Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 – 1973)
Italian fashion between the Wars is a case study of how ineffectual Fascism was when it came to controlling women. Although the women of Italy are considered today to be much less liberated than their European or American counterparts, during the rule of Benito Mussolini they seem to have listened politely to his orders to return home and have babies and then did exactly as they pleased. Rural women were more open to Mussolini’s traditional roles for women, but the urban women were inspired by Hollywood films and glamorous movie stars. The women of Italy in the 1930s were devoted to the care of the self, whether following the latest hairstyles or “sculpting” the body by underwear or exercise. Against this self-absorption, especially among the upper classes, the fascists attempted to shame the wayward woman back to her traditional role in the paradoxical “new Italy.” The idea was to restrain women and to control their actions much in the way that the regime wanted to control the flow of information–media and politics–as well as art and literature. The independent women in fascist theory were characterized and shamed as the “woman-man” and as the “third sex” and as a deviant who was refusing the role of wife and mother, a social site where her “natural genius” could flourish. The fascist writers trotted out old nineteenth-century arguments about the inferiority of women, whose brains were incapable of taking part in the male segment of society. To reinforce these antediluvian ideas, to impose them upon women, the fascist regime used propaganda to convince women to give up their emancipation and to revert to their traditional roles as wife and mother.
Conservative Fashion in Fascist Italy:
Dress in printed silk in blue, gray and purple by Fercioni
But not everyone was listening to the voices of regression. In fascist Italy of the 1930s, perhaps the only way to actualize oneself if one were a woman is to not be in Italy. And that is exactly the case of Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 – 1973) who was the most famous Italian woman who did not live in Italy and became one of the most famous fashion designers of her time. It is interesting that Schiaparelli is rarely written of in the context of Italian culture. In the Italy of Mussolini, the fascist government controlled the fashion industry with the Ente Nazionale Della Moda (National Fashion Board of Italy). The futile task of this Board was to purge the local fashion houses of the trends from France, which was rather like attempting to reroute the tides. It would be hard to imagine fashion without France during the 1930s, but the Italian government was determined to push either regional garb on women or to make sure that Italian fashion for those who did not want to wear costumes, the clothing they wore was actually “Italian.” Part of the desire to eliminate France as an influence was an attempt at mind control by Cesare Meano, whose Commentary and Fashion Dictionary of 1936 attempted to Italianize French fashion words. Although Mussolini understood that modern fashion was an important part of his overall endeavor to modernize Italy, fashion was entangled with the issue of women, what to do with them, and how to control them through one of their prized social outlets, wearing well-designed clothes. Any fascist government is always allied with and/or controls industry and business, but with an industry that relies on constant creativity and change, the union is an uneasy one. One one hand, the government could effectively control the materials used but effectively ensuring that the designers were appropriately conservative and that their clothes were fit for fascism only had a suffocating impact on Italian fashion which was, in fact, quite conservative and conventional. In Italy, at home, one creative designer stood out, Salvatore Ferragamo (1898-1950) is an interesting comparison to Elsa Schiaparelli–both were highly innovative designers with uniquely quirky minds quite capable of taking the ordinary and twisting it toward a new direction–and both were able to experiment simply because neither formed their fashion sensibilities in Italy.
Ferragamo honed his design aesthetic in America, in California, through his film star clientele. When he returned to Italy in 1938, Italy was on the edge of another war but due to his sheer talent, the shoe designer was able to surround himself with loyal and wealthy patrons as he had in Hollywood. Schiaparelli, in turn, left Italy early, and, protected by a certain amount of social and economic privilege, she found her way to America, like Ferragamo. Her personal life before she became a professional designer was complicated an ultimately irrelevant but she had the opportunity to explore the possibilities of London and Paris and the art and fashion scenes there. It was not until she met one of the Amerian/French Dadaist, Garbriele Picabia, wife of Francis Picabia in New York that she began to find herself as an artist. The Picabia meeting opened the way for further acquaintances with other Dada and Surrealist artists in Paris. For the purposes of this article, a reiteration of Schiaparelli’s famous collaborations with Salvador Dali will not be repeated. First, the Lobster Dress is well-known and second this association has tended to overshadow her oeuvre, which is all too often ignored in favor of discussing a few isolated garments. Encouraged by Paul Poiret who recognized her flair for fashion, she learned how to be a fashion designer, steering away from the master’s overly elaborate costume like outfits. By the 1920s, Poiret was already behind the times, eclipsed by Coco Chanel and Madelaine Vironnet, the stars of the fashion world along with Jeanne Lavin. The two decades between the Wars were the great decades of women who commanded the heights of fashion and determined how women would dress. Schiaparelli would join their ranks, developing a unique style that was immediately distinguishable as her signature look.
The ‘Trompe L’oeil Sweater
Schiaparelli’s rise was meteoric with her well-known boutique, “Schiaparelli–pour le sport,” featuring casual clothes, opening as early as 1927 on the strength of a sweater with a bow tie knitted into the garment that was a huge hit with the American women who shopped at Lord and Taylor’s. A knitting website described the technique of the top: “The ‘Trompe L’oeil Sweater,’ referring to the fake bow knit on the front. It is produced by ‘Armenian Knitting,’ which involves carrying the unused yarn along behind the in-use yarn, twisting it every three or four stitches. This produces a heathered look (see how the black has little flecks of cream in it, and vice-versa? see the wrong side of the fabric, at the back of the neck?) and opens the door to intarsia-type patterns knit in the round.” “Armenian knitting” can be translated as the fact that the sweater was knitted by an Armenian refugee and the technique was reused for other sweaters with trompe l’oeil designs based upon neck gear or Cubist geometric shapes. The uniqueness of this simple sweater, the one of a kind nature of an attention-getting outfit was typical of her approach as indicated by a statement that both explains her style and the fleeting nature of her individual designs: “Dress designing is to me not a profession but an art. I found it was a most difficult and unsatisfying art, because as soon as the dress is born it has already become a thing of the past,” she wrote. “A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens another personality takes over from you and animates it, or tries to, glorifies it or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty. More often it becomes an indifferent object, or even a pitiful caricature of what you wanted it to be—a dream, an expression.”
American Vogue called this sweater as an “artistic masterpiece, noting that there is fashion and then there is fashion that is art and Schiaparelli’s approach was always artistic. Being artistic, for lack of a better word, meant that she was positioned herself squarely against her great rival Chanel, who demeaned and dismissed her as “that Italian artist who makes clothes.” The “Italian artist” shot back, calling Chanel “that milliner,” referring to her beginnings as a hat designer. Trading insults aside, the two designers were in fact very different. Chanel designed shapes or forms upon which the wearer for the Chanel suit, for example, could accessorize. Her dresses were simple geometric structures that provided a neutral background, stressing precision cut and construction over surface ornamentation. In contrast to Chanel’s interest in dressing women for their new athletic and casual lifestyles, Schiaparelli thought like an artist who was drawing and painting on a surface. Schiaparelli used the shape as a backdrop for decoration: the surface becomes the story. Indeed each garment had a special narration that defied the owner to make the garment her own. Her “shocking pink,” her trademark color, was a retort to Chanel’s use of black. The garment–pink or not–wore the owner who had to be a very strong personality to carry off Schiaparelli’s strong aesthetic. The strong impression each of her designs were like an emphatic stamp upon the mind of the spectator. As she noted,“The uniqueness of this simple sweater, the one of a kind nature of an attention-getting outfit was typical of her approach as indicated by a statement that both explains her style and the fleeting nature of her individual designs: “Dress designing is to me not a profession but an art. I found it was a most difficult and unsatisfying art, because as soon as the dress is born it has already become a thing of the past,” she wrote. “A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens another personality takes over from you and animates it, or tries to, glorifies it or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty. More often it becomes an indifferent object, or even a pitiful caricature of what you wanted it to be—a dream, an expression.”
For a woman in a man’s world, for a woman with no formal fashion training, this was a designer who was driven by a vision that was a powerful antidote to the simplicity of Chanel. Her boutique made an astounding 120 million francs per year and employed 2000 people. Schiaparelli seemed to be able to reinvent the most simple and most functional element of a garment. For example, a jacket or a coat needs buttons, but not just any buttons. As Schiaparelli explained, “The most incredible things were used. Animals and feathers, caricatures and paperweights chains, locks, clips, and lollipops. Some were of wood and others were of plastic, but no one looked like what a button was supposed to look.” In fact, Time Magazine remarked in 1954, “Mme Schiaparelli persecutes the button with morbid zeal.” Knowing that the designer was a free thinker, in 1933 the Lightening Fastener Company of Great Britain and Canada, which was experimenting with plastic rather than metal zippers, asked Schiaparelli to use their new invention in her fashions for the equivalent of almost $200,000. She immediately saw the benefits of plastic over metal and decided to work with colored plastic zippers displayed as decorations on the outside of the garments, a shocking detail for that time. She used zippers as contours, drawn down the sleeve, around the shoulders, and topping the pockets. Schiaparelli’s jackets and suits demanded distinctive accessories to go with them. Her famous “Mad Cap” of 1930 was a tubular shape that was hugely popular. Plain with two peaks the hat is rather jaunty and started the trend for hats of interesting shapes that would become so extreme in the forties when other designers lacked her restraint. Although her famous Surrealist inspired “Shoe Hat” was more of a gimmick or a novelty, the “Mad Cap” was wearable and chic. Schiaparelli was photographed in this hat by Horst.
For Schiaparelli, the basic suit was the canvas upon which she collaged her intentive trims and embroidery. Women in the thirties with the money to wear her clothes dressed in a very formal fashion, and we seldom see dresses, other than for the evening, from Schiaparelli. She designed what she preferred to wear: the suit. As she once said, “I wear suits nearly all the time. I like them; they are practical in every way, and my advice to a business girl who wishes to dress smartly at all ties and whose income is very limited is this, buy a good suit and live in it.” The materials Schiaparelli experimented with were as unexpected as her clothing. Rhodophane was a cousin of Cellophane, a synthetic material that was glass like in its transparency. While Chanel was timeless, Schiaparelli was always of the moment, of her time. In 1932, Harper’s Bazaar wrote of her, stating that the designer was “thoroughly modern,” and continued, “She gives her clothes the essence of modern architecture, modern thought, and modern movement.”