Guest Post: Schiaparelli’s Shock Tactics (Part I)

By Victoria Pass

Today’s post is by Victoria Pass, she received her PhD from the University of Rochester in May 2011 and she is currently teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her dissertation, Strange Glamour, examines fashion and art in the 1920s and 1930s. Her research examines fashion in the context of art, politics, gender, and race and she is currently working on a projects on African influences on modern fashion- a paper she recently presented at the Women in Magazines conference at Kingston Universality (UK).

Elsa Schiaparelli seems like an unlikely candidate for the godmother of punk style.  An Italian aristocrat, Schiaparelli took up designing to support her daughter after she was abandoned by her husband.  She launched her first collection in Paris in 1927, and by the mid 1930s she was a household name in both Europe and the US, dressing the likes of Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, and Mrs. Wallis Simpson, the future Duchess of Windsor.    She would seem to be a far cry from women like Vivienne Westwood or Siouxsie Sioux, and yet her aesthetic and ethos reflects the same impulse to shock and to question gender norms as punk style.

John Phillips, Elsa Schiaparelli wearing a jacket of her new magenta color known as, “Shocking,” for Life, 1937

Vivienne Westwood wearing a “Destroy” muslin T-shirt Designed by Malcolm McLaren and Westwood, 1977 Source: V & A:

There are many affinities between Schiaparelli’s work and the aesthetic of punk.  In collaboration with Surrealist Salvador Dali, Schiaparelli created a garment that appears to be torn, presaging the torn clothing and distressed looks of the punks.

Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali, Tear Illusion Dress, February 1938 (London: V &A, T.393&A,D to F-1974)

Ian Dickson, Ari Up, front-woman for the Slits, 1977

Schiaparelli also adopted the collage technique of the cubists, creating a fabric print from newspaper clippings about her.  This print’s cut and paste look mirrors the look of Xeroxed punk fan-zines and posters.

Cecil Beaton, Schiaparelli accessories in Vogue, April 1935

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood , Punk ensemble, c. 1977 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.13)

Fred Scrutin, Punk girl in front of the Seditionaries Shop, London, c. 1978-80

There is a much deeper connection between Schiaparelli’s designs and punk style. In the 1982 film, Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains the bravado of Corrine, played by Diane Lane, as the front woman for the titular band, seems to me to be emblematic of the style of punk women.  Throwing off her brown overcoat during the band’s first performance and pulling off her red beret, Corrine reveals what will become her signature style, fishnets, black briefs, a transparent red blouse, matching her aggressive red eye makeup, and an incredible punk coiffeur with bleached stripes on the sides.


The style is aggressive and revealing, Corrinne shouts at the audience:  “I’m perfect, but nobody in this shithole gets me because I don’t put out.”  Corrine’s combination of provocative and sexually explicit clothing with aggressively harsh and ugly eye makeup and hairstyle, as well as her “I don’t put out” motto undermines gendered ideas about fashion’s relationship to sexuality and women’s promiscuity.  Here style both attracts and repels viewers, making men aware of their gaze and their assumptions about Corrine’s sexual availability.

The same style of shock and provocation is evident in Lauraine Leblanc’s discription of her own way of dressing in 1984:  “The first time I came to school in ripped-up fishnets, spike heels, thigh-high red mini, spiked belt, ripped-up T-shirt (no skin, though), lace gloves, full geisha make-up and full-up fin…For some reason, the little peckerhead boys in this school thought I was trying to be sexy…Guess again.  I’m taking what they and their society think is sexy and I’m making it ugly, because that’s what it is.”[i]

These modes of dress for punk women were not only about shock.  Using shock, punk women made the men who looked at them aware of their own sexualized gaze through the provocative ugliness and aggressiveness of their style.

I see Schiaparelli as working in a remarkably similar way to the women of punk.  Schiaparelli was deeply engaged with Surrealism and frequently collaborated with artists associated with the movement including Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and Jean Cocteau.  Surrealism, as it was lead by the writer Andre Breton was a Marxist movement, and was hostile to both commerce and women, making it an unwelcome place for a female fashion designer.  Similarly, punk was a movement which strived to associate itself with the working class and often espoused anarchical political views.  Like Surrealists, punk practitioners strove to shock the bourgeoisie, and created a movement which was rife with machismo and misogyny.  Both Schiaparelli, and many of the women of punk took the ideas and aesthetics of these movements and turned them to their own purposes, calling attention to misogyny and upending gender conventions.

This is the end of part I, please come back next week for part II.

Thanks to Anne Cecil who suggested the topic for this essay, and who gave me the opportunity to present it as part of the Punk area at the Popular Culture Association conference in San Antonio, TX, April 2011.

[i] Lauraine Leblanc, Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture (Rutgers University Press, 1999; reprint, 2002) 2.

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7 Responses to Guest Post: Schiaparelli’s Shock Tactics (Part I)

  1. I think she meant Wallis Simpson. Not Wallace. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: Schiaparelli’s Shock Tactics (Part II) | ON PINS AND NEEDLES

  3. indiaalexandra says:

    Hi – I am currently doing research for my dissertation which is on Elsa, so this was an interesting read. Do you have any suggestions for any good sources? I also have a blog on wordpress too:

  4. nannynetty says:

    Reblogged this on Textile Temptations and commented:
    Excellent bit of info to help with my essay

  5. Pingback: teeshare blog: magliette strappate, moda punk e nobili antenati | teeshare tshirtteeshare

  6. Pingback: teeshare blog Claudio Spuri: torn shirts, punk style, and noble ancestors | teeshare tshirtteeshare

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