Few fashion designers are afforded the cultural cachet of a monograph show by one of the world’s leading museums of decorative arts; two exhibitions - even during a period spanning almost twenty years (the last curated by Schiaparelli specialist Dilys Blum, toured from Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2003) - is exceptional. So why here, why Schiaparelli again and why now?
The Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD) houses many of Schiaparelli’s most seminal fashion items, along with the designer’s donation of 6,387 sketches, dating from 1933 to 1953, made a year before closing her atelier. After lying fallow for more than half a century, in 2007 Maison Schiaparelli was bought by Diego Della Valle and the label re-launched in 2014. Since 2019, when Daniel Roseberry was appointed artistic director, the name Schiaparelli is once again in fashion’s vanguard.
I note that the exhibition has been supported by Schiaparelli. The opening was scheduled to coincide with Paris Fashion Week; the house presented their A/W 22 haute couture collection at MAD and it was available to view, in static form, at the cocktail reception. I wonder how the past and present of Schiaparelli will be negotiated and how the curatorial and scenographic interventions will communicate the surreal theme.
The radical Parisian haute couturiére Elsa Schiaparelli (‘Schiap.’, 1890-1973) might be situated as luxury fashion’s proto-punk and deconstructivist. Although it represented just a tiny portion of orders, not surprisingly, it is her collaborations with avant-garde artists during the politically tumultuous mid-to-late 1930s that have captured the attention of the press, fashion historians and curators alike. And this show is no exception.
Schiaparelli’s most notable fashion provocations include a luxurious pale blue (now faded to near white) rayon/silk marocain evening gown and shawl printed and appliquéd with a design depicting bruised and torn flesh and/or the inside of an animal pelt, which challenged notions of interior/exterior, dress/undress, violence and pain (Spring 1937, Circus collection). It was inspired by Salvador Dali’s painting Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra (1936). A prominent (not concealed) and chunky white plastic zip runs down the back: Schiaparelli’s use of synthetic fibres and industrial fastenings was also entirely anarchic within the refined world of 1930s haute couture.
In light of the title and possibilities, the choice of the lead exhibition image seems rather safe. It comprises a striking detail of a gold metal embroidered sun face by Maison Lesage, which adorns Schiaparelli’s shocking pink wool Cape Phoebus (Phoebus was the Greek god of the sun) for A/W 1937-38. Shocking Pink became Schiap’s self-named signature colour tone; it was the name given to her perfume (contained in a flacon designed by Léonora Fini to echo Hollywood film star Mae’s West’s hour-glass curves) and Schiaparelli: A Shocking Life was the title of the designer’s published memoir (1954). The sun image is dazzling, but it is neither shocking (dictionary definition: ‘causing indignation or disgust’) nor surreal (20th century movement in art and literature aiming at expressing the subconscious mind, eg. 'by the irrational juxtaposition of images’).
The vital first encounter:
After ascending the grand staircase which features a cut-out of the ‘Phoebus sun’, I open a door (which offers no glimpse of the interior) and enter a gallery wallpapered, including the floor, with reproductions of the fashion sketches Schiap. donated. As the originals are contained in bound volumes, just a few loose-leaf framed sketches are placed amidst the grid design. It is a strategy that effectively communicates a Schiaparelli universe, the sheer mass of a fashion designer’s creative output and the scale of her gift. Entering a gallery of reproductions is unexpected and pleasingly challenging. A large screen shows a short clip of Schiap. taking part in a TV quiz show; she appears good-natured and hearing her voice for the first time makes me feel I know her a little better.
Objects, objects and more compelling objects …
A note to visitors: From this point onwards look downwards, as the galleries are exceptionally dark and the protruding low-level plinths are painted dark grey– I witnessed three people ,trip over and onto them. Apparently, it happens all the time…
Hereafter, the displays are more conventional. The exhibition is arranged across a further seven spaces which are arranged thematically and chronologically, foregrounding Schiaparelli’s collaborations with various artists. Altogether there are 577 works, 212 by Schiaparelli.
Schiap. was a self-taught designer. A single mother who needed to earn a living, she moved to Paris from Rome where she mixed within an artistic milieu. She presented her first collection from her apartment in 1927. It comprised a group of striking wool sweaters, hand-knitted by Armenian women living in Paris, featuring trompe l’oeil designs, including bows and ties, which were unlike anything seen before. An impressive range of these, along with paper designs and photographs, are necessarily (to avoid stretching and permit a full view of the design) displayed flat. The designer’s gloves - some featuring long sleeves with immense, 1830s style, puffs and others with appliquéd red finger nails - are displayed on dissembled mannequin arms which reach out from the back of the case. One section focuses upon her long-term relationship with the embroidery house Lesage; another her perfumes (flacons and packaging are displayed beneath glass domes).
We are shown masses of her famous quirky buttons, and ersatz buttons, which took the form of lips, eyes, miniature ceramic acrobats and bejewelled ostriches, displayed individually like precious jewels. There are photographs by Cecil Beaton, Hoyningen-Huene and Man Ray; paintings by Dali and Picasso, illustrations by Christian Bérard and Jean Cocteau and an incredible Schiaparelli collage by Marcel Vertès which hung in the designers Place Vendôme salon designed by Jean-Michel Frank in 1935. There are also fashions designed by the couturiére’s mentor Paul Poiret and later tribute designs by Yves Saint Laurent, Azzedine Alaïa and John Galliano. Museum objects are necessarily cased, whilst Roseberry’s often larger-than-life Schiaparelli-inspired fashions are dispersed throughout on open display, and form the focus of the final gallery.
Roseberry’s ‘mini robe’ from his matador collection (Schiap. was the first designer to present themed collections and he has followed suit) for A/W 22 ready-to-wear captured fashion’s headlines and takes central position in a gallery that explores Schiaparelli’s work with Jean Cocteau. It was inspired by his illusionistic design of two face profiles and an urn of roses that decorated, complete with his embroidered signature, the back of a silk jersey evening coat for 1937.
Most garments are displayed on calico-covered dressmaker-style mannequins, some cut away to create an invisible mannequin effect. By resisting the temptation to suggest surreal bodies and head forms, Crinière permits the viewer to focus on the objects. I note that the MDF cut-outs of trees and painted clouds reference Schiaparelli’s installation at the Pavilion de l’Elegance at the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne. Calico, the material from which fashion toiles are made, is also employed to form swagged backdrops within the cases. The overall effect and use of surreal references is subtle and elegant; it is undeniably effective, but I had hoped to come away inspired by new, imaginative, installation strategies.
Very different (and vastly more costly and resource-consuming), strategies were employed for the 'Schiaparelli and Surrealism' sections of the V&A’s Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton (1971) exhibition, designed by Beaton and Michael Haines. These included a horse head commissioned from Andrew Logan and a painted backdrop inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings.
The labels and text panels, presented in French and English, are brief and foreground design considerations, which perpetuate the designer as genius narrative. But today we also expect political engagement. I want, for example, to know more about the Armenian women who knitted such complex sweaters; some context about the Nazi occupation of Paris in relation to a jacket with metal military style embroidery dating from 1941 and reference to the poor pay of fashion workers in 1946. We are told, as evidence of Schiap’s tenacity and ingenuity, that when her workers went on strike she simply presented a collection of incomplete garments. Schiaparelli adored fur but, with the notable exception of the fur bracelet Meret Oppenheim designed for Schiap. in 1936, this has been excluded. If the museum is fearful of reprisals by anti-fur campaigners, share this decision-making with visitors. It is topical and discussion worthy.
Dating back to 1983, when Diana Vreeland presented a show on Yves Saint Laurent - the first devoted to a living fashion designer – museums have been accused of endorsing and elevating the work of fashion designers and brands. I do not always subscribe to this view (and, after all, it does not only apply to fashion), not least because many visitors love seeing contemporary luxury fashion close-up. Further, the sad reality is that in the current climate where budgets are constantly being cut, sponsorship has become essential.
Overall – and most importantly - I am really thrilled and impressed by the sheer quantity, quality and breadth of objects exhibited. The scenography is understated which serves to foreground the objects and the minimal use and choice of materials suggests consideration of sustainable exhibition-making practices, as does the extended run of the show (most exhibitions are scheduled for 10-12 weeks). This exhibition is huge; allow at least 1.5 hours to visit!