Sartorial Surrealism

Photo edit by Kapp Singer | Original photo by Kristine on flickr CC BY-NA 2.0

Last winter I budgeted an hour or so each week to visit a still out-of-budget used copy of the art book Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli on the shelf at Grey Matter. I would curl up maskless on the daybed to peruse full-color renderings of outlandish fashion media, sketches and photographs and textural close-ups of pink silk embroidery thread. 

Recalling that visual of myself is jarring, an inappropriate temporal invasion of a very different social contract. Public space hasn’t operated that way for over a year now, and the memory of Before Times feels almost shameful in and of itself. Watching old runways (typically a comfort food for me) with front rows packed shoulder-to-shoulder is suddenly immensely stressful. I insert into each videoed snippet of fashion history the present intensity of intimacy, and I find myself sweating.  

Despite the disruptions that Fashion Weeks across the world have weathered this past year, along with the fascinating ways design houses have adapted (Gucci’s wholesale rejection of the high-fashion calendar comes to mind), consuming couture still feels embarrassingly extravagant. 

But Grey Matter calls to me and my credit card. Behind a cotton mask with a Liberty of London print, I bite back the swell of shame in all its different flavors and buy myself something stupid—Schiaparelli would have wanted me to.


Elsa Schiaparelli’s work demonstrates an understanding of form and function that places her more comfortably among Duchamp and Dalí (the latter was a frequent collaborator of hers) than the likes of Dior. She understands that there’s something almost comically, surreally shameful about couture. About luxury and uselessness and performance. Shocking! is at its best when it’s its least self-flagellating self, when it leans into its subject’s appetite for the absurd.

My purchase of a ten-pound manifesto is ridiculous in a different way—I need new socks, a laptop repair, and kitchenware for my first off-campus foray into adulthood—but I’m still sated by design details that seem to parody the larger fashion industry to which they belong, one that has always both enthralled and repulsed me. 

Chief among my sources of sartorial joy is Schiaparelli, who embraced frivolity with humor and personal politics that set her above and apart from her wartime contemporaries. In their seminal 1999 book Twentieth Century Fashion, Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Haye describe her designs as “unrivaled in their exciting and innovative exploitation of the devices of Surrealist imagery.” She experimented radically with color, texture, and silhouette, and her collaborations with photographer Dora Maar further dramatized her unique explorations of femininity and frill. Shocking!’s title refers to the descriptor typically attached to Schiap’s personal favorite shades of pink, but also to her most ridiculous prints and accessories, from the infamous Lobster Dress to her Man Ray-inspired suede gloves with red snakeskin fingernail details. 

Schiaparelli practiced a unique form of fantastical maximalism, producing work that even a century later, surprises and stimulates audiences even from the flat plane of the page. 

Her creations—and the emotional reactions they provoke—stand in greatest contrast to the sportswear designed by Coco Chanel, her chief rival. Dilys Blum, author of Shocking! and the senior textiles curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is perhaps over-generous in her characterizations of the two designers’ difference in approach: “Chanel viewed dressmaking as a profession, while Schiaparelli regarded it as an art.” 

Mendes and de la Haye describe Chanel’s pared-down jersey knit creations as “eminently wearable… by virtue of their simplicity.” They also note the lasting infamy of her “little black dress” and her laborious efforts to popularize the low-waisted garçonne style that came to define womenswear in the 1920s. 

Indeed, Chanel’s couture was almost scientific in its formless approach to adorning the human body. Her personal politics, though, were more informed by pseudoscience—Chanel was a Nazi sympathizer and (eventually) active collaborator known for her eugenicist views of Jewish and queer people. Judith Warner, writing for the New York Times in 2011, calls her a “wretched human being.” But it’s her name we remember. 

Chanel’s joylessness was repackaged into tweed skirt suits by Karl Lagerfeld during his tenure as creative director from 1983 until his death in 2019. Lagerfeld similarly polarized fashion, condemning critics of his all-straight size runways as “fat mummies sitting with their bags of crisps in front of the television,” styling Chanel model-muse Claudia Schiffer in blackface, and declaring himself “fed up” with the finger-pointing of the Me Too movement. 

I mention both dear departed demagogues of the house of Chanel to emphasize the singularity of Schiaparelli’s legacy. Current Schiaparelli creative director Daniel Roseberry’s Spring 2021 couture collection echoes and updates its founder’s whimsy for the twenty-first century. Roseberry distorts the shape and scale of everyday objects and employs tongue-in-cheek pop culture motifs in a disciplined palette of black, white, gold and pink. For the die-hards, he throws in direct references to his house’s earliest work, including bizarro fingernail accessories and three-dimensional shoulder ornaments that look like human hair.   

At Chanel, by contrast, the ill-fitting suiting and tired tulle confections (Molly Goddard, Giambattista Valli, and Cecilie Bahnsen all do it better) bear no resemblance to its founder’s vision of streamlined & sleek sportswear. I navigate away from Vogue Runway and return to the glossy pages of Shocking!, secure in my surrealist loyalties. 

Of course, the purchase of art books requires both expendable income and an appreciation for functional uselessness. Both of these, in turn, require an ability to overcome guilt, given how rare the former two qualities are to come by during a pandemic and a recession; no one needs coffee table decor. 

But what we do need right now is joy—which I found in spades in Shocking!. 

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