Innovator Elsa Schiaparelli profiled in new biography

ELSA SCHIAPARELLI: A Biography. By Meryle Secrest. Knopf. 342 pages. $35.

The iconic fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, once described the industry to which she dedicated her life in this way: “People coming to Paris are sometimes surprised to discover what a hard business it is, the cold, calculating brains it requires underneath the banked flowers and the champagne. It is probably the most deadly serious business in the whole of France.”

Born to upper-class Italian parents in 1890, Schiaparelli was a solitary child who was exposed at an early age to the exquisitely illustrated art books contained in Rome’s Accademia dei Lincei, of which her scholar father was a member, as well as a “treasure trove” of her mother’s perfectly made clothes, which she spent hours handling and trying on. Yes, fashion was a pursuit that demanded a cool head, but it also required sensitivity, creativity and a passion for beauty that might border on the obsessive. Elsa Schiaparelli always considered herself first and foremost an artist.

After marriage to a Polish ne’er-do-well with whom she traveled to New York, had a daughter and struggled to live on her dowry, Schiaparelli finally landed in Paris just as the exhilarating decade of the 1920s was getting underway. A haven for a generation weary of war and 19th-century social constrictions, Paris was a famously sensual city, its allure deliciously summed up in one commentator’s description of its smell as a combination of “petrol, coffee, alcohol, sweat, perfume, ambition, tobacco, horsepower, wine, frivolity, gunpowder and sex.”

Schiaparelli quickly aligned herself not only with denizens of the Dada and Surrealistic movements, but also members of the French aristocracy eager to wear clothes whose design reflected the new art forms. By 1922, Schiaparelli had begun her meteoric rise in the fashion world, one that continued through the next 30 years.

Many remember Schiaparelli for her use of “shocking” pink, but she also popularized the idea of wide-legged pants for women, split skirts and bathing suits with built in bras, as well as over-the-top creations like hats resembling lamb chops and handbags shaped like balloons, oddities highly prized by those who could afford them.

Though based on multiple primary sources, Meryle Secrest leaves us with a portrait of a somewhat shadowy woman, one whom we seem to be viewing from a distance. Transitions occur rather quickly, and sometimes a bit inexplicably, and it is probable that Schiaparelli would have preferred it exactly like that. Didn’t her genius lie in the realm of illusion?

What the book does not lack is descriptions of clothing, some so lengthy and breathless that they will appeal to aficionados only. For them, this is a tour through a luxurious, never-to-be-re-created era when no woman would dream of leaving the house in jeans, a T-shirt and flip-flops.

Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.