'Schiaparelli': The Shocking, Shadowed Life Of A Fashion Icon

Oct 11, 2014
Originally published on October 11, 2014 1:20 pm

Elsa Schiaparelli, known as the Queen of Fashion, was the supreme innovator of dress design in the first half of the 20th century. Based in Paris, she seemed to know what women wanted before anyone else, says author Meryle Secrest. But Secrest's new Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography begins with the designer's emotionally starved, lonely childhood in a vast palazzo in Rome.

"What one has to understand about her was, that she had a very, very unpromising facade," Secrest says. "She really didn't crack a smile. She really didn't show a frown. She was impassive on the surface. But underneath were all kinds of emotional needs. She had been starved for love and affection and encouragement. And underneath all of this is someone who's daring, has tremendous intellectual ability, and who has a kind of wonderful, crazy talent."

Indeed, as a child, she tried to grow flowers on her face, to hide herself. Secrest's book follows "Schiap" (as she later called herself ) through a disastrous early marriage to William de Wendt De Kerlor, a paranormal expert who was living in London. De Kerlor, who was Swiss but claimed to be Polish, was a charismatic charlatan who posed as a count and psychic detective. It was through him and his antics that Schiap perfected showmanship and self-promotion.

Her stratospheric rise peaked as World War II engulfed Europe, and faltered thereafter, until she finally closed her atelier in 1954. But in the 1930's, she dressed all the A-list film stars, from Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Mae West, to royalty, most famously the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson. One critic said Schiaparelli "allowed clothing created out of pure, unmitigated, almost divine inspiration." She was the first to use rayon, Lurex, thick velvets, see-through raincoats, wrap dresses, trompe l'oeil bows — and she certainly followed her own advice "Dare to be different." She named a rosy hue she liked "Shocking Pink."

Secrest paints a portrait of a single mother with a sick child (her daughter, Gogo, developed polio as an infant after her husband abandoned her) and a dressmaker who, in the early days, slept in an attic show room amid mice and rats. But she was nothing if not resilient. "She didn't take no for an answer," says Secrest. "The French have a word for that. She was very debrouillard."

Schiaparelli collaborated with the surrealists of the 1930's: Jean Cocteau drew a face on the back of one gown. Alberto Giacometti was another influence. But her most famous collaboration was probably with Salvador Dali on the sexually suggestive Lobster Dress — a white dress with a giant red lobster painted down the front over the pelvis. It was immediately snapped up by the Duchess of Windsor, who posed provocatively in it on her honeymoon.

"[Schiaparelli] and Dali adored each other because they were both daring and risk-takers," Secrest says. "And Dali's theme of the lobster ... comes up over and over again in his symbolism. He has many symbols, but the lobster is really sort of sexual in theme, I suppose. And at some point or other, they both, he and Elsa concoct this idea that the lobster should be a dress."

She was the first to design a built-in bra for a bathing suit, to put jackets with evening gowns, and she loved embroidery, feathers, sequins, and whimsical buttons. In her heyday, she overshadowed her great rival, Coco Chanel, and her boutique at 21 Place Vendome in Paris — with its statue of Napoleon outside the window — was the place for glamor.

Schiaparelli's movements in and out of France during the first two years of the war aroused suspicions. By the time she left France for America in 1942, the British, French, German and American governments all felt it was obvious that she was a spy for the Vichy regime. While she was in the US, the FBI watched her closely for four years and kept a file.

"The war is terrifying for every dress designer in Paris," Secrest says. "Because it goes so rapidly, because France falls so fast. People hardly have time to catch their breath. It's, it's only a year, you know. They wanted to keep their business. They wanted to keep their houses, but the Germans have moved into Paris. What are they going to do? And, of course, Elsa, being Elsa, wants to have it all. She wants to have her salon stay just the way it is. She doesn't want anybody touching her house. She wants to be able to come and go between New York and Paris. And she manages to go in and out of occupied France."

Schiaparelli returned to France after the war in 1946, never entirely free of the taint of collaboration. And herclients had moved on. Women wanted romance, not modernity. They wanted the nipped waists and flared skirts of Christian Dior's softer "New Look." By 1954, she was out of business; banks no longer lent her credit. And in 1969, she donated a collection of her clothing to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Secrest did some of her research.

"It's a curious thing," Secrest says. "I don't think she ever was happy, you know? And I think, to a very important degree, she underestimated herself. She underestimated her influence. After all, why are we still talking about Elsa Schiaparelli? Because there are things that she did that nobody else ever did ... She's one of the greats!"

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The next time you see some witch at an office party put on a fake tuxedo T-shirt, or somebody wear a garment with zippers that are just for decoration, or paint your wall a shocking pink - we all do that - consider this - all are the legacy of a designer named Elsa Schiaparelli. A new biography of her by Meryle Secrest is out this week. And in her occasional series called The Seams, Jacki Lyden's been taking a look at fashion as history. She brings us this portrait of the woman who was the most slyly subversive designer of the twentieth century.

JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: There was a time in the 1930s when every well-dressed A-lister made her way to the gilded shop of Elsa Schiaparelli, which looked out into the Place Vendome in Paris. Inside, you'd meet princesses, president's wives, Hollywood royalty.

Here's a letter from her assistant Bettina Bergery, an American socialite, describing the scene.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Reading letter) The prettiest and neatest of the Hollywood stars is little Norma Shearer. All the girls in the shop love Claudette Colbert, Merle Oberon and her waves of perfume that make them faint, Katharine Hepburn choosing the things that all American girls always buy in the boutique. Lauren Bacall...

LYDEN: Meryle Secrest opens her biography with the sound of a child's footsteps running down fast and deserted marble hallways in the family's palazzo in Rome. It's Elsa Schiaparelli, a small lonely figure with flying dark hair.

MERYLE SECREST: What one has to understand about her was that she had a very, very unpromising facade. She really didn't crack a smile. She really didn't show a frown. She was impassive on the surface, but underneath she loved color. She loved form. She had an aunt who loved fabric, who would send her pieces of fabric.

LYDEN: Schiaparelli revolutionized fabric. She was the first to use latex and rayon for couture. She loved innovative fabrics like tree bark silk and crushed velvet. She was an inventor - the built-in bathing suit bra, the wrap dress, the see-through raincoat. She named the color Shocking Pink. Schiaparelli was an original and a force of nature.

SECREST: I think - if I'm not mistaken - the word is debrouillard, but what it means is somebody who gets it done somehow, you know, this kind of thing.

LYDEN: In December of 1914 on the eve of World War I, Elsa Schiaparelli had arrived in London, 23 years old. She attended a lecture on the occult theory of theosophy being given by a charismatic man named William de Wendt De Kerlor.

SECREST: And she hears this marvelous man talking and he's terribly interested in psychic phenomena and the paranormal - hallucinations and hypnosis and regression to past lives and he's kind of attractive-looking you know? Can he talk.

LYDEN: The next morning Schiaparelli was engaged to De Kerlor. They married, but he proved to be a charlatan and a cheat. De Kerlor abandoned her five years later, after she gave birth to their only child in New York. From his antics though, she learned showmanship. It would be called branding today. And her interest in the occult would lead her to the Surrealists and her most noteworthy creator collaborations. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has many of Schiaparelli's signature pieces, donated by the designer herself. There's one piece for which she's most famous - the lobster dress.

It's off-white silk with a deep tangerine inset around the bust line and then of course, the vivid tangerine lobster.

The lobster dress was created with artist Salvador Dali. The lobster was one of his favorite subconscious symbols. On this dress the crustacean is set over the woman's - we'll just call it her pelvis. The American divorcee Wallis Simpson, who shocked the world when she married Edward, Prince of Wales, snapped up the dress for her honeymoon.

SECREST: She was already wearing Schiaparelli's clothes by then. She's a risk-taker, too and she has enormous self-confidence. Don't you think a lobster dress is a bit of a - OK, kids, here I am, this is my trousseau.

LYDEN: Dali and Schiaparelli stitched up other things. They once turned a high-heel shoe into a hat. The artist Jean Cocteau was another co-conspirator. He created women's faces out of cascading sequence and lavish embroidery, transforming a Schiaparelli jacket or gown into a portrait.

Then came World War II. Schiaparelli's assistant Bettina had married Gaston Bergery. He was a founder of the pro-fascist Vichy state. That connection gave Schiaparelli access out of France during the early war years, but ultimately, tainted her. Everybody - the governments of Germany, France, the U.S. and England all thought she was a spy. After 1942, she waited out the rest of the war in America, not returning to her Paris atelier until 1946.

Secrest says her work then grew as flat as it had been brilliant.

SECREST: I think Schiaparelli lost her way. She lost herself. She started putting bustles on dresses - I mean, give me a break. What could possibly interest women in bustles on dresses?

LYDEN: Schiaparelli closed her business in 1954 and lived in luxurious retirement. In 1969, she appeared on the American quiz show "What's My Line?" Here, blindfolded contestants are trying to guess what the mystery celebrity guest does for a living.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHAT'S MY LINE?")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Would you say that your name was famous in the world of fashion?

LYDEN: Schiaparelli answers coyly.

ELSA SCHIAPARELLI: Oh...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I would say yes for our guest on that.

SCHIAPARELLI: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Might you be known as a famous designer of ladies' dresses?

SCHIAPARELLI: You're getting hot.

LYDEN: That same year, the CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood interviewed her in her sumptuous apartment in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES COLLINGWOOD: Madame Schiaparelli, what are some simple rules that a woman should follow when she goes to a shop to buy a dress?

SCHIAPARELLI: She should buy only what she needs, really. The very best and very little. A woman well-dressed doesn't need so many dresses.

LYDEN: Elsa Schiaparelli died in 1973 at 83. She lived to see an age where women largely traded elegance for convenience. What would she say then, if she knew that two years ago her name was revived and her show rooms reopened for the first time in 58 years on the Place Vendome in Paris?

Last month the new designers of House Schiaparelli showed their spring-summer collection. They're hoping for a reputation for design every bit as sly and subversive as those of Madame Schiaparelli herself.

For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.