, née Yevonde Cumbers, of Streatham. This was the only decade in which Wallis Simpson could have been a fashion plate and, naturally, she wore Schiaparelli.

What, if anything, this new chic, designed for women by women, said about female sexuality, was much debated. There were mutterings about sapphism and remarks in the press about the impropriety of divided skirts. In 1928 The Well of Loneliness was published and banned, and the ‘garçonne’, a pipe-smoking bachelor girl in tweeds, became a recognisable type in magazines and cartoons. Tristan Tzara wrote an article, illustrated with Man Ray’s photographs of Schiaparelli’s hats, called ‘D’un certain automatisme du goût’. In it he suggested that, with their folds and pleats and little moulded quiffs, these were figures of female genitalia. More straightforwardly, in Ladies in the Rough, which was not a sapphic novel but a book about golf, Glenna Collet argued that long skirts were simply impractical for sport. She wore the famous bowknot sweater when she collected the Oakland Hills Country Club trophy in 1929.

Through the 1930s the Schiaparelli silhouette became more elaborate, Art Deco rather than Modernist, coats like Chrysler buildings and evening clothes that were embroidered, finely trimmed and irregular in outline. Blum suggests that this was a general trend in design, but it was more specifically a French one. While Germany pursued the streamlined, industrial aesthetic in architecture and design, the French nurtured the luxury crafts at which they excelled in dress and furnishing. In each case, the approach reflected economic realities as much as aesthetic preference, and as hostility and competition between the two nations grew towards the end of the decade, so did the opposition between their styles, as displayed in a series of international exhibitions.

Schiaparelli thrived in the Depression. She was shrewd in business and brilliant at publicity. She designed a scarf printed with her own press cuttings and invented a new colour which she called ‘shocking pink’. She sold her signature scent, Shocking, in a bottle in the shape of Mae West’s torso, thereby finally getting control over the wayward curves. It made West’s body into a fetishistic, surreal object, a more decorous version of Salvador Dalí’s watercolour Mae West’s Face which Can Be Used as a Surrealist Apartment. The sofa in the drawing, based on West’s lips, was made, and continues in production today. Dalí had one covered in shocking pink for Schiaparelli, but she declined to accept it for her salon. She always understood that the ‘shocking’ in fashion should be limited to a delicious frisson; an assault on the clients’ sensibilities would be fatal.

She did, however, work with Dalí in the later 1930s. In her relationship with him and with Cocteau, Giacometti and Man Ray, she bridged the gap, never very wide in Dalí’s case, between commerce and art, realising the childhood dreams of the Palazzo Corsini. Again, there was a happy coincidence between her style and her time. The reflexive interplay between body and garment, solid form and void, the real and the artificial, was a theme that flowed back and forth between painting, photography and fashion. The visual puns that appealed to Tzara and the Surrealists as well as to Picasso were new to art, but axiomatic in clothing. The codpiece, the bustle, the farthingale had all exaggerated, imitated or fetishised parts of the body in a way that now assumed new psychological and visual interest. Picasso painted hands to look like gloves. Schiaparelli made gloves to look like hands in black suede with red snakeskin nails.

Man Ray met Schiaparelli again in Paris and photographed her for his essay ‘L’Age de la lumière’, published in the art magazine Minotaure in 1933. The picture makes her a modern chimera, her head, in a tightly curled, lacquered wig, posed over the plaster torso of a classical nude. In 1936 she and Dalí presented their first collaboration, coats and suits based on his pictures of figures made up of chests of drawers. The next year they created a hat in the shape of a high-heeled shoe, as impractical and outré as the bowknot sweater was easy and flattering: it was the flip side of the same determination to rethink each garment from scratch.

The Surreal clothes were a mixed success. The shoe hat was witty, and a pair of black ankle boots with long hair apparently spilling out of them still represent an unsettling association of ideas. But jackets with pocket flaps like drawers with handles seem literal-minded, a laborious working out of a succinct idea which, like explaining a joke, spoils it. Perhaps the most truly Surreal object that came out of the work with Dalí was, suitably, a semi-accidental one: a photograph by Cecil Beaton of Wallis Simpson wearing a Dalí-Schiaparelli dress that she had chosen for her trousseau.

In an attempt to soften her public image before her marriage, it was decided that Mrs Simpson should pose for Vogue. Beaton put her in a woodland setting, against the sun, wearing the translucent cream silk evening gown, a romantic, sugary composition, whose effect is bizarrely but completely vitiated by a giant lobster printed on the skirt so that it hangs between her legs. It turns the idyll into an image of predatory, androgynous sexuality that says everything the photograph was intended to deny. Schiaparelli had to stop Dalí from smearing mayonnaise on the skirt.

Barely a decade after her first collection Schiaparelli’s career effectively came to an end. As an Italian in occupied France, her position was difficult and, reluctantly, she left, spending most of the war in America. Afterwards she found herself where Poiret had been in 1918. She picked up where her own ideas had left off, but fashion had again moved on. It was now Dior’s New Look, with nipped waists and big skirts, that held sway.

In 1954 Schiaparelli’s business went bankrupt. She published her autobiography the same year, as if drawing a line under the life and times of Schiap. Blum can tell us little of her life after that, but unlike Poiret, who died destitute, Schiaparelli continued to live the life of a cultivated grande dame. She gave a large selection of her work to the Philadelphia Museum in 1969 and died four years later. Among her own collection of paintings, her favourite was Picasso’s Bird Cage and Playing Cards, which she said she would never part with, even if the prediction of her unappreciative mother were to come true and she was reduced to sleeping on straw. She saw in the picture a representation of herself and her struggle. In it ‘a poor half-smothered white dove looks dejectedly at a brilliantly polished pink apple.’ She had won her fight, and captured the apple of beauty for herself and the awkward child she had been.

The decade of her success marks roughly the mid-point in the history of couture, which began with Worth in the late 19th century. Arguably, the interwar years were its golden age. Avant-garde design is still repeating, or working out, the legacy of Schiaparelli and her contemporaries: corsets and zips as decoration, bodies presented as skeletons, body parts fetishised, circus themes, war themes, models photographed on building sites and clothes made of plastic. Blum states firmly that ‘Schiaparelli’s influence on the Surrealist community has yet to be fully acknowledged or documented,’ but she does not document it herself. She leaves us with the impression of a designer of genius whose work expressed in its own medium the ideas of its time. Schiaparelli, not known for self-effacement, was clear about the limitations of an applied art: ‘A dress cannot just hang like a painting on the wall . . . A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens another personality takes over from you and animates it . . . glorifies or destroys it . . . More often it becomes an indifferent object, or even a pitiful caricature.’

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