Sunday, 24 January 2010

Endorsed by Madame Schiaparelli

The fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli presents an interesting contrast to Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel - they were reportedly bitter rivals during the 1930s when Schiaparelli was in her prime.

Chanel, a determined social climber, was desperate to shake off the stigma of her poverty-stricken origins, whereas Schiaparelli was born into privilege as the daughter of aristocratic parents.

Chanel introduced a luxurious simplicity and practicality into high fashion, and was skilled with a needle, having trained and worked as a seamstress in her early years, whereas Schiaparelli had no formal fashion or dressmaking training but was gifted with a talent for adventurous innovation, stimulated and enhanced by her close personal association and collaboration with some of the leading avant-garde artists of her day.

There's plenty of information online (and in good, old-fashioned books!) about the careers of both designers, so there's no need to repeat it here. What interests me right now is some print evidence of Schiaparelli's commercial collaborations with two manufacturers, which perhaps present another interesting contrast with Chanel. I would have to do much more detailed research to discover if Schiap (her nickname - pronounced 'Skap') was unusual in this respect - its too late to venture to the library right now, and I'm keen to post this sooner rather than later so please forgive the lack of comparative evidence from other designers.

This 1936 advertisement for Lightning Coloured Plastic Zipp Fasteners below (manufactured by Imperial Chemical Industries - the still mighty ICI) proudly displays a brown wool dress designed by Schiaparelli with a very prominent zip running down the centre front. Dilys E. Blum, in her book Shocking: The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, notes that Harry Houghton, of the Canadian division of the Lightning Fastener Company had offered Schiaparelli £10,000 to use their recently developed coloured plastic zips in her clothing in 1933.

She obviously needed no further encouragement. According to most sources, Schiaparelli was the first Parisian couturier to utilise zip fasteners - indeed, to make a prominent design feature of them rather than hide them away as most functional clothing fasteners were by convention. (Apart from buttons, of course, which have been a handy way to display wealth and taste for some time).

Anyway, back to the advertisement. This conspicuous zip adds a considerable sexual charge to what is ostensibly a rather modest garment. Remember, zips are very easy and quick to open, and this dress flaunts its ability to be opened from top to bottom in seconds flat.

The juxtoposition of the model with a classical Greek-looking nude sculpture serves to underline this subliminal message, while at the same time adding a shrewdly judged gloss of 'culture' and prestige. This ad, although it doesn't look like it at first glance, was a pretty challenging and provocative proposition for the mid 1930s:

Lightning Zipp advertisement from (British) Vogue, 14th October 1936, page 19.

In her autobiography, which alternates disconcertingly between the first and third person, Schiap makes no mention of her lucrative promotional deal with Lightning Zipps but does describe the impact her use of zips made when first presented in a collection of hers. This was actually the August launch of her Winter 1935-36 collection, although this is not stated in the text:
. . . what upset the poor, breathless reporters most were the zips. Not only did they appear for the first time but in the most unexpected places, even on evening clothes. The whole collection was full of them. Astounded buyers bought and bought. They had come prepared for every kind of strange button. Indeed these had been the signature of the house. But they were not prepared for zips. They grasped the significance of the new trend even more than Schiap, and they bought and bought . . .
She must have been delighted with the overflowing order books, but then found herself facing an unanticipated problem:
On delivery day, however, our telephone started to ring viciously, and the desperate voices of all the commissionaires were raised to a pitch of indignation.
"The dresses cannot be shipped."
For some peculiar reason, still unknown to me, there was some agreement or contract between France and America whereby zippers could not be imported. Cables and radio-telephone calls were exchanged across the Atlantic and the zipper controversy reached the size of a political issue. After a few days of hair-tearing and supreme exhaustion, the zipper dresses were at last allowed into America, and ever since, like Columbus, they have remained unchallenged.
Blum records that on July 18th 1936, "The U.S. duty on imported zippers increase[d] from 45 per cent to 66 per cent, threatening to delay the export of Schiaparelli's collection."

Perhaps it was this difficulty that led Schiap, as the V&A explains, to use different zip companies depending on where her garments were to be sold: "In London she used zips from the Lightening Fastener Company of Great Britain, in Paris she used zips made by Éclair and for export to the USA, Hookless Fastener Company zips produced in the USA."

By the following year, the Lightning Zipp campaign featured more conventional illustrations of Schiaparelli's designs in a fashion show setting:

Lightning Zipp advertisement from (British) Vogue, 14th April 1937, p.65.

The copy reads:
Zipps on day suits, on evening gowns, on cocktail trouser suits. Zipps at front, side or back, in every colour of the rainbow, matching, contrasting . . . always decorative, always practical. Schiaparelli has made plastic zipps a feature of her recent collections, and continues - as do other leading couturiers - to use them for fashion fastening.
By August 1937, a subsequent Lightning Zipp ad makes no mention of Schiaparelli so perhaps that deal had run its course. However, Schiap had plenty of other irons in the fire.

As early as 1929, Schiaparelli had licensed her designs for reproduction by ready-to-wear companies and paper pattern manufacturers in America. Her fascination with textiles, and especially new developments in synthetic fibres, led her to collaborate with a number of manufacturers including Bianchini, Colcombet and Ducharne. She could see interesting textural potential even in test fabrics dismissed as 'mistakes' by their producers and was responsible for popularising a number of innovative new materials, including rayon crêpes.

During the early 1930s she endorsed a number of American-produced fabrics, not to mention hosiery and shoes, seeing these collaborations as a valuable way to develop and enhance her profile in that vast and lucrative market. But she also had strong connections with Great Britain - she regarded the country as her second home - and loved British textiles such as Scottish tweeds.

In November 1936, the British textile manufacturer William Hollins & Co. launched its new range of thirty-six 'Schiaparelli Viyella Fashion Fabrics' made of a blend of cotton and wool. She was credited with making this rather prosaic and workaday fabric fashionable, and in this following sequence of advertisements it is clear that she had some fun with this commission:

Viyella/Schiaparelli advertisement from (British) Vogue, 22nd April 1937, pp.58-59.

In this ad from April 1937, the layout makes a playful reference to pageantry, with heraldic motifs such as the shield, the crown and the ribbon. And the copy makes this explicit:
Schiaparelli herself has styled the new 'Viyella' Fashion Fabrics for this smartest, most colourful, most romantic of seasons. Bright challenging colours and subtle elusive shades. Novelty weaves. Checks, spots, stripes, and designs of entirely new character. A special heavier weight 'Viyella' for tailored suits and dresses.
A pageant of fabrics for a season of pageantry.
The Schiaparelli model photographed opposite is one of many 'Viyella' models in her latest collection, and she is featuring the new 'Viyella' Fashion Fabrics in her Paris Sportshop. These very same fabrics are now in all the shops for you to choose from . . . for that extra frock, that extra suit for this exciting season.
This was a coronation year (not Edward, ahem - he preferred a gilded and comfortable exile with his American divorcée - but his quiet brother George) so that explains all the pageantry.

Incidentally, a pasted-over addendum reluctantly adds the news of a price increase for these fabrics, from 4/11 to 5/11 per yard (in today's money, from £11.82 to £14.22, thanks Measuring Worth!)

The mannequin's curiously pointed knit hat makes her look like a chess piece, which is a happy coincidence when we consider the next advertisement, from November 1937:

Viyella/Schiaparelli advertisement in (British) Vogue, 10th November 1937, pp.18-19.

In this case, the theme isn't exactly chess, but Alice in Wonderland:
When I said "Check!" you purred!" said Alice (Through the Looking-glass) to her kitten - and when you see the new Schiaparelli-designed 'Viyellas' you'll react much like the kitten. Here are checks indeed! Unexpected, out-of-the-ordinary checks, the kind that make glorious little tops of two-pieces, spruce tailored frocks, swagger 'cow-boy' shirts, and so on. Crowds of other patterns too, embroidered spots and tricky little stripes - all in original, becoming fashionable colour schemes. The lovely blending plains are also important - Schiaparelli has used two of them for her superbly moulded jacket-blouse and skirt photographed here - Bright Rust (No. 8358) over Good Earth Brown (No. 6843). Both 'Viyella' Thirty-Sixes. Both in the shops now!
I have a fondness for old-fashioned advertising spiel, so forgive me for drafting all this text. Its wonderful!

The next ad, from September 1938, startled me because it looks as if it dates from nearly twenty years later:

Viyella/Schiaparelli advertisement in (British) Vogue, 7th September 1938, p.9.

I'd love to know if these fabrics were indeed "Unshrinkable. Fadeless" as the copy proudly declares. Are there any Schiaparelli collectors out there with examples of her late 30s sportswear who can verify this claim?

This last ad, from November 1938, looks more of its time, featuring a three-quarter length swagger coat and a wonderful 'up' hairdo of a kind that would remain in favour throughout the 1940s:

Viyella/Schiaparelli advertisement in (British) Vogue, 2nd November 1938, p.20.

Plus it has scotty dogs, which is always a good thing in my book.

Schiaparelli was obviously a very shrewd businesswoman, as well as an inspired designer, who had no snobbishly bourgeois scruples about entering into business deals with those who might be considered a little too populist - a little too 'mass market' - for an elite Parisian couturier to associate his or her name with.

As I've stated earlier, I really do have no idea to what extent other contemporary couturiers - such as Chanel - dipped their toes into that mass market (and I'm aware of her perfumes - this is a different degree of diffusion), but I will explain that I gathered these advertisements while scouring through the Gallery of Costume's bound collection of British Vogues. I noticed that no other couturier featured in ads of this kind during the 1930s. Perhaps if I had leafed through the American Vogues, I might have discovered a different story . . .

The two couture giants faced very different fates after the Second World War. Schiaparelli found herself out of step with fashion and finally closed her business in 1954 - the same year that Chanel emerged from her exile in Switzerland to relaunch her salon to widespread international acclaim (I understand that it wasn't the French who were cheering - they remembered her cosy intimacy with the Nazis too well).

As a result Chanel secured her place among the fashion immortals and her house endures, its status revived and maintained by Karl Lagerfeld. Schiap is hardly forgotten, but she gradually recedes back in time as a respected and revered figure too closely associated with her prime years in the 1930s to be considered relevant today.

And to finish, a charming short promotional film for cotton knitting yarns from the mid 1930s, which might not seem to have anything to do with Schiaparelli. You'll just have to watch it to the very end to understand why it is here:


Additional notes

Information was gathered from two books which I would recommend as essential if you have any interest in Schiaparelli -

Elsa Schiaparelli (recently republished by the V&A) Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli.

Dilys E. Blum, Shocking: The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The elusive fashion designer caught on film

1950s fashion shoot, originally uploaded by Trevira.

What is going on here? Its impossible to know for sure, but I like to speculate that its the fashion designer emerging from the shadows to express his robust opinion about the photoshoot (and perhaps the merits or otherwise of the photographer), just as the shutter clicks.

Although this is a generalisation, for the most part fashion designers weren't always the recognisable public figures they are today. Most people - even those with little interest in fashion - will be able to summon up a mental image of designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Donatella Versace, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood, partly because each has a very distinctive style and self-presentation that is instantly recognisable. But also because there is simply much more media out there now, and designers are expected to take part in the publicity machine in a way that just wasn't the case in previous decades.

However, the famous Parisian couturier Paul Poiret was decades ahead of his time, being a hugely accomplished self-publicist. His lavishly decadent costume parties were widely covered in the press, and his larger-than-life persona informed, and fed back into, the perception of his couture house. Poiret was about ostentation, exoticism, a romantic and picturesque kind of modernity and a challenge to conventions (let's not forget that he was credited with freeing women from the corset, which might or might not be true, but anyway).

This precious short film supposedly shows Poiret arriving from Paris at Hounslow airport with two of his mannequins (models), probably another stunt to attract the press since this would have been an appealing novelty item. In fact, it is Poiret himself who runs to greet the plane (look closely at that first figure to appear as it taxis to a halt), and help his models out of it, so perhaps he had arrived earlier:


There's no date given for this film, so I'm guessing early 1920s, by which time his house was already in terminal decline and, sadly, would close in 1929.

Leaping forward at least a decade, this delightful film from 1938 features the Greek-born Parisian couturier Jean Dessès, who had opened his couture house only the year before. We are invited into his busy workroom, and the salon where a fashion show is being presented. M. Dessès is shown creating a gown on a live model, and there's a painful pun by the perky narrator ("gauze and effect"!):


Jean Dessès is little known these days, and the name Olive O'Neill will probably mean even less to most people. She was, in fact, a very important figure in the development of ready-to-wear clothing in Britain.

Born in Southport, she came to work for the fledgling brand Dorville in London in the 1920s, where she began designing classic and elegant clothes to supplement their primary knitwear line. Having set up her own factory, she studied and adopted American methods of manufacture, grading and sizing, and visited America every year to keep up with new developments. O'Neill was an innovator in textiles too, co-operating with fabric manufacturers to produce exclusive materials and designs. (This information was gathered from Elizabeth Ewing's History of 20th Century Fashion).

This great short film shows the creation of a new dress, from Olive O'Neill's rapid sketch to the final product. Although far less glamorous than the previous film - it was shot in the last months of the Second World War, mind you - it is a fascinating glimpse of a forgotten designer:


Returning to glamour and glitz, Christian Dior was perhaps the most famous designer of the 1950s. Find yourself a seat in the Savoy Hotel, London and join the well-heeled guests (including British designer Norman Hartnell) for a very exclusive fashion show from 1950:


I'm charmed by M. Dior's expression - he looks captivated, like he's seeing his creations for the first time. Incidentally, that £500 gown would cost you about £12,835 in today's money (thanks to Measuring Worth for that calculation).

Another Paris luminary, and a personal favourite of mine, is Elsa Schiaparelli. This is the only film I could find of her on the British Pathé website. She is seen at a Dublin fashion show in 1953, admiring the Irish fashions on display. Sadly her own business was in trouble at this time, and was closed the following year:


Last up is this clip from 1958 of a young Yves Saint Laurent presenting his collection for Dior at Blenheim Palace. Princess Margaret presides, and looks completely in her element!:


Thursday, 7 January 2010

Snow fatigue

20s beach girl, originally uploaded by Trevira.

We've had some extraordinarily wintery weather this winter in the UK. The media is full of 'snow chaos' stories, and our local supermarket has empty shelves where the milk should be.

Snow is a fun novelty in this country for a day or two, but after that it gets a little tiresome. Unusually, instead of a rapid thaw within a few days, the temperatures have stayed around or below freezing (-16º C in Manchester last night!) and its become dangerous to even venture to the Post Office around the corner. I'd make better progress with skates rather than my wellies - the only footwear I have with any kind of tread on them.

My room overlooks our suburban street, where the snow has been compacted and polished by traffic into solid ice with a treacherous, glassy sheen, and I've lost count of the cars I've seen losing traction and veering sideways as they struggle to ascend the (very low) incline of the road. The eery whine of wheel-spinning has punctuated my day.

So as a respite from the continuing freeze, I'd like to seek refuge in contemplating the picture above, which is one of my favourites from my collection of old photographs and dates from the 1920s.

Its a reminder of better days - and weather - and a cheery evocation of that carefree summer holiday feeling. To me, every element of this picture is perfect, including the dizzily skewed horizon. Looking at it makes me feel happy and warm, and I hope it works its magic for you too.