A woman wears a long thermometer on a hook hanging from her ear, her chin upturned and eyes gently closed, in a photograph taken by artist Man Ray around 1920, not long after the influenza pandemic of 1918.
One hundred years later, another woman hangs on her ear a negative Covid-19 rapid test, decorated with rhinestones and a dangling gold heart. This photo was taken in late 2021.
These are the images – which have nothing and everything to do with the designer Elsa Schiaparelli – that came to mind while walking through a new exhibition dedicated to the Italian-born couturière, who founded her label in 1927.
Schiaparelli was a designer who put things where they should not have been: hands on belts, aspirin on necklaces, cicadas on buttons, claws on the fingertips of gloves. But these “little jokes,” as The New Yorker wrote of her style in 1932, “turned out to be big influences”. (The jokes were also, at times, so practical that they became less funny: during Prohibition, Schiaparelli sold an evening coat with a bustle able to conceal a flask; later, she made a jumpsuit to wear in air raid shelters.)
But the designer has also developed a reputation for being “underrated,” says Olivier Gabet, director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which is presenting Shocking! The Surreal World of Elsa Schiaparelli. It opened last month and continues until 22 January 2023.
“You understand the invisibility of women artists with the case of Schiaparelli,” Gabet says. Though a handful of museums have devoted major fashion exhibitions to her in the past 20 years, Schiaparelli is less recognised within the history of surrealist art, he says, despite close associations with Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau and Man Ray, whose work is arranged beside hers in the new exhibition.
In fashion, “everybody helped themselves” to her work following the closure of her couture house in 1954, Gabet says. Schiaparelli turned newspaper clippings into fabric before John Galliano, and a woman’s torso into a perfume bottle before Jean Paul Gaultier. Even today, with her revived label finding a new audience under creative director Daniel Roseberry, her name is not as well known as those of the men she influenced, like Yves Saint Laurent and Hubert de Givenchy.
In her autobiography, Schiaparelli wrote of being an ‘ugly’ child who planted seeds in her throat, ears and mouth, in hopes of growing ‘a face covered with flowers’
This exhibition arrives as another attempt to correct that: not just to impress viewers with her original creations and artistic connections – plus a fair amount of Roseberry’s recent work – but to implant in them the knowledge of how far her curious mind and angular arms have reached into modern fashion. Look around and Schiap, as she was known, is everywhere. Even in a pair of bedazzled antigen test earrings, made nearly 50 years after her death, by a Spanish college student with a DIY hobby.
‘Gilt without guilt’
The Paris exhibition plays the hits.
Encased in glass is a black Schiaparelli hat worn like an upside-down high-heel shoe. Nearby is a version of the off-white silk organza dress worn by Wallis Simpson for Vogue in 1937, the same year she married the former King Edward VIII; an enormous lobster lolls down the front and back of the skirt. Both pieces originally were designed in collaboration with Dalí.
There is also an assortment of knits that made Schiaparelli a star: One of her earliest designs was a sweater printed with a trompe l’oeil bow around its neck that she first wore to what she called a “smart lunch” in Paris. “Sweater-minded” women, she wrote in her 1954 autobiography, “fell on me like birds of prey,” among them a buyer from a New York department store.
But it is not just Schiaparelli’s surreal style signatures that continue to resurface in fashion (like Marc Jacobs referencing those knits in 2016, as just one example). The legends around her also resonate. In her autobiography, Schiaparelli wrote of being an “ugly” child who planted seeds in her throat, ears and mouth, in hopes of growing “a face covered with flowers like a heavenly garden”. (Surviving near-suffocation, she later designed a summer dress covered in fabric appliqués resembling seed packets.)
The image calls to mind the transformative shrub make-up and floor-length capes seen in Thom Browne’s spring 2022 show. Or, more recently, the Loewe collection of coats, jeans and sneakers covered in real sprouted grass by Jonathan Anderson, its creative director, and designer Paula Ulargui Escalona.
The way Schiaparelli presented her work, too, is still relevant. She was an early adopter of themed collections, choosing subjects like music, astrology, the pagan (making women look like Botticelli paintings) and the circus.
The 1938 circus show, in particular, with its hired dancers and clowns, has been long cited as an example of surrealism’s rise amid the threat of war. Describing it as “riotous and swaggering,” Schiaparelli unveiled lavish embroidery inspired by ringmasters and acrobats, and accessories like balloon handbags and ice cream cone hats. It was jubilant and escapist but memorable for its taste of death, too; with Dalí, she debuted a long black skeleton dress with padded ridges mimicking protruding bones.
One month after the circus show, Adolf Hitler invaded Austria. While carnival collections and skeletal dresses have recurred in fashion, few designers have found themselves at the same intense intersection of surreal themes and ominous timing.
One recent exception: theme-prone designer Jeremy Scott. His autumn 2022 show for Moschino was inspired by a fanciful mansion come to life, à la Beauty and the Beast, with models dressed like grandfather clocks or with candelabras on their heads (courtesy of the Surrealist milliner Stephen Jones), on a set inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey).
The show took place on the day Russia invaded Ukraine; backstage, Scott wore a shirt that read “Gilt without guilt”.
“I design these collections six months in advance – I’m not Nostradamus,” Scott says by phone. “But I do think that, whether it’s war in Ukraine or just the things that happen in our daily lives that may seem insignificant in comparison but still feel so strong and dramatic for us individually, we’re always in need of joy and whimsy. We’re in need of the way that fashion can transport us emotionally.”
Of Schiaparelli’s work, Scott says he was most inspired by the Dalí collaborations, including her bureau suit, complete with five drawer pockets with plastic knobs – Moschino’s mansion collection included three dresses with drawer handles and ornate gold trim – and the rebellion in assigning new roles to familiar objects.
For her, a lamb chop became a hat. For him, a champagne bottle became a purse. They’re both in the business of transformation, refashioning women as shrubs, currency, court jesters, warning signs, plates of food – all elegant little monsters. (Cocteau in 1937 called Schiaparelli’s headquarters “a devil’s laboratory.”)
Yet beyond the need to escape reality, Scott acknowledged surreal fashion also satisfies a desire for attention that is stronger today than in the 20th century. There is “a hunger to stand out,” he says, when “we consume so much information from a small screen in the palm of our hands.”
Cookies, bugs and fingernails
Walking through the exhibition a few days before its opening, Gabet was thinking about how young audiences might respond: “I’m not sure the name Elsa Schiaparelli is so familiar to them,” he says. “If they know the name, it’s through Daniel’s work.”
While the exhibition was planned before Roseberry’s appointment in 2019, it includes much of his work, like Lady Gaga’s outfit for the 2021 Biden inauguration (fitted navy jacket, oversize dove brooch, low-slung red ball skirt) and the intensely gold sculptural minidress-coat worn by Beyoncé in British Vogue this month. Roseberry’s most public achievement at Schiaparelli has been bringing a freaky sophistication to the often staid world of red-carpet and celebrity dressing.
In text accompanying the Paris exhibition, Roseberry says he has kept Schiaparelli’s signatures at “arm’s length.”
As funny and attractive as a cookie on a bag is, it’s also fake, and you’re aware of that. I’m laughing at you, but you’re in on the joke. I think that was very much the way Elsa’s brain worked
“I kind of had this image of her passing the torch,” he says. “I don’t think she would be interested in seeing her work reissued over and over again, a century later. I think she would be championing the new, and I can only hope that that would include me.”
There is already a whole genre of emerging designers pulling more directly from, and remixing, her work. Vivetta Ponti in Milan makes hands-shaped collars and painted-nail gloves. (The Schiaparelli originals are part of the Paris exhibition, along with a photograph by Man Ray believed to be the inspiration.)
Olivia Cheng of the New York-based brand Dauphinette makes jewellery from preserved plants and fruit encased in clear resin, similar to a Schiaparelli necklace of insects pressed into plastic. Just as Schiaparelli affixed metal bugs to a suit collar, Cheng affixed beetles to the bodice of a white silk organza dress for her autumn collection. Except the bugs she used were real, obtained from Thailand and dead of natural causes. (“I don’t think a lot of people liked them quite honestly,” Cheng said.)
Last year, the brand Area sexed up the butterfly motif of the 1920s with outrageous blingy glasses. For its most recent collection, co-founder and creative director Piotrek Panszczyk said Area treated the “corny idea of flora and fauna in fashion” similarly – blowing up and reworking the kinds of flowers Schiaparelli used as embellishments into something harder, more “kooky” and “mysterious,” like a spiky crystallised miniskirt set (though still in a colour similar to her signature shocking pink).
Still, it is not easy to sell surreal fashion or “little jokes” en masse – or at least at the volume required to make a living. Carolina García Caballero, the 21-year-old student who made the antigen test earrings, felt so overwhelmed by the online response and demand (catalysed by Katy Perry commissioning a pair) that she decided not to sell them, even after gathering hundreds of negative tests and shooting photos for an online store. Instead, she says, “I chose myself and my mental health before money,” finishing her comparative literature degree, working at a poke bowl restaurant and making plans to travel around Europe.
While artist Carly Mark co-founded her fashion line Puppets and Puppets in New York City in 2019, actually producing it has been a more gradual process. (The first season, nothing was for sale.) A retailer once asked her to put a cake hat into production, she says, but she couldn’t figure out how to get the costs low enough.
Then came the cookie bag: a critically acclaimed simple black handbag affixed with an “unsettlingly perfect” resin chocolate chip cookie made by artist Margalit Cutler, priced at about $350. Mark says she had been thinking about the circular logos on the centre of bags by Telfar or Tory Burch when it occurred to her “to make fun of the placement of a logo by placing this surreal object on it”.
“As funny and attractive as a cookie on a bag is, it’s also fake, and you’re aware of that. I’m laughing at you, but you’re in on the joke,” she says. “I think that was very much the way Elsa’s brain worked. It’s inspiring she was able to do that during a period in time when women didn’t have the same power, necessarily, that we do now.”
For Mark, surreal fashion is not about escapism or attention, but finding a way to express personality and sense of humour. It’s about finding communities of like minds, like Schiaparelli and the Surrealists did in the 1930s.
“We’re born into these bodies, and we get to present them to the world in whatever way we want,” Mark says. “How do we adorn our outsides to match what we’re feeling on the inside, so that people might understand us more easily?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times
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