Elsa Schiaparelli Made Fashion For Air Raids

A Fashion Memoir series book report

Nothing suggested Elsa Schiaparelli would ever have a career in fashion. She was born in Rome to strict aristocratic parents who never failed to be displeased with their daughter’s rebellion. Let me count the ways: by twenty-two, Schiaparelli, or “Schiap”, had run away from her Catholic school to bohemian London, married a rich Polish count and was abandoned in Greenwich Village, New York with a daughter and little support. It was hard work and necessity that propelled the young mother. She supported herself by working at a boutique specializing in French fashions owned by Gaby Picabia. Through Picabia, Schiaparelli met Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. When they decided to move to Paris, Schiaparelli joined them. It was during this time that her protégé Yves Saint Laurent said she “bewitched” the city. And her subtle blend of classicism and outrageousness evolved with women as their haircuts and hemlines got shorter.

Fashion Memoir: Elsa Schiaparelli examines the Italian designer’s contribution to fashion during the ’30s. Author Baudot is a writer and critic at French Elle, and has written his share of designer profiles for the Fashion Memoir series, including Chanel and Yohji Yamamoto. This biography and photo anthology is worth reviewing for a better understanding of Schiaparelli’s place in history and her lasting impact after retiring in 1954, and is full of images of the designer, her store windows, snapshots of celebrity fans like Marlene Dietrich, and illustrations of her designs.

Baudot weaves Schiaparelli’s designs into the fabric of social history, demonstrating her ability to connect with women between the two World Wars, notably Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, and Lauren Bacall. Schiaparelli opened her boutique 1927 and soon became the voice for emboldened new women who appreciated avant-garde design. She was known for using unusual materials and bold colour choices that reflected the period’s modern taste. Baudot believes her strength lied in designing multi-functional clothing that was both simple and shocking. Think of a dress that could be lengthened by simply pulling a ribbon or a woolen broiler suit produced for a potential air raid.

Schiaparelli drew inspiration from the many avant-garde artists in her social circle, and collaborated with Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. Her designs were a reaction against tradition, exploiting the artistic world of Surrealism and Dada. In particular, she had a deep appreciation of the artist and designer Paul Poiret, who gave her dresses when she first moved to Paris and encouraged her to start her own business. Unfortunately, not all her relationships with designers were so positive. She had a deep disdain for Chanel, and the press often drew comparisons of the two designers. They became fierce rivals and Chanel once described her competitor as “that Italian artist who makes clothes.”

After the Second World War, the fashion industry began to shift toward accessible, mass-produced sportswear. When she tried to reestablish herself in this clime, Schiap was summarily dismissed by new-era designer Christian Dior: “Remember the Surrealist trimming with which Mme. Schiaparelli loved to decorate her clothes … to push the frontiers of elegance until it bordered on the bizarre.” Still, she left a legacy of radically new fashions like backless swimsuits, built-in bras, and shoulder pads that would become staples in contemporary fashion design, inspiring generations of fashion heirs, like Galliano and Kenzo. While the book goes into great detail about her strengths as a designer and her inspirations, it doesn’t reveal much about her personal life. If you want a better understanding of Schiap the lady, consider reading her autobiography, Shocking Life. Baudot excerpts passages from here, which make up the best parts of his Fashion Memoir.

further reading // Fashion Memoir: Elsa Schiaparelli by Francois Baudot // Thames and Hudson // 1997

book report // Brittany Mahaney
photography // Brianne Burnell

How Rei Kawakubo Thinks About a Dress

A ReFUSING Fashion book report

“How to express the whole of Rei Kawakubo’s vision?” asks Marsha Miro, founding director of Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art, in her introduction to this collection on the formidable designer. Published as a complement to MOCAD’s 2008 exhibit of Kawakubo’s work, ReFUSING Fashion includes reflections on her immense contribution to the fashion industry, as well as edicts on the idea of “fashionable.”

So, how does one express the vision of Kawakubo, the woman behind the elusive, innovative, and occasionally—okay, often—mind-boggling Comme des Garçons label? To express it is to, at least to some extent, understand it, and understanding doesn’t come easy, least of all to me. I opened this book with limited exposure to Kawakubo’s work. After finishing ReFUSING, I still consider her one of the most esoteric designers today. Her conceptual, avant-garde pieces deconstruct and destroy the conventional standards of beauty and fashion, giving the most qualified of editors an intellectual workout and leaving fashion philistines utterly confounded. Miro continues, “She has re-formed and re-thought [fashion] from the widest of perspectives, combining ideas from the fashion and cultural histories of Asia, Africa, and the West in assembled garments, or by tearing things apart to transform inherited ideas and make something very new.”

Throughout are photos from selected CDG fashion shows and, at the back, a chronology of Kawakubo’s life and work. It is the essays, though, that comprise the bulk of it. Written by the MET’s Costume Institute curator Harold Koda, architect Sylvia Lavin, New Yorker contributor Judith Thurman, and art historian Michael Stone-Richards, the essays attempt to delve into the consciousness of the notoriously guarded designer. They discuss her work, the history of CDG, and the ways in which she posits “alternatives to received notions of good taste, conventional ideas of beauty and the defining characteristics of the status quo.” I say “attempt” because, aside from the fact that Kawakubo is intensely private about her process, the clothing themselves are challenging, down to every fold, drape, and seam.

By creating garments that are ripped, crooked, ill-fitting, wrinkled, and stained, Kawakubo bucks trends and confronts the tenets of the fashion industry. Inside-out sweaters, broken zippers, coats that look like skirts, pants with loose threads or extra legs, jackets with the collars torn off—all of this and more is sent down the runway. Pictures of her “Lumps and Bumps” SS ’97 collection are particularly head-scratching, but a great example of her aesthetic and practice. Through these dresses (with their built-in pads that deform and inflate the stomach, hips, and shoulders—parts of the body that most women spend their lives trying to form and deflate) Kawakubo challenges how we think about dress and asks us to consider an alternative.

I am now a Kawakubo convert. While I may not be rushing out to buy three-legged pants anytime soon (I also don’t have $2,000), what I love about her clothing is that it gets you thinking about the concepts she puts forth and the questions she raises. Though it’s certainly no light read, ReFUSING Fashion is a critical look at Kawakubo’s significance (for which she was recently honoured with the CFDA International Designer Award) and a thoughtful, penetrative analysis of a designer that consistently eludes analysis (she didn’t even show up to accept it). While the book may not express the entirety of her vision—it’s likely nothing ever will—it does come very close.

further reading // ReFUSING Fashion: Rei Kawakubo by Marsha Miro, Harold Koda, Sylvia Lavin, Judith Thurman, Michael Stone-Richards // Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit // 2008

report // Lindsay Tapscott
images // Allison Staton

Book Review: Dictionary of Fashion History

The most exciting part of all WORN staff meetings is when it’s time to assign the book reviews. Everyone sits up a little straighter, eyes the most coveted titles, sizes up their competition; it’s an office full of fashion nerds and the promise of a thick, educational book on an obscure area of fashion is tempting to all of us. Yet every so often it happens that a book will be held up and no one will jump to claim it. “Anyone?” our editor-in-pants will prod. Sometimes she’ll flip through it. “It looks really good, you guys,” she’ll say, and everyone will look around the room to see if anyone dares accept the challenge. I never turn down a challenge and so at the last meeting, I took the plunge. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll give it a try.”

As soon as I put The Dictionary of Fashion History in my bag I was positive I had made a mistake: I mean, a dictionary? My assignment was to write six hundred words on a literal dictionary. Just a collection of pages with words in alphabetical order and dry descriptions of each. There are barely any pictures, the five year old in me whined. I flipped through it once, twice, hoping to be hit with some sort of inspiration but nothing came except a particularly stubborn bout of procrastination.
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Book Review: Edith Head – The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer

Edith Head is hard to pin down. An intensely private person (she played word games with her assistant during lunch breaks to avoid talking about their personal lives), Head took liberties with the facts of her personal and professional lives. She understood the importance of personal branding, and did things like pretend her husband Charles had died in World War II (instead of their more prosaic divorce in 1938) to maintain her image. David Chierichetti’s Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer is a biography that tries to get the story straight, even correcting stories that Head told journalists or earlier biographers. The books reads like an attempt to prove that despite her faults—taking credit for other people’s work, outright fibbing about her life—Head was one of Hollywood’s most important costumers.

Born to Jewish parents in 1897, Head grew up in mining camps around the southwest and Mexico before being sent to Catholic school in her teen years. Following a stint as a teacher in Hollywood, she landed a job as a sketch artist for Paramount in 1924, after submitting sketches that she had “borrowed” from other artists. She worked her way to head designer in 1938, and stayed at Paramount until moving to Universal in 1968. Her countless credits include The Lady Eve, Sunset Boulevard, Roman Holiday, All About Eve, Rear Window, The Ten Commandments and Sweet Charity.

Chierichetti structures his book around Head’s movies, and includes quotes from Head, her rivals, her assistants, and other biographies like Joan Crawford’s Portrait of Joan. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of classic movies, but the book will make you turn to IMDB.com ever other page—if you don’t know Mae West from Marlene Dietrich, the tidbits of gossip (Claudette Colbert was kind of bitchy!) are a lot less juicy.

Chierichetti, who knew Head personally, gives equal measure to her faux pas as he does her accomplishments. Though his connection to Head legitimizes a lot of his points (she wasn’t some emotionless school marm after all), it can also make for a pretty grating tone. Some of his anecdotes about hanging out with Head come off a little breathless: “Oh! I know a famous person!”

Head’s staying power is sketched as a combination of talent, toughness and diplomacy. She always tried to incorporate the tastes of even lesser known starlets into their costumes and shone when designing by consensus—asking the actors, art director and even stagehands what they thought of a costume and synthesizing their input. At her worst, she was a bit of a glory hog and sometimes took credit for other’s ideas and designs. Her Oscar acceptance speech in 1973 shocked her peers as she failed to acknowledge the other designers that worked alongside her on costumes for The Sting.

Chierichetti doesn’t let Head off the hook for her dishonesty, but attempts to understand where she was coming from. Trying to figure out the motivation behind the fabrications (Head’s need for privacy, her ambition) is interesting, but the parts where Head admits to outright lying are some of the most fun. In a tell-all age, there’s something refreshing about her refusal to give up too much about her personal life.

Head made costumes from the 1920s to the early 1980s and the book adds context to the movies and movie stars surrounding the designs. Sometimes it’s a bit too much information; I would have liked more time spent on the nuts and bolts of the more memorable designs as opposed to every western and musical Head worked on. But the book will give you a greater appreciation of the woman behind the clothes and leave you with an intense urge to re-watch To Catch a Thief. It was Edith Head’s favourite, after all.

Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s Celebrated Costume Designer by David Chierichetti. Harper, 2003.
Report by Monika Warzecha