“Dress designing is to me not a profession but an art.”
There’s a marvelous photograph of fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli arriving in New York City from Paris on 25 May 1941, “wearing a navy blue travelling suit with a wine-colored insert at the waistline and a matching turban, square shouldered and self-assured.” It’s an image of timeless glamour made ironic for two reasons: it was taken at the height of WWII, during a time in which people in Europe would stand in line for hours in front of markets waiting to buy food, and also, because for all of its effortless elegance, one would never guess that Schiaparelli had spent the previous two weeks traveling in the worst of conditions.
In her majestic biography of the designer, Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography, Meryle Secrest comments on the photograph, “her cavalier attitude is hard to understand,” because “she must have known her escape [from occupied France] was possible only because of her privileged connections.” Part of what made Schiaparelli so fascinating was the secrecy that surrounded her public persona. Secrest herself acknowledges during many occasions that there were elements about Schiaparelli’s life that she found impossible to corroborate, even though the designer kept a diary, “Schiaparelli is highly selective about dates and casual about sequence.”
The very essence of the book is to make us understand that the facts about her life weren’t as important as how she chose to live them. Of her escape from France the author clarifies, “of course she could not explain how she did it, and true friends did not ask.”
In the introduction, Secrest explains why she chose Schiaparelli as her next subject (having done acclaimed biographies of artists like Salvador Dalí, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim. “This book had its start when I began to wonder why nobody dressed up anymore” she states, a mission which Schiaparelli, as we come to know her, would have more than approved.
From her origins in Rome (she was the daughter of an aristocrat woman and a scholar) to her strange marriage to a scam artist, Count William de Wendt de Kerlor, who gained prominence in America for his supernatural abilities, Schiaparelli had the kind of life people were meant to read about. For even when the details grow murky and uneven, they seem almost too thrilling to be true, and this sense of wonder is what Secrest captures so well.
Schiaparelli’s designing career began almost by chance, as she surprised herself by displaying uniquely creative solutions to her own wardrobe problems. She attended a high society ball by draping fabrics around her body and holding everything in place with nothing more than pins. She was a success at the ball, until “during an especially lively tango the pins holding everything together began to loosen and scatter on the dance floor”, but the idea of public nudity would not have been enough to affect the woman who at one point was set on fire by her eternal rival, Coco Chanel.
Secrest writes with joy about the people who surrounded Schiaparelli, whether they were blood relations, like her daughter Gogo (mother of famous actress Marisa Berenson and mother-in-law of Psycho actor, Anthony Perkins) or close friends like Bettina Shaw Jones and Salvador Dalí. Of her friendship with Dalí, with whom she developed one of the most unique collaborative relationships in all of fashion history, Secrest cleverly points out that in a way, it was “meant to be”, given that they both shared similar traits and worldviews, “[both] developed early the skills required for successful self-promotion that would become such assets later in life”.
By the time they collaborated on the famous “Lobster dress” worn by Wallis Simpson in a famous photograph by Cecil Beaton, the author suggests that their love and respect for each other was so strong, that Schiaparelli had no problem in telling Dalí that adding a stripe of mayonnaise to the lobster would perhaps be too much. In a book filled with many bittersweet codas, few are as bittersweet as when she details an encounter they had decades later after their friendship had ended, for reasons that remain completely unknown.
Secrest effortlessly explains what made Schiaparelli’s fashion work so groundbreaking and unique, by pointing out that due to the socio economic restrictions of the early ‘30s, Schiaparelli, like every other female designer, was making clothes for herself. These clothes would highlight her best assets and hide those she favored the least, to the point where “she was flattering the average female figure as well as her own.” Accompanied by color photographs of many of the designs, Secrest’s book pays homage to Schiaparelli’s unique oeuvre by highlighting their efficiency of form and style in her designs, while framing them as miracles in their own right.
Her designs were magical, and they should undoubtedly convince even the biggest skeptic that fashion, when it comes to Schiaparelli, was never anything if not an expression of the sublime.
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