By Victoria PassToday’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).
Central to understanding Schiaparelli as a precursor to punk is the Surrealist concept of Convulsive Beauty, which was formulated by Andre Breton. Breton defined convulsive beauty as an aesthetic of shock. In Schiaparelli’s clothing and accessories convulsive beauty disrupts the stable gendered identity of the wearer, and conventional notions of attraction. Breton defined convulsive beauty as a series of strange encounters, or paradoxes. The classic example of convulsive beauty is the chance encounter of a sewing machine with an umbrella on a dissection table. Breton’s description of convulsive beauty also links aesthetic pleasure to erotic pleasure. Shock affects a viewer in a visceral way. It is a bodily reaction. It is what makes convulsive beauty convulse.
Shock became practically a second signature for Schiaparelli in 1937 when she created her signature shade, shocking pink, and the perfume Shocking and the name for her autobiography, Shocking Life. The bottle for Shocking, designed by Leonor Fini was based on the torso of Mae West, and had a sex appeal that was certainly shocking to some.
Schiaparelli continuously courted scandal throughout her career. In June 1937 at the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne Schiaparelli gleefully upturned the decorum of the Pavillon de l’Elégance’s display by the most prominent couturieres in Paris. Their work was exhibited on mannequins designed by Robert Couturier in an Arcadian landscape devised by Émile Aillaud.[i] The style of the display had been influenced by the biomorphic branch of Surrealism. Schiaparelli did not see beauty in these Surreal mannequins. She thought that they were “in some respects hideous. All one could do was to hide their absurdity under voluminous skirts.”[ii] The mannequins looked like the hysterical women who fascinated the Surrealists. Their massive arms gesticulated wildly with splayed fingers. These mannequins would not do for Schiaparelli:
I naturally protested…Could I use Pascale, my wooden figure, and thus retain the atmosphere of the boutique Fantastique? Certainly not, cried the pundits. That would be conspicuous and revolutionary. So after much discussion I went and made my own show myself. I laid the dreary plaster mannequin, naked as the factory had delivered it, on some turf and piled flowers over it to cheer it up. I then stretched a rope across an open space and, as after washing day, hung up all the clothes of a smart woman, even to panties, stockings, and shoes. Nothing could be said. I had carried out most strictly the decrees of the Syndicat de la Couture, but in such a way that on the first day a gendarme had to be sent for to keep back the crowds![iii]
Schiaparelli’s vignette excited the crowds because she had disrupted the elegance of the space by making her mannequin look like a corpse. Harper’s Bazaar described the scene on opening day: “Schiaparelli stretches a nude figure on the ground, partially covered by a rug of flowers. On the opening day, someone threw a visiting card on the blanket with condolences, so now that lady has been jerked up to a sitting position, with her discarded dress and hat thrown on a garden chair.”[iv] Even this more sanitized version of Schiaparelli’s stunt was provocative—so provocative that her display did not appear in any of the major French fashion magazines which reproduced a number of the other couturiers’ vignettes.[v] Schiaparelli played with the Surrealist and uncanny possibilities of the mannequin, “half-alive and half-dead.”[vi] Schiaparelli emphasizes the uncanny by showing the mannequin as a corpse.
What is particularly instructive about this incident is the way in which Schiaparelli uses the surrealist trope of the uncanny mannequin to her own ends. Her display reflects on the cycles of fashion, and the immanence of death in the fashion system. It also, in typical Schiaparelli fashion, serves as a shocking publicity stunt. In the Surrealists hands, several months later, mannequins became the victims of sexual violence at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme. One of the organizes, the photographer Man Ray claimed that,
in 1937 nineteen nude young women were kidnapped from the windows of the large stores and subjected to the frenzy of the Surrealists who immediately deemed it their duty to violate them, each in his own original and inimitable manner but without any consideration whatsoever for the feelings of the victims who nevertheless submitted with charming goodwill to the homage and outrage that were inflicted on them, with the result that they aroused the excitement of a certain Man Ray who undid and took out his equipment and recorded the orgy…[vii]
Clearly the Surrealist’s provocation was tinged with sexual violence, where Schiaparelli’s display obliterates the misogyny inherent in original source.
This is a critical point to understanding Schiaparelli as a predecessor for punk, since this is precisely the practice of many punk women, both famous and anonymous. Wendy O. Williams, for example used the hyper masculine styles of punk men to make her highly sexualized body into a literal weapon, all spikes and jagged edges. Men could look, but touching her might prove fatal.
Poly-Styrene of the short lived X-Ray Specs, took a completely different approach, appearing on the highly masculinized punk stage in candy colored ensembles that entirely covered up her body. The prim suits and cardigans are in high contrast to her aggressive style as a performer and wild hair.
Poly-Styrene used the play of opposites to create a shocking and disorienting affect. According to Breton’s account in his novel Nadja, sometimes the shocks of convulsive beauty can be inconsequential.
In the case of Schiaparelli’s work was can see this in whimsical details such as buttons shaped like cow heads, mermaids, or pianos or in a necklace which gives the appearance of bugs crawling around the wearer’s neck . In other cases though, Schiaparelli’s details were more akin to Breton’s capital-S Shocks: bullet casings used as buttons on a cream colored coat with details from men’s hunting clothes (1932-5) or a zipper placed provocatively across the front of a skirt (Winter 1935-36).
In the mid 1930’s Schiaparelli made zippers popular, not only as fasteners, but as embellishment on her clothes. As with their use on Punk clothing, zippers served as a provocation for Schiaparelli, they encouraged touch and interaction. In her autobiography, Schiaparelli recalled that, “what upset the poor, breathless reporters the 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 [Winter 1935-36] collection was full of them.”[viii]
Looking at her blue taffeta dress alongside this punk t-shit, probably designed by Vivienne Westwood, it becomes clear that the playfulness of the zipper can just as easily morph into a more threatening statement referring to the Venus fly trap or even the vagina dentate in the case of Schiaparelli’s dress.
Both the Westwood and Schiaparelli garments draw attention to the erogenous zones of the wearer, while at the same time making the viewer self-conscious of his gaze through the tease of the zipper. Many of Schiaparelli’s garments were designed to call attention to the sexual gaze of the viewer.
For example, in 1936 she designed a series of dresses on which she appliquéd decorative padding over the breasts. This decorative detail mimicked the padding often sewn into a custom couture gown to enhance the breasts. This was a particularly humorous gesture at a time when larger breasts were coming back into fashion and women were using “falsies.” More than just a clever joke, this gown confronted viewers who looked at the wearer’s chest, with fake breasts as opposed to the real thing. Not only is the viewer made aware of his own sexualized gaze, but also of the ways that fashion literally constructs the body. We can see precisely the same gesture in a t-shirt from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s punk shop, printed with the photographic image of breasts. The shirt as worn by Adam Ant around 1977, recreated in The costume Institute’s exhibition Anglomania, works in the context of a shocking gesture of gender bending, paired with a combination of a kilt and bondage trousers. Worn by Siouxie Sioux, the shirt calls attention to the sexualized gaze of an audience member looking at her breasts. The shirt confronts the viewer with their fantasy of seeing through the shirt to the breasts beneath, making him self-conscious of his gaze.
There were many other ways in which Schiaparelli created garments which addressed the sexual gaze. Mirrors were one favorite device of the designer. For instance, a dinner suit with lavish embroidery by Lesage her winter 1938-39 collection, depicted two shattered mirrors surrounded by gold embroidery in the form of baroque frames over the breasts of the wearer. The Mirror Jacket intervenes in the conventional roles of the woman as object looked at, intercepting the viewer’s gaze and turning it back onto him. The woman turns from object into a subject staring, or perhaps winking back at the man who tries to ogle her breasts. We can see the kinship of Schiaparelli’s designs to the gesture of punk fashion in a number of places, all centered around using fashion to return the objectifying gazed.
For Winter 1949-1950 she created a series of dresses which tease viewers with revealing décolletage. This slinky evening gown in a dark maroon color called “Forbidden Fruit,” appears to be slipping down to reveal a pale pink brassier embroidered with gold and laden with crystals.
A dress for day with a low v-neck reveals a bright turquoise brassiere underneath. These dresses were designed as the popularity of Dior’s new look reached it’s zenith. Schiaparelli was vehemently opposed to the return to order and femininity represented by the wasp waists and full skirts of the new look. The Chicago Tribune explained, “while the rest of the world tries vainly to invent a brassiere which doesn’t show with the deep V necks, Schiaparelli publicizes this intimate little harness in bright gay colors, and even sports several in velvet with fur trim.”[ix] The revealing dresses of the Winter 1949-50 collection mocked the new styles of Dior. Schiaparelli turned these highly feminine looks into provocation, once again finding ways to stare back at the sexualized male gaze.
Her looks clearly presage the “underwear as outerwear” looks of punk, and help to reveal the transgressive potential of these looks and their aggressive sexuality.
The purpose of this comparison between Schiaparelli and punk is not necessarily meant to suggest that punks were looking to her for inspiration, but rather that we can see both punk style and Schiaparelli’s work in a different way by looking at them side by side. What is most instructive about this comparison are the similarities between these two historical moments. I think that both the shock tactics of Schiaparelli and the provocations of punk were in part a response to the failed utopianism of the periods that preceded them, the Jazz age of the New Woman, and the Hippie movement of the 1960s. Both periods held the promise sexual liberation, gender equality, and lasting social change but did not deliver. Both Schiaparelli, and the particularly the women of punk in the 1970s were responding to this hopeless utopianism with provocative fashion which upended gender convention in far more radical ways than did the flappers or hippies.
Thank you for this insightful post! I am currently researching inspiring radical women throughout the 20th and 21st century for my final project at Uni and I can’t believe I have only just discovered the depth of Schiaparelli’s work. It is so interesting and many of the themes she conveyed in her pieces are still so relevant in today’s world, proving that fashion can be transcendent.
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