Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli

Shocking Life BY Elsa Schiaparelli. Victoria & Albert Museum. Paperback, 240 pages. $18.

The cover of Shocking Life

Elsa Schiaparelli begins her memoir by comparing Saint Peter’s Basilica and Piazza in Rome to the claws of an enormous crab, thereby revealing the protean, anthropomorphizing imagination for which the designer was revered in 1930s Paris. Like Picasso, this short, magnetic, dark-haired Mediterranean woman captivated prewar society with her creative ferocity. A New Yorker cartoon from 1939 portrays a shopgirl showing a futuristic ball gown to a stodgily dressed older woman: “Why should Madam be afraid? Schiaparelli isn’t.”

Schiap, as she called herself, published Shocking Life in 1954, just as she was closing up her legendary shop on the Place Vendôme. Newly wrapped in a silver jacket with hot-pink type, the reissued memoir offers a wry reminder that when it comes to fashion, larger-than-life personalities, celebrity clients, and global branding are nothing new. Switching between the first and the third person—as if the former weren’t enough to contain Schiaparelli’s story (or her mild megalomania)—the book is an act of bravura, an imperious attempt to secure the designer’s legacy against the onslaught of the sober ’50s, when “the sort of elegance we had known before the war was now dead.”

With their perverse glamour and cheeky humor, Schiaparelli’s daring, Surrealistinfluenced designs (such as a white cockfeather boa, a coat with buttons of golden snails, and a lobster evening dress conceived with Salvador Dalí) were almost always conversation pieces. Then there were her innovations, all famous “firsts”: the shoulder pad, the wrap dress, the evening gown with its own little jacket, and the color “shocking pink.” She dressed the boldest women of her time, from tennis champion Lily Alvarez to Mae West: “Curiously enough, in spite of Schiap’s apparent craziness and love of fun and gags, her greatest fans were the ultra-smart and conservative women.” By virtue of her background, she should have been one of them. Born in Italy in 1890 to a titled mother and a father who was a scholar of Middle Eastern languages and literature, Schiap displayed a streak of contrariness early on, running away at the age of six. She implies that her mother inadvertently gave her the impetus for her career by telling the young girl that she was as ugly as her older sister was attractive. “So Schiap, believing that this was really so, thought up ways of beautifying herself.”

At twenty-two, while visiting London, she met Count William de Wendt de Kerlor, whom she married within twenty-four hours. Like her best designs, Schiaparelli’s memoir often displays a gift of marvelous understatement, as when she recalls having Isadora Duncan take off her clothes and dance. “Perhaps had I been in the company of another woman’s husband,” she explains, “the dancing might have been more to my taste.” The count’s affair with Duncan seems to have brought about the end of the marriage. Back in Paris and determined to make a new life for herself, Schiap ventured into fashion. Her first success was a knitted sweater that sported a trompe l’oeil white bow against a black background. It caused a furor. Soon she was dressing le tout Paris.

An intimate of every starry name in the early-twentieth-century firmament, from Marcel Duchamp to Anita Loos, Schiap was ready when Hollywood came calling. She gives us “Claudette Colbert, mischievous and twinkling . . . Merle Oberon perfumed like the Queen of Sheba.” And when she ends up riding out the war in the States, there is Roosevelt, “with his incredible blue eyes and terrific charm.”

At its best, Shocking Life is an elegy to a lost and glittering world; at its worst, it’s the mouthpiece of a diva. (It isn’t enough that she dressed Amelia Earhart; she was apparently meant to be on her final flight, too.) About her own spectacular rise, however, Schiaparelli is strangely nonchalant, even democratic: “The way is open to everybody who has the will, the ambition, the respect for work, and the IT.” Though the book is disjointed, its story is ultimately hard to resist. Recalling the grotesqueries of French wartime fashion, Schiaparelli writes that they “denoted a Paris . . . intent, in order to defend its real inner self, on putting up a front that purposely skirted on the edge of ridicule.” She could have been describing herself.