What happened to the provocative Elsa Schiaparelli?

Elsa Schiaparelli

You’re likely to hear more than a few breathless “Oohs”at “Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli,” but don’t expect to be shocked. The show—on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Jan. 4—has been mounted with neither the fashion context nor artistic references needed to appreciate Schiaparelli’s remarkable innovations. Even if it is difficult to resist the charm of the glittering Lesage embroideries and madcap gowns, this show ultimately fails for the very same reason that Schiaparelli’s house ultimately did: Fashion is not art, and posturing doesn’t make it so.

Trompe l’oeil pullover

Schiaparelli, the famously provocative couturière, changed nearly everything about the rarefied fashion business. In 1927 her debut collection—featuring sweaters knit with surrealist trompe l’oeil images—led to a buying frenzy on both sides of the Atlantic. When World War II broke out 12 years later—effectively ending the era of Schiaparelli’s supremacy—only arch rival Coco Chanel could claim to have been more influential. Yet Schiaparelli’s role in the creation of modern haute couture is little known. The other mainstays of the gilded Parisian world of high fashion—Chanel, Dior, and Saint Laurent—found ways to adapt to the radically new postwar environment and are still productive, worldwide brands. Schiaparelli’s house closed in 1954.

Schiaparelli was born in 1890 to a staid family of Roman intellectuals and scholars. A plain-Jane of a girl, she seems to have lived only to shock: Inspired by da Vinci’s urge to fly, the young Elsa once tried to float to the garden below her bedroom window with the aid of an umbrella. In a society still dominated by the church, she left Catholic school, unwilling to follow the nuns’ lessons silently, and caused further scandal by publishing a book of sexually suggestive poetry. She began a deeply felt relationship with a young man; when her parents put it to an end she left Rome for the bohemia of Greenwich Village.

A rayon dress

There is no understanding this restless, belligerent woman without first imagining the contrast of sleepy, provincial Rome to racy, metropolitan New York in 1919. The modernity of her new life—skyscrapers, the newfound automation and speed of the city, and a social circle that included Man Ray, Edward Steichen, Francis and Gabrielle Picabia—had a profound impact on her sensibility. In her work, Schiap, as she was known (pronounced “skap”), combined a European sense of history with an American addiction to change, fusing the old world and the new. She catapulted post-World War I fashion into the newly machine- and media-driven age. She was the first designer to open a prêt- à-porter boutique and issue press releases; first to seek notoriety outside the insular fashion world by dressing movie starlets and athletes; first to collaborate with the leading artists of her day. Many of her designs challenged the traditional silk and satin perimeters of haute couture, incorporating man-made fibers with futuristic names like Rhodophane, a new plastic. And her unprecedented marketing campaign in the United States—where she endorsed accessible interpretations of her designs—ensured the phenomenal success she enjoyed throughout the Depression.

Man Ray’s Le Beau Temps, 1939

Schiaparelli is widely recognized as the designer who worked with the surrealists. One imagines this is partly why she has been given a museum show. Among her most famous creations are a dress embroidered with Jean Cocteau’s line-drawing of a woman’s profile and a shoe inverted into a hat that she conceived with Salvador Dalí. She worked under the assumption that fashion and art had similar goals. Schiaparelli was not merely mimicking surrealism’s visual play nor was she trying to be trendy. She was, in fact, exposing the surreal aspect of her own medium: Fashion—and particularly haute couture—is meant to make the quotidian extraordinary; all fashion is a form of metamorphosis. And so Schiap’s dress becomes a painting, and a shoe becomes a hat. But “Shocking!” fails to examine the importance of Schiaparelli’s artistic collaborations. Man Ray’s Le Beau Temps is, in fact, the only major surrealist work on display. Nor does the exhibition ask us to consider the difference between artistic ideas and art—or even whether artistic ideas always make for attractive fashion. These are questions no useful examination of Schiaparelli’s career can fail to ask.

Evening dress with butterfly print

Meanwhile, as a fashion retrospective, the show doesn’t acknowledge Schiaparelli’s contribution to posterity: After all, her oeuvre is the stylish vault from which nearly every important designer from Alaia to Zoran has lifted an inspiring gold brick or two. Why not make the heist clear? Schiaparelli’s innovative signatures—squared-off shoulders and nipped waistlines, whimsical prints, thematic collections, graphically patterned sweaters, decorative dinner jackets—have been so deeply absorbed into fashion’s vernacular that it is difficult now to identify their source. But her influence is everywhere: Sonia Rykiel’s graphic knits, Gianni Versace’s butterfly and zodiac prints, Donna Karan’s organic separates, Yves Saint Laurent’s decoration, John Galliano’s cultural referencing, Rei Kawakubo’s distorted silhouettes. The list goes on.

Distinctive booties

The curator, Dilys E. Blum—who deserves some credit for mounting the first retrospective of this pivotal designer’s work—doesn’t provide the social context that would illustrate why Schiaparelli was so shocking in her day: There’s no sense of the clothes made by Schiaparelli’s fellow couturiers, whose bourgeois creations she reacted against so strongly. Nor does the exhibition illustrate the social tumult experienced between the two World Wars. Why neutralize history? And why not show what the clothes looked like as they were worn? Society doyenne Millicent Rogers, one of Schiaparelli’s main clients, wore more than 10 of the ensembles on view in the show; it would be great to be able to see what she looked like in them.

An evening coat

So what is Schiap’s legacy, in the end? André Breton wrote in the surrealist manifesto that “nothing but the marvelous is beautiful.” Schiap understood this ethos in the deepest sense: The once plain-Jane girl had grown into a jolie-laide woman. While Schiap dressed both überandrogynous Marlene Dietrich and überfeminine Mae West, the contrast between the sturdy daytime suits and zestful evening clothes on display suggests that Schiaparelli was wrestling with the changing social roles for women—particularly the problem of how to dress the newly professional woman by day and the traditional femme fatale by night. But ultimately there is something poignant in these clothes: High concept and ornament were more than Schiaparelli’s particular gifts. Schiaparelli, more dowager than bombshell, used them to hide the body. Look past the comic buttons and whimsical prints celebrated at this exhibition: The clothes are essentially dowdy. The necklines are high, and the sleeves are long. The colors are dour and the shapes, when not bizarre, are quite dull. Don’t be fooled by the girlishly printed party frocks and the occasional frill of ruffle and bow: For all their seeming frivolity, Schiaparelli’s designs are for women who, like Schiap, were insecure about their looks. These clothes say, Look but don’t touch.

Schiaparelli had a famously inquisitive mind; her clothes emphasize brains over beauty. They lack the graceful technique—and palpable sexuality—of her contemporaries Jean Patou, Jeanne Lanvin, and Madeleine Vionnet. With the exception of her early wraparound pajamas and some finely done evening columns, the silhouette of Schiap’s clothes is merely a support for the ornament, a canvas for commentary and play. But fashion is not art, and great dressmaking wilts under the weight of trying to make it so. Is it surprising that 1954 saw both the closing of Schiaparelli’s business and the remarkable comeback of Chanel’s?