Saturday, May 16, 2009

Elsa Schiaparelli

[Due to my Beloved Readers, this was almost the history of the phone book. It may yet be. I'm doing research. At the moment I'm choosing designers due to relevance to US - knitters who buy clothes - today, but once I'm done with that I'll probably choose designers that just looked good, if we're still enjoying the information dump.]

Elsa Schiaparelli, "Schiap" to her friends, was born in Rome in 1890. She studied art, and philosophy, and wrote racy poems that offended her family and got her sent to a convent. She got out of the convent by going on a hunger strike, which says about all you need to know of the personality of Elsa Schiaparelli. She married a Count, moved to New York, hung around with artists, and when the artists decided to move to Paris, she went with them, leaving her husband the Count in New York. (At some point she had two kids. Fashion history books are quite foggy on where, when, and by whom; I haven't read any extensive biographies of her to know. Sorry.)

Schiaparelli seems to have been self-taught, and relied heavily on employees for the bulk of 'making it work' when it came to her designs. She was the one who came up with the Grand Ideas. She had no formal training that I can find note of in her biographies, she just hung out with a lot of surrealist artists, like Man Ray and Duchamp and Picabia and, eventually, Dali himself.

She opened a little atelier in Paris in the early twenties, but it closed in 1926. Despite people liking her clothes, she had a lot yet to learn about business and the industry (if she'd apprenticed with Vionnet, she'd have taken over the world). Ultimately, she re-opened with a smaller, less ambitious line of clothing "pour le sport" - sportwear - in 1927. It featured this little number, which may look familiar, as it's one of the most famous sweaters in knitting history:

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. Meg Swansen and Joyce Williams wrote a book on Armenian knitting; to this day, no one's sure if it's a 'real' Armenian technique used traditionally, or if it's something that was made up on the spot in Schiaparelli's atelier, by the Armenian refugees who were doing her knitting. I, the person who usually has a theory, has no idea on this one, myself.

ETA: Free download of pattern for Trompe L'oeil/BowKnot Sweater available from Schoolhouse Press, FREE!! Click here.

See? I told you I was steering this around to knitting relevance.

In 1931, a female tennis star wore a pair of Schiaparelli's divided pants to compete at Wimbledon. The world was scandalized, Schiaparelli's rep was made, and she went back to a full clothing line the same year, offering evening wear. I THINK she was the first woman to design/sell an evening suit, though Chanel may have beat her to it.

All of Schiaparelli's evening wear is flat-out awesome, really. Maybe she was hiring Vionnet's former employees (they were operating in Paris at the same time), because the drape and form is really great. Except for the metallics, the second one could be from Vionnet.

Besides the sweater, which put knitwear on the backs of fashionistas the world over, Schiaparelli's real contribution to fashion was a surrealist approach that put the avant in avant garde fashion, and, well, she's ultimately responsible for the crop of unwearable crap that hits the runways every spring and fall. Though to give her credit, all her clothing was wearable for real purposes - cocktail parties, evening events - and I doubt she had any idea how far the avant-garde movement would go as each season tried to top the season before. What you see here is the first step on the path. So while she started the trends that ultimately make me dislike The Fashion Industry, well, she had some cool ideas and I can't dislike her.

She was also - again, as far as I know - the first designer to produce things so iconic that they became known as "THE _____". She had multiple designs like that, the most memorable being The Shoe Hat.

I bet everyone's seen a variation on this. The original idea was hers, in 1937.

There was also The Lobster Dress in 1937:

It was a salute to Salvador Dali, who at the time was putting lobsters in a lot of his own work.

In 1938 was The Tears Dress, which had false, three-dimensional rips in the fabric printed on it:

For most of Schiaparelli's clothing, I find the cut is fairly traditional; it is in the surface decoration that she was innovative.

As well as shocking Paris on a regular basis - so much so that bright pink is still called Shocking Pink in her honor, and her first perfume was named "Shocking" - Schiaparelli dressed a couple movie stars you may have heard of.

Most famously, she dressed Mae West, not only for Ms. West's personal wardrobe, but for the movie "Every Day's a Holiday" in 1937:

Ms. West had an anatomically correct dressmaker's form made of her body and shipped to Paris, which Schiaparelli would then use to fit dresses and send them back across the pond to Ms. West. The perfume bottle for "Shocking" was glass blown in the shape of this famous dressmaker's form.

She also dressed Zsa Zsa Gabor for "Moulin Rouge" in 1952:

When World War Two began, Schiaparelli headed back to New York, closing down her atelier for the duration (no word in the bios I've read on what ever happened to her husband). She re-opened after the war, but people's tastes had been irrevocably changed by the war, Dior's New Look was the new big thing, and bowing to the inevitable, Schiaparelli permanently closed her atelier in 1954, ending an amazing era of innovation and creativity. Among the other first already listed, she was usually the first to experiment with new materials - acrylic, cellophane, rayon, and lurex - and was the first of the Great Fashion Houses to put zippers in her clothing.

Schiaparelli left a tradition of avant-garde experimentation still - obviously - followed in fashion today. But unlike today's excesses of... whatever they call that unwearable craziness, Schiaprarelli never lost sight of the fact that she was making clothing that was to be worn by real people for real reasons. And that's a pretty damned impressive legacy.

I really want a shoe hat. I wonder if we could knit and felt one?


Emily said...

Oh boy, the eagerness with which I await these installments on fashion is kind of surprising. I am not fashionable, nor have I ever aspired to be. But I love seeing how these people have thought of fabric & shaping & women's bodies, and all. Some of this stuff is breath-takingly beautiful. And I've always wondered where the obsession with shocking with "new" ideas came from, given that no thought to beauty seems to have entered the process. Keep going! Yay! More!

Emily again said...

I need to add...what's called "Armenian Knitting" has been my approach to fair-isle forever. I always laugh when I see that term. All it means is avoiding floats that are long enough to catch in fingers! Yes, there's some bleed-through, but it's worth it to me, on those things I've done that way (mostly for young kids & babies).

Louiz said...

Cool. I seem to recall reading an article about this, but it might have been in vogue knitting by Meg Swansen. If it wasn't (and you I suspect would know) let me know and I'll look through my Knitting and crochet guild magazines, because if it wasn't vogue it was that.

Roxie said...

Thank you, thank you!! I greedily await more. Will you do a history of underwear as well? The waspishness of Zhazha's waist contrasted with the full-figured Ms West scarcely seems anatomically possible in the same species.

Paris in the 20s and 30s and 40s - Oh I would love to hear some of those stories!!

Anonymous said...

oh, i love the fashion stuff. keep it coming

i love the art history stuff too

i'm surprised that you don't have annie modesitt's blog on your blog list. she's a trained costumer and knitter, and she's now doing a series of knitting designs based on different garments throughout history.

she did a knit elizabethan ruff that was genius.

her site is modeknit dot com?

anyway, digress in any and every direction, it's great! and, of course, pics of the GOOB!! always fantastic

thanks for being you and writing such a great blog


walterknitty said...

From what I've seen, you and felting do not have a good relationship. You could try to felt a shoe hat, but it'll probably fitting your little girl instead of you. :) Thank you for doing the work to put up this series on designers.

Aldona said...

Wow! I found your website via the Vogue Knitting review series and it took me a while to find the blog. In my youth, I aspired to be a fashion designer but never got to half the depth of knowledge that you've displayed in your designer series. Brava!

Amy Lane said...

If anyone could knit a 'shoe hat' it would be you-that! Anyway, fun and interesting-- Mate and I watch a lot of old movies--I bet I can spring this on him the next time we do!