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PRINT October 2022

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POETRY IN NOTIONS

Elsa Schiaparelli, September 1, 1937. Photo: Horst P. Horst.

“HER ESTABLISHMENT in the Place Vendôme is a devil’s laboratory,” Jean Cocteau wrote in 1937, when Elsa Schiaparelli, ensconced in her Paris salon with a view of Napoleon’s priapic column, was the foremost couturier in Paris. “Women who go there fall into a trap, and come out masked, disguised, deformed, or reformed, according to Schiaparelli’s whim.” Her patrician brand of Surrealism—which married outré maximalism with minatory elegance, “the richest laces” with “the most austere cassocks”—was the dernier cri. Her so-called wooden-soldier silhouette, with its irreproachable shoulders and excavated waistline, defined the moment against the gamine profile pioneered by her archrival Coco Chanel in the 1920s—a decade Schiaparelli recalled without apparent nostalgia:

It was the time when abstract Dadaism and Futurism were the talk of the world . . . when chairs looked like tables, and tables like footstools, when it was not done to ask what a painting represented or what a poem meant, when trifles of fantasy were taboo and only the initiated knew about the Paris Flea Market, when women had no waists, wore paste jewellery [sic], and compressed their bust to look like boys.

In contradiction to the “violent simplicity” and “glorious invisibility” (Cocteau’s descriptions) of Chanel, Schiaparelli courted spectacle, illusionism, Orientalism, ornament, sex, comedy, and a reconstructed, knowing femininity to be donned like “armor,” as Vogue’s Bettina Ballard put it. “Clothes carpenter that she is,” Vogue wrote in 1931, “Schiaparelli builds up the shoulders, planes them off, and carves a decisive line from under the arms to the hip-bone, gouging in the waist.” A New Yorker cartoon from eight years later shows a priggish customer seated in Schiaparelli’s boutique, recoiling from the swollen leg-of-mutton sleeves and razor-sharp shoulder appurtenances on offer. The caption reads, “Why should Madam be afraid? Schiaparelli isn’t.”

More than in her devilish innovations, Schiaparelli’s legacy lies in that horizontal, opportunistic complex of craft, commerce, and celebrity Lawrence Alloway would theorize as the “fine art–pop art continuum.”

Born in 1890, Schiaparelli was indebted to an earlier generation’s exoticizing, incense-scented bohemianism, a sensibility inherited as much from her own family of learned and cultured Roman aristocrats as from Mariano Fortuny or her mentor Paul Poiret. An astronomer uncle discovered what he insisted were Martian-built canals on the surface of the red planet; an Egyptologist cousin discovered the tomb of Nefertiti; her father was a gentleman scholar, specializing in the medieval Islamic world. But Schiaparelli wasn’t stuck in the past, or in “the East.” The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet Flanner (who wrote under the pen name “Genêt”) attributed her international success to the distinctly “un-European modernity of her silhouettes, their special applicability to a background of square shouldered skyscrapers, of mechanics in private life, and pastimes devoted to gadgetry.” Her inventions included the “smoking glove” (equipped with a compartment for matches and a lighting strip on the wrist) and the Prohibition-era “speakeasy dress,” which harbored a pocket where a lady could stash her flask beneath a pleated train. Her universally copied “mad cap”—a jaunty chapeau with a pointed tip that could be twisted into myriad configurations—appeared everywhere from the five-and-dime to the heady pages of Minotaure, where Tristan Tzara held forth on the Freudian symbolism of “slits” and “lips” in the latest millinery.

Meret Oppenheim, fur bracelet, 1936, metal, fur, 2 3⁄4 × 2 3⁄4 × approx. 2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Pro Litteris, Zurich.

Aldous Huxley was enthralled by her zippers, racily exposed on sleeves and necklines. But “King Button”—as Schiaparelli dubbed her favorite notion—reigned absolutely. In iterations designed by Jean Clément, a former chemist, and François Hugo, a goldsmith and great-grandson of Victor Hugo, the humble fastenings assumed variously novel shapes like escargots, fox-heads, flies, pianos, cauliflowers, and—in a cheeky nod to Depression-era currency depreciation—louis d’or. Giacometti, who also created the ashtrays for Schiaparelli’s atelier, made brooches for her in the shape of sphinxes and seraphs; the Russian writer Elsa Triolet, partner of Louis Aragon, contributed a necklace of porcelain beads imitating aspirin tablets; in 1936, Meret Oppenheim designed a brass bangle covered in ocelot fur for a Schiaparelli collection (the hirsute bijou would inspire her nonpareil Surrealist Object). Cocteau, “the sandwich man” (per the poet Pierre Reverdy) of the interwar rappel à l’ordre, devised two heavily embellished looks for fall 1937, and Leonor Fini did the bottle, contoured after Mae West’s hourglass physique, for Shocking, the house’s best-selling perfume.

Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí, evening gown, February 1937, silk.

But the most notorious collaboration of Schiaparelii’s career was of course with Salvador Dalí, her coconspirator on the so-called Lobster Dress, an insidiously demure A-line gown in white silk organza with a giant printed crustacean, garnished with sprigs of parsley, adorning the skirt. The decidedly pelvic situation of the tail, as photographed by Cecil Beaton in a scandalous portrait of Wallis Simpson in the aftermath of Edward VIII’s abdication (and the beforemath of the couple’s infamous tea party with Hitler) speaks to the fetishistic charge the lobster held for Dalí. A recursive symbol in his work, it appears on his June 1936 cover of Minotaure, where it dangles from the vivisected womb of the eponymous beast, monstrously feminized and outfitted with an open drawer in lieu of breasts (a shtick also seen in his plaster Venus de Milo with Drawers, 1936, and other works of the period). The Minotaure cover was featured in a September 1936 Vogue spread, brandished by a model sporting another of Schiaparelli and Dalí’s joint ventures: a sharp navy suit with five pockets contrived to resemble bureau drawers.

Models wearing Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí’s suits and holding Minotaure, no. 8. From Vogue, September 15, 1936. Photo: Cecil Beaton.

While Schiaparelli was fond of jokes—suede gloves with red snakeskin fingernails; hats in the shape of high heels and lamb cutlets; handbags and belt buckles with tiny music boxes hidden inside—her “ability to design eminently sensible clothes is one of her lesser-known talents,” as her biographer Meryle Secrest observed. A double-stitched sweater with a trompe l’oeil bow, handmade by Armenian refugee women, catapulted her to fame in 1927, prompting comparison to Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. In 1935, she was invited to create a practical, affordable outfit for “the average Soviet woman” and traveled to Moscow with a French trade delegation to show her ensemble: a black dress with a smart white collar, a red coat with large black buttons, and a knit hat with a hidden pocket. (Schiaparelli’s Soviet expedition was referenced in a caricature in Vanity Fair by Miguel Covarrubias, who imagined the dressmaker and Stalin as parachutists conversing in midair.) Wrap dresses for “town and evening wear” (they had theretofore been reserved for sports clothes), dinner dresses with matching jackets, bathing suits with built-in bras, and jupes coulottes (the voluminous ancestors of modern-day shorts) number among Schiaparelli’s contributions to fashion history. We have her to thank, or blame, for the preponderance of synthetic materials in contemporary wardrobes. She worked with textile manufacturers to create exclusive blends, from “tree bark”–effect rayon crepe to water-repellent velvets. A hooded “Venetian” cape made from a crumpled silk taffeta called Simoun was worn by three different socialites to the same party in 1935. Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs is showing an appealingly gothic version in black in “Shocking! Les mondes surréalistes d’Elsa Schiaparelli,” a survey that includes more than two hundred “silhouettes and accessories,” plus works by friends and collaborators and homages by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Azzedine Alaïa, and Daniel Roseberry (artistic director of the twenty-first-century House of Schiaparelli, resuscitated in 2014). Another treasure on view, again from 1935, is a Pepto-pink apron made from a filmy, iridescent material called Rhodophane, which, presented over a backless navy gown, was marketed as “Schiaparelli’s original glass dress.” It sounds like something Baby Jane Holzer would’ve worn at the Factory and almost looks like something you might see on a runway today.

Model wearing an Elsa Schiaparelli evening dress, 1935. Photo: Egidio Scaioni.

In February of 1938, Schiaparelli’s annus mirabilis, she showed the “Circus” collection. Dripping in embroidered elephants and prancing horses, the line featured Schiaparelli and Dalí’s famous “tear” dress, its magenta trompe l’oeil rips inspired by the tattered garment depicted in the artist’s Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra, 1936. In April, there was the “Pagan” collection, a dryadic idyll of Botticellian frocks embellished with flowers and vines. On view in “Shocking!” is a cape of silk leaves, as “fragile as gossamer wings.” When paired with its pendant “stem” dress, this diaphanous mantle transfigures the wearer into a foliate entity like Ovid’s Daphne. Next up was August’s “Zodiac” presentation, a marriage of Euclidean geometry and astrological arcana that offered moiré silks and velvets ornamented with planets, shooting stars, and the constellation Ursa Major, which, owing to its resemblance to a beauty mark on her left cheek, the designer claimed as her personal emblem. (Schiaparelli, who in the 1920s was married to a charismatic fortune teller and phrenologist who styled himself Count William de Wendt de Kerlor, was prone to superstition.) The “Commedia dell’Arte” collection, shown in October 1938 for spring of the following year, transported its audience to an early-modern carnival with its lace veils, bicorne hats, and Venetian masks, as well as its pièce de résistance: a multicolored harlequin duster of wool and silk.

Elsa Schiaparelli, evening jacket detail, Summer 1938, silk twill, cast metal buttons. From the “Circus” collection.

Hitler’s invasion of Poland returned Schiaparelli (after a giddy dalliance with poodle prints and Gay Nineties bustles) to the rigors of her earlier “hard chic,” adapted and economized for wartime. Shown in October 1939, the streamlined “Cash and Carry” collection, so named after its abundance of oversize pockets for holding identity papers and other necessities, featured military-inspired designs in sober colors (“aeroplane gray,” “Maginot Line blue”), waterproof tweed, and a utilitarian zip-up jumpsuit. If the wartime image Schiaparelli projected was one of stoic resistance, the reality was likely more complicated. Her unhindered movement between Europe and the United States during the first two years of the war, a fishy, impromptu trip to South America in 1941, as well as her personal ties to Vichy official Gaston Bergery and other nefarious characters, aroused suspicion on both sides of the Atlantic. The FBI kept tabs on the designer for much of the war, dropping its case against her in 1944. A confidential report made at the request of Charles de Gaulle branded her a collaborator (an ignominy she and Chanel had in common) and noted that “those who knew Mme Schiaparelli maintained that, politically speaking, she had always been guided by feelings of snobbism and opportunism and [was] capable of feeling at ease in circles of the extreme right.” Recounted at length in Secrest’s biography, these unflattering details are judiciously omitted from the Musée’s catalogue, though it does note that the designer was a co-organizer, along with André Breton and Marcel Duchamp, of the famous “First Papers of Surrealism” exhibition benefiting the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies, “a charity that collected funds for French prisoners of war and war orphans.”

Andy Warhol, Schiaparelli gloves, 1957, printed ink on paper, 12 3⁄4 × 9 1⁄4". © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ADAGP, Paris.

Schiaparelli continued to make beautiful, if less shocking, clothes in the decade after the war, though the house’s influence steadily declined, be it due to the stigma of collaboration, the supremacy of Dior’s pretty, unchallenging “New Look,” the long twilight of Surrealism, rising business costs, or simply the dialectical churn of fashion itself. The atelier declared bankruptcy and ceased operations in 1954, though until her death in 1973, Schiaparelli would reap the benefits of lucrative licensing deals for perfume, accessories, men’s neckwear and shirts, wigs, costume jewelry, and other merchandise. The young Andy Warhol illustrated an advertisement for Schiaparelli gloves (manufactured by Fownes Brothers & Co) displayed alongside a caparisoned pink unicorn. Like her friend Dalí, Schiaparelli had a proto-Warholian nose for media and publicity—from the newsprint scarves she released in her first collection, emblazoned with press clippings reporting her own accomplishments (Marchesa Casati was once seen reading one in bed like the morning paper, breakfasting on Pernod and fried fish), to the ideation and branding of “Shocking” Pink, her trademark color that arguably eclipsed her many achievements as a couturier. Perhaps more than in her devilish innovations, Schiaparelli’s legacy, and her modernity, lies in that horizontal, opportunistic complex of craft, commerce, and celebrity Lawrence Alloway would later theorize as the “fine art–pop art continuum.” After Schiaparelli, in a dust-up with her nemesis, disparaged Chanel as a “milliner” and “dreary little bourgeoise,” her adversary shot back with a most perceptive insult—she called her “that Italian artist who makes clothes.”

“Shocking! Les mondes surréalistes d’Elsa Schiaparelli” (Shocking! The Surrealist Worlds of Elsa Schiaparelli) is on view through January 22, 2024, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris.

Chloe Wyma is a senior editor of artforum.com.