The life of a flamboyant couturière.
Italian-born designer Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) was a fashion star in Paris from 1927 until she closed her atelier in 1954. Known for clothes with “a daredevil swagger,” she favored bold colors, thickly padded shoulders and surrealist motifs, many inspired by Salvador Dali: a hat shaped like a shoe; a diaphanous evening dress screen printed with a gigantic lobster; a jacket whose pockets featured glistening red lips. Her contributions to mainstream fashion included the jacket dress, the wrap dress and visible zippers. Schiap, as she was known, was an egocentric exhibitionist who became a dress designer “by accident; it seemed an easy way to earn money.” And earn money she did, with businesses in Paris, London and New York that included perfumes, jewelry, and extensive clothing and accessory manufacturers. According to her daughter, she was a “mad socializer. Mummy got dressed up every night for her umpteen dinner parties, leaving me with a nanny.” Schiap needed to be always on the move, to be seen at every party and theater opening and to travel extensively. Surrounded by the rich and famous, she seemed, nevertheless, to crave affection. A friend described her as “a bit of a bulldog, setting up barriers so one did not dare approach her.” Prolific biographer Secrest (Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject, 2007, etc.) faced the barrier of finding few primary sources: virtually no letters, no diary and a memoir written in the third person that Secrest calls “an example of an evasiveness that was almost automatic, pages of superfluous description of minor events and irrelevant anecdotes” in which Schiap made only “cryptic references” to her marriage and daughter. A granddaughter refused to cooperate with the author, as well, and her friends were dead.
Secrest ably chronicles Schiap’s career and social life, mining others’ memoirs and reflections to fashion a colorful portrait of her “famously difficult” subject—but Schiap keeps the secrets of her heart.