Elsa Schiaparelli’s “Shocking Life”

Schiaparelli by Beaton, 1937
Elsa Schiaparelli photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1937. At top: photographed by Horst P. Horst in 1934.

“I went up into the rarefied skies of my most fantastic imagination and set off cascades of fireworks. Fantasy and ingenuity broke forth, with complete indifference not merely to what people would say but even to what was practical. I sought only an absolute freedom of expression, and a daredevil approach, with no fear.”  

 – Elsa Schiaparelli

Silk gown in Shocking Pink, c. 1938.

I recently finished reading Elsa Schiaparelli’s autobiography, Shocking Life. She isn’t so well-known today, but in the 1930s Schiap (as she was called by friends) was among the most élite couturiers in Paris, internationally famous for her whimsical approach to fashion. I love her because she continually incorporated Surrealist art into her collections, collaborating with avant-garde masters like Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau. Her self-described “crazy” and “fun-loving” designs echoed the Surrealist interest in juxtapositions between differing realities. Double images in Surrealist art prompt the viewer to question routine assumptions about the world. Schiaparelli accomplished the same visual response with her fashion designs because she rejected traditional conceptions of what, for example, a hat should look like. Thus, Schiaparelli challenged the fashion establishment and turned a new page in the history of fashion design.

Schiap’s most oft-cited innovation was her inventive use of color, specifically  a bright shade of fuchsia she called “shocking pink.”  While other designers were following the lead of Mademoiselle Chanel (God love her) and her somber black dresses, Schiap’s outlandish hue became her trademark. She continued to use it throughout her oeuvre, applying it to her logo, and she even kept an enormous pink bear in her shop, which was dyed and installed with drawers by Salvador Dalí, an ubiquitous inspiration and collaborator. As one might guess, this was not the typical furnishing of a high-end Parisian boutique of the 1930s. (For a contemporary take on the color, look at no farther than Betsey Johnson.)

Schiaparelli also rattled the fashion world with her use of animal prints, shoulder pads, zippers, and tweeds. (She was the first to use animal prints, and she invented shoulder pads as an ingenious technique for narrowing the woman’s waist through optical illusion. Her use of zippers was unusual because she turned them into decorative features, and she was the first to use tweed for evening ensembles.) She also put padlocks on suits, faux-enameled nails on gloves, and cascades of monkey hair on ankle boots. Most of the surviving pieces are things that I find, even now, terribly wearable. I want all of them. (If you want to see more than what I’ve been able to post here, search the Costume Institute archives at the Metropolitan Museum.)

Schiaparelli  A/W 1939/40
Booties from Schiaparelli’s A/W collection of 1939/40. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Unsurprisingly, the Parisian press responded to Schiap’s designs with indignation and contempt, but Schiap, in a typical display of pluck and wit, simply used the disparaging articles written about her as the basis for newspaper-printed fabric, which was then produced in a selection of colors and used for blouses, scarves, hats, and bathing suits. I find this appropriation and transformation of the media to be particularly clever, because she was able not only to take control of her image but to turn bad press into something quite practical. Newspaper print fabric was innovative, never before attempted in the textile business, and, though I can’t find any photos of the fabric, I can imagine that it must have looked pretty cool. Right?! It’s worth noting that Galliano did his own version of the newspaper print in his Fall 2000 collection for Dior, printing dresses with an imaginary “Christian Dior Daily.” (The dresses became famous when Carrie Bradshaw wore one in Season 3, and then again in the second SATC movie. See it here.)

One of Schiaparelli’s most notorious designs was her Lobster Dress, created in the Spring of 1937 in collaboration with Dalí. Dalí had recently created a Surrealist sculpture of a telephone with a lobster mounted on the receiver, an iconic example of Surrealist juxtaposition between the ordinary and the unexpected. (See the Lobster Telephone here, in the Tate Modern’s permanent collection.) The white organdy gown caused a sensation when it appeared in American Vogue, modeled by Wallis Simpson, one of Schiap’s myriad élite clients. (Simpson, an American divorcée, is the woman that the Duke of Windsor chose to marry rather than become King of England. Aside from a range of aristocrats, Schiaparelli’s celebrity clients included Katherine Hepburn, Mae West, Anita Loos, and Amelia Earhart.)  I think the shape of the dress is quite lovely, and I love the lobster because, well, why not? Why can’t a lobster, or the zodiac, or music notes be used as decorative embellishment on a gown? It’s amusing and fun and original.

Wallis Simpson modeling the Lobster Dress for Vogue magazine, 1937.

“Working with artists like Bebe Bérard, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Vortès, Van Dongen; and with photographers like Honingen-Huni, Horst, Cecil Beaton, and Man Ray gave one a sense of exhilaration. One felt supported and understood beyond the crude and boring reality of merely making a dress to sell.”

Lobster Dress, 1937. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: fashion designers tend to take themselves pretty seriously. Perhaps, at times, too seriously. Chanel once declared, “I don’t do fashion, I AM fashion,” and Lagerfeld, in the manner of his predecessor, has proclaimed, “Vanity is the healthiest thing in life.”

But Schiaparelli’s attitude was different. As a glimpse through her creations demonstrates, she was more interested in the enjoyment of the creative process than in the achievement of financial success. (Not that financial success isn’t great,  ’cause it is, but there’s something very refreshing about Schaip’s take on all that.) Furthermore, though the latter was a natural byproduct of her ingenuity, she was decidedly unpretentious about her achievements. In the preface of her autobiography she describes herself as “disarmingly simple” and “intensely human.” Her writing is infused with matter-of-fact modesty and objectivity. I respect her all the more for her unaffected manner.

It’s always fun to read about someone you admire and discover common opinions or interests. There are several passages that make me want to shake Schiap’s hand and gush, “I think that too!” I will share my favorite example: Reflecting upon her first years living in Paris, she opines, “To wander aimlessly through the night, to sit in cafés and do nothing, are privileges that seem to be unimportant, but in reality they make the taste of living so much more pungent and complete.” Dude, I couldn’t agree more. Having spent more time in Paris alone than with companions, wandering aimlessly through the night and sitting in cafés has become my own personal Paris tradition. Perhaps it sounds lonesome, but I always feel that Paris herself keeps me company. I love to wander through Le Marais by moonlight, and spend hours at a café’s terrace with a carafe of Côte du Rhone and a book, reading very lazily and watching the world pass by. For me, there is nothing more peaceful.

Alas, I’m getting off track, so I think it’s time to wrap this up.

Here is a link to the V&A edition of Schiaparelli’s autobiography. It’s also on Amazon, of course, though I bet your LOCAL bookshop would be happy to get you a copy if they don’t have one in stock.

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