Paris, 1927! Elsa Schiaparelli, already 27, causes havoc in the world of fashion with her surrealist and dada influences. The greatest opponent of Coco Chanel, Schiaparelli earns the title of true genius, collaborates with Dali, Cocteau, and other artists of the time, and changes the course of fashion by proposing new materials, vivid colors, and new revolutionary ideas for women's fashion.
I'm typing a word, then press backspace, I start with another, backspace again, and again, and again, but I am just wasting my time! I can't decide how to start this month's article. I feel a certain awkwardness; the same I felt when during an alcoholic albeit philosophical conversation with a friend, he asked me if fashion is art. You see, I always thought that the most direct and immediate way a person, any person, can construct his/her personal image, and to communicate something to others, is through clothes: Form 'beware, I bite' to 'I really need you to admire me'!. How is it possible though to convince someone that fashion is indeed art when this word has become synonymous with the hoi polloi (and many more, a lot worse)? I was sweating, not unlike my beer glass with its glistening beads of condensation.
I wish I had with me a picture, so that I wouldn't have to say much. I wish I had this photograph of the black dress that Schiaparelli designed in1938, bringing, among else, surrealism and Dali to haute couture. Art…
Similar to many gifts to the world, Schiaparelli was born in Italy in 1890. In Rome, in the Palazzo Corsini. Have you ever heard about it? Well, if you already feel your house is too small, please, don't google it. Her mother was of aristocratic stock, her father a professor of Arabic Literature, while her uncles were also in Academia. Elsa studied Philosophy, even though her dream was to become an actress, but I'd better not go into what people thought about actresses back then.
Every now and then, people with a bit more soul come into this world…soul that drips from every pore of their bodies to become inspiration. Scientific or artistic, it is such souls that appear as gifts to society to lead the world into new adventures. And these people have the need to express themselves. Her family, shocked by Elsa's behaviour, locks her up in a German nunnery where her Mediterranean temperament perseveres! She goes on a hunger strike until the nuns are forced to send her back home. To become independent and see the world, Elsa goes to London to work as a nanny.
Between London and Paris, she meets people from the world of the arts and literature, she attends seminaries and lectures, visits museums, becomes familiar with movements of the time, and falls in love. His name, Count William de Wendt de Kerlor (I guess there must have been a short form for that at their most intimate at least). They get married and move to New York where their daughter is born in 1920, (take a deep breath) Countess Maria- Luisa Yvonne Radha de Wendt de Kerlor (!), whom they call Gogo. Before their marriage reached its sixth year, the Count decides that he can't stand life in New York where Elsa (known to her friends as Schiap) felt at home. Among her friends, Man Ray, Alfrend Stieglit, and other dadaists and surrealists. The Count abandons his family and Schiap is left with no money and her daughter in the hospital sick with polio.
In 1922 she moves to Paris to make a new start. Designer Paul Poiret sees real talent in her dressmaking and convinces her to design her own collection. In 1927, at 27, she causes havoc with her first collection under the name “trompe-l’ œil”! Jumpers with enormous bows, men's ties and sailor collars, win the public's affection.
Next year it's tweed jackets, women's military clothes, and her name splashed across Vogue! She creates a new image for women, more dynamic, away from their usual role of pretty objects, hers is a woman who expresses her sensuality through her audacity, self-sarcasm, humour and personal beliefs.
Her clientele includes Mae West, Daisy Fellowes ( a poet and publisher of the American Harper’s Bazaar), Wallis Simpson, Marlene Dietrich. Collaborators include Dali, with whom she co-designs the “Skeleton dress” (see image in the beginning of this article), the famous "Lobster dress", the “Tears dress”, designed to look like a torn up animal hide, a jacket with pockets in the shape of lips, and the well-known "Shoe-hat" that only the bravest few dared to wear. J. Cocteau joins in with a illusionistic coat sporting two female profiles shaping a vase, and a jacket in the form of a woman's body with long blond hair cascading over one sleeve.
She uses new materials that she often invents herself. This necklace, for example, that impressed so many, will impress you too, once you learn that it us made in 1938 and not in the 90s. Her perfume, “Shocking!”, in a bottle designed by Leonor Fini, is a huge commercial success. For the first time we see clothes with such unusual buttons like drums, carrots or cauliflowers, visible zippers and synthetic materials, the trouser-skirt, the wraparound dress: Playful, really inspired ideas that filled women's wardrobes.
The house of Schiaparelli closes down in 1954. Information and references can be found online on www.schiaparelli.com. Last spring, the Metropolitan Museum of Arts presented the exhibition "Schiaparelli and Prada : Impossible Conversations”. Her autobiography can be found in bookstores.
Hmm, I finally typed 1053 words. 1053 words filled with the awkwardness of accumulated feelings about which one doesn't know a thing, an awkwardness one can't express sufficiently!
There will always be someone else who has already done it better. There is always someone you don't know but with whom you share a deep understanding, someone who, knowing before you were born that one day you will feel like this, created a 'home' for you; and left refuges behind where you can hide and feel a little more comfortable…thank God!