Reviews

Elsa Schiaparelli and Fashion Made Sublime

Meryle Secrest’s biography pays homage to Schiaparelli’s unique oeuvre by highlighting the efficiency of form and style in her designs, while framing them as miracles in their own right.


Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 400 pages
Author: Meryle Secrest
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-10
Amazon
“Dress designing is to me not a profession but an art.”

-- Elsa Schiaparelli

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.

9

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image