Game Changers

An interview with Ilya Parkins, author of "Poiret, Dior and Schiaparelli: Fashion, Feminity and Modernity"

Ilya Parkins is an Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of British Columbia, where much of her research has focused on the changing fashion and beauty more of the early 20th century. Her latest book, Poiret, Dior and Schiaparelli: Fashion, Feminity and Modernity, takes a look at this era by looking at the lives and work of these three prominent designers, and how their work highlighted the ambivalent role of women at this time as either glamourous, ultra modern style setters, to conservatives stuck in the past.

WORN is proud to announce that we will be holding a book launch and author talk for Poiret, Dior and Schiaparelli on December 10th from 7-9pm at TYPE Books (883 Queen Street West). Facebook event at this link for more details.

What made you decide to focus on gender studies and fashion?
I realized, when I started working on fashion about fifteen years ago, early in my graduate studies, that it was a fantastic way of thinking about the join between individual and social. Of course, some notion of the relationship between people and the social world is what informs all feminist inquiry, and this struck me as a wonderfully rich way to get at that. Importantly, it is also material, which attracted me; I was interested in thinking about the relationship between people and things of all sorts – things are part of the social world, too.  I also wanted to counter the trivialization of this feminized art form, because I thought it could open up dimensions of various questions – about modern life, about consumption, about sexuality, identity, and everything I could think of – and because, frankly, writing off feminized phenomena as trivial is misogynist – and boring and predictable! That has been my project for fifteen years, and it not only led to this book but to a book I co-edited, that came out last year, called Cultures of Femininity in Modern Fashion. I actually saw it as a political imperative to foreground fashion – that’s how I see that edited book, especially.

 What is it about the early 20th century’s fashion that you find so compelling as a subject?
One of the things that’s really fascinating and significant is the widespread recognition of the importance of fashion, among social critics and theorists. People – journalists and critics, and thinkers like Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin – used fashion as a kind of metaphor for modern life. Not only does that counter the trivialization and dismissal of fashion, but it also inadvertently places women and femininity at the centre of the modern. It is also a great way to get at the sense, in the early twentieth century, of living the new. It helped me to get at what people thought it “felt like” to be modern, because fashion was seen to embody the modern in a whole host of ways. In the early twentieth century, the obsession with newness, with modernity, wasn’t just a theoretical concern. It was also lived, quite intimately – often via their clothing.

Did you always want to write about Poiret, Dior and Schiaperelli specifically? Why do these designers stand out in regards to changing notions of women’s clothing and roles?
I wasn’t always interested in any designers specifically. I’d been interested in Poiret for quite a while, and then I read his main memoir. (He actually has three, though two aren’t available outside France, and were obscure and printed in just one edition even there.) Of course, he had a reputation as a vanguardist – as a “revolutionary,” as odd a word as that is in this context. So I decided that I wanted to read the memoirs of other designers who were considered revolutionary in some sense. Not all designers have a major memoir – Chanel doesn’t, for instance – and so in the end, Schiaparelli and Dior were the others I settled on.

How did you go about writing this book?
I began by reading Poiret’s memoir. Then I decided on Dior and Schiaparelli, and I thought that it was important to work on more than just their autobiographical books, but that I wanted to investigate all the writing they did – and much of the writing that others did – in creating their public images. I began by using library press resources in Toronto, where I was still spending a lot of time, but that only got me so far. Once I’d started my current position at UBC, I was lucky enough to get a couple of grants – including a major, three-year one – that allowed me to do research overseas. So I spent a total of about three months in Paris over a couple of years, reading Poiret’s other memoirs and anything I could dig up by and about the designers at the national library and the fashion museum libraries there. I got tripped up with Schiaparelli – she was an enigma who left relatively few traces – and ended up doing some research on her at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Dilys Blum, who works in the costume department there, has an incredibly extensive collection of her press clippings. And I wrote the book as I went, to some extent. I was caught out at the very end of writing the manuscript – around the time I was shopping around for a publisher – by John Galliano’s anti-Semitic outburst in February 2011. All of a sudden the House of Dior and its history were in the news, and I needed to address this history and the question of a possible collaboration of Dior and Nazis. I spent some unexpected weeks digging around in WWII French collaboration history, and added a section to my chapter on Dior. I think the book is much better for it.

What other designers would you say were influential in changing the way women dressed at this time?
There’s no question that Chanel had a massive influence. That’s real, it’s not a myth – you feel it in the press from the period. I also think that Mariano Fortuny had an influence that was quite important; he was crucial in the “orientalist” turn in the early twentieth century, and that appropriation of design elements from various so-called “Eastern” cultures was taken up all over the place.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the Strand magazine article from 1883 where they tried to predict the coming century’s fashion trends, but it’s pretty off the market (apparently they thought the future would be like Alice in Wonderland). Why do you think they were so wrong?
Hmmm! I haven’t seen this gem. I think they were so wrong because they seemed to forget about the principle of innovation. That is, certainly, fashion borrows from and often really recycles the past. But it does so in its own idiom. It’s not like a historical costume. What’s so interesting is that it combines elements of the past with elements of the present. The article about future fashion forgets that this is the innovation structure of fashion, this kind of hybrid of past and present, and seems to just imagine some kind of historical play-acting with hilarious elements for good measure, which looks silly.

What’s your favourite Dior/Schiaperelli/Poiret collection?
I don’t actually have a single favourite collection, I wouldn’t say. Of the three, I really love Poiret’s clothing the best. His pre-WWI work, especially, is stunning. It’s really kind to bodies, that clothing. And the richness, the luxuriousness of it – the colour, the layers, the draping… (This dress on slide 12? Come on! Sooo gorgeous.)

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

Shock of Pink: How a Colour Shaped Schiaparelli’s Vision

photos from Victoria and Albert Museum

Colours fascinated Elsa Schiaparelli. Her autobiography, Shocking Life, is paved by her colour discoveries, from the blue and red uniforms she designed during the First World War to the oranges and turquoises of Kremlin treasures.

In the first third of her book, however, the colour pink only comes up only to describe her new-born daughter, Gogo. Schiaparelli’s early career was, much like her contemporary Coco Chanel’s, defined by black and white. The first garment she created, in 1927, was a jumper with “a white bow against a white background.” Her first evening dress was, again, monochromatic.

The shocking-pink came thanks to Schiaparelli’s first foray into fragrances. In 1937, while struggling to name her upcoming perfume, she remembered a pink Tête de Bélier Cartier diamond owned by her friend, client and Paris editor for Harper’s Bazaar, Daisy Fellowes. In her autobiography, Schiap (as she nicknamed herself) describes the jewel colour as “bright, impossible, impudent, becoming, life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world but together, a color of China and Peru but not of the West – a shocking colour, pure and undiluted.” She asked Surrealist designer Leonor Fini to create a perfume bottle imitating Mae West curves in that very shade. The perfume was named “Shocking”.
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