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.)