My slightly Shocking life in high fashion
At a nudist colony she learned the importance of clothes and soon became the undisputed queen of Paris. Now she tells about the beginnings of falsies and the sweater girl and why her hats sometimes look like lamb cutlets.
D RESS designing is to me not a profession but an art a most difficult and unsatisfying art. As soon as a dress is born it has already become a thing of the past. As often as not too many elements are required to allow one to realize the actual vision one had in mind. The interpretation of a dress, the means of making it, and the surprising way in which some materials react all these factors, no matter how good an interpreter you have, invariably reserve a slight if not bitter disappointment for you. In a way it is even worse if you are satisfied, because once you have created it the dress no longer belongs to you. A dress cannot just hang like a painting on the wall, or like a book remain intact and live a long and sheltered life.
A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens another personality takes over from you and animates it, or tries to, glorifies or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty. More often it becomes an indifferent object, or even a pitiful caricature of what you wanted it to be—a dream, an expression.
It was a sweater worn by an American friend of mine one day in Paris in the mixed-up days after the First World War that set me upon my career in fashion. I had been wandering aimlessly after an unsuccessful marriage that had left me with a daughter to support, and my head was full of wild ideas. I had approached one or two people. One was the house of Maggy Rouff. I was told by a charming gentleman that I would do better to plant potatoes than to try to make dresses—that I had neither talent nor métier. Not that I had many illusions myself on the matter.
Then this American friend came to see me. She was wearing a sweater that though plain was different from any I had yet seen—women at this time were very sweater minded. I myself had never been able to wear sweaters or sports clothes. When I dressed for the country I was sure to look my worst, so much of a scarecrow, in fact, that I expected even the birds of the fields to fly away from me. But the sweater my friend was wearing intrigued me. It was hand knitted and had what I might call a steady look.
Many people have written that I started in business sitting in a window in Montmartre and knitting. In fact I hardly knew Montmartre and I have never been able to knit. The art of holding and clicking those two little metal needles and making them produce something has always been a mystery to me, and indeed remains so.
This sweater which intrigued me was definitely ugly in color and shape and, though it was a bit elastic, it did not stretch like other sweaters. “Where did you get it?” I asked.
“A little woman . .
The little woman turned out to be an Armenian peasant who lived with her husband. I went to see them, became friends, and have remained so ever since.
“If I make a design will you try to copy it?” I asked.
“We will try.”
So I drew a large butterfly bow in front, like a scarf round the neck—the primitive drawing of a child in prehistoric times. I said: “The bow must be white against a black ground, and there will be white underneath.”
The poor darlings, not at all disturbed by such a mad idea, struggled to work it out. Indeed, this was something I was to discover throughout my career, that people would always follow my ideas enthusiastically and try without discussion to do what I told them.
The first sweater was not a success. It came out lopsided and not at all attractive. It could have fitted my daughter Gogo. The second was better. The third I thought sensational.
Trying not to feel self-conscious, convinced deep within me that I was nearly glamorous, I wore it at a smart lunch—and created a furore. Chanel had, for quite a few years, made machine-knitted dresses and jumpers. This was different. All the women wanted one, immediately.
They fell on me like birds of prey, but the woman from whom I accepted the first order was a New York buyer for Strauss. She asked me for forty sweaters and—forty skirts. Remembering the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in the Thousand and One Nights in my father’s library in Rome, I impudently said: “Yes!”
I had no idea how they were going to be made within two weeks, as I had promised them, by this Armenian peasant and her husband. Nor did I know where the skirts would come from and what they would look like.
My Armenians and I scouted through Paris for Armenian volunteers. The colony must have been unexpectedly large because we gathered quite a number together in no time. They learned quickly and, as long as I paid for the wool, they did not mind waiting for their wages.
The large bow was repeated in many colors but mostly in black and white. The skirts were the big problem. What were they to be made of? And who would make them?
A young French girl in the neighborhood had sometimes helped me with my dress problems. We talked it over and decided to make the skirts absolutely plain, no fantasy at all, but a trifle longer than fashion demanded, that was just to the knees.
But where should we Continued on page 104
Continued on page 104
1. Since most women do not know themselves they should try to do so.
2. A woman who buys an expensive dress and changes it. often with disastrous result, is extravagant and foolish.
3. Most women (and men) are colorblind. They should ask for suggestions.
4. Remember — twenty percent of women have inferiority complexes. Seventy percent have illusions.
5. Ninety percent are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say. So they buy a grey suit. They should dare to be different.
6. Women should listen and ask for competent criticism and advice.
7. They should choose their clothes alone or in the company of a man.
8. They should never shop with another woman, who sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously, is apt to be jealous.
9. She should buy little and only of the best or the cheapest.
10. Never fit a dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress.
11. A woman should buy mostly in one place where she is known and respected. and not rush around trying every new fad.
12. And she should pay her bills.
Dare to be different, Mile Schiaparelli tells women—and she’s the most different of them all
My Slightly Shocking Life in High Fashion
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 16
find the material? And how should we pay for it?
I went to the Galeries Lafayette and chose some good and cheap material at the bargain counter.
The order was completed, shipped, and paid for within three weeks. Pouflf!
I became very daring.
The large bow was followed by gay handkerchiefs woven round the throat, by men’s ties in gay colors, by handkerchiefs round the hips. Anita Loos, at the height of her career with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was my first private customer and I was boosted, with her help, to fame. Soon the restaurant of the Paris Ritz was filled with women from all over the world in black-andwhite sweaters.
These sweaters were reinforced at the back with fine woolen stitching always in the same color as that of the contrasting figures. The stitches showed through discreetly, breaking the monotony of the background so that it gave an effect reminiscent of the impressionist school of painting. It was the time when abstract Dadaism and Futurism were the talk of the world, the time when chairs looked like tables, and tables like footstools, when it was not done to ask what a painting represented or what a poem meant, when trifles of fantasy were taboo and only the initiated knew about the Paris Flea Market, when women had no waists, wore paste jewelry and compressed their busts to look like boys.
Around this time I made a trip with an Italian friend to the island of Porquerolle that taught me for all time about the importance of clothes. Porquerolle was a nudist colony. We arrived in bathing suits and felt immediately very overdressed. Toward us came a very lovely young woman, completely naked, with a child riding on her shoulders. We asked her the way to the village but all she could do was to point to the house where the mayor of the island lived. There we went, and after much calling a little man came down the stairs, without a stitch of clothes on except for the tricolor ribbon symbol of his rank across his bulging tummy. He was undoubtedly the mayor. Fighting against laughter we asked the way, and gravely, without the slightest embarrassment, he told us. Up we went, up the steep hill. The first house was a hairdresser’s which had large windows. We could see inside naked women, attended by naked coiffeurs and naked manicurists. The fact that they were mostly ugly and so incongruous made the whole sight quite a burlesque and quite horrible. But when, at the local restaurant, we were served by naked girls who were by no means Venuses, I fully realized the decided necessity of clothes . . .
☆ ☆ ☆
IN PARIS I found a rat-infested garret at No. 4 Rue de la Paix and Schiaparelli was in business.
Decidedly, I knew nothing about dressmaking; my ignorance was supreme. Therefore my courage was blind and without limit. What did I risk? I had no capital to speak of; I had no superiors; I did not have to report to anybody. Then, probably aided by the surroundings of beauty I had had in my childhood, I developed a few principles about clothes. They had to be architectural: the body must never be forgotten and it must be used as a frame is used in a building. The
vagaries of lines and details or any asymmetric effect must always have a close connection with this frame. The more the body is respected the better the dress acquires vitality.
One can add pads and bows, one can lower or raise the lines, modify the curves, accentuate this or that point, but the harmony must remain. The Greeks, more than anybody else except the Chinese, understood this rule, and gave to their goddesses, even when definitely fat, the serenity of perfection and the fabulous appearance of freedom.
My garret on Rue de la Paix became increasingly crowded, the designs more and more daring.
Up with the shoulders!
Bring the bust back into its own, pad the shoulders and stop the ugly slouch !
Raise the waist to its forgotten original place!
Lengthen the skirt!
To the sweaters I added Negrolike designs of my own, and strange scrawls from the Congo. One was tattooed like a sailor’s chest with pierced hearts and snakes. There was a skeleton sweater that shocked the bourgeois but hit the newspapers, which then took little notice of fashion. White lines on the sweater followed the design of the ribs so that women wearing it gave the appearance of being seen through an X-ray. I designed fish wriggling on the stomach for a bathing suit. People dazzled by Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic started to fly themselves and I made flying suits, then sports suits, golf suits—and my first evening dress.
It was the first evening dress with a jacket and created a turmoil in the fashion world—a plain black sheath of crepe de Chine down to the ground, with a white crepe de Chine jacket with long sashes that crossed in the back but tied in front. Stark simplicity. That was what was needed. This proved the most successful dress of my career. It was reproduced all over the world. I made another of the same type, but this time the sash did not cross but merely tied and ended with a bunch of cock feathers.
And tweeds, tweeds, tweeds.
I made at that time a tiny knitted cap like a tube, that took on the head whatever shape one liked. Ina Claire adopted it immediately and created a furore. An American manufacturer bought one and started a most successful business of his own called “the Mad Cap” and made millions out of it.
I did not make millions—I just got so tired of seeing it reproduced that I wished I had never thought of it. I''rom all the shop windows, including the five-and-ten-cent stores, at the corner of every street, from every bus, in town and in the country, the naughty hat obsessed me, until one day it winked at me from the bald head of a baby in a pram. That day I ordered my salesgirls to destroy every single one in stock, to refuse to sell it, and never to mention it again.
My garret soon became a meeting place of women of international repute, of society beauties and stage and film stars. It got so crowded that I moved downstairs and took over the first floor.
☆ ☆ ☆
TWO WORDS have always been banned from my house—the word “creation,” which strikes me as the height of pretentiousness, and the word “impossible.” I kept in touch with the needs of women who had confidence in me and tried to help them find their type. This I believe to be the principal secret of being well dressed.
Types are vastly different. Women’s looks should correspond to their way of life,' to their occupation, to their
loves, and also to their pockets.
A thin girl who seemed ugly and dowdy once sat in the corner of my salon. I did not know her, but she interested me and I offered to help her choose her clothes. She allowed me to do as I thought best, now and again making a remark in a sharp, husky voice. She went out looking strikingly beautiful. Not long afterwards I read an interview she gave in America. She said that this transformation in my showroom had been the starting point of a wonderful job. Her name? Katharine Hepburn.
From behind a screen a fiery old lady with a powerful hooked nose once called me abruptly, and practically barked at me: “Do you know that you have genius? What on earth are you doing with all these geese? Come and have tea with me. It will do you much more good.”
When dressed, she was the most dignified dowager and one of the most famous and witty women in England —Lady Oxford.
The great designer Paul Poiret wrote a book called En habillant la grande époque (On Dressing the Great Era). It might be better to write a book called En déshabillant les femmes (On Undressing Women). When you take off your clothes, your personality also undresses and you become quite a different person —more true to yourself and to your real character, more conscious, sometimes more cruel.
I remember, when I was so small I could hardly read, seeing a cartoon of two men bathing on a solitary beach. They started to talk, got along splendidly, and after sunning themselves for a long time went behind different rocks to dress. One came out all smartness with a dangling monocle and a silver stick; the other in rags. Stupefied, they looked at each other, and with a cold nod each turned and went his separate way. They had nothing more to say to each other.
Two oldish women, one very fat and one very thin, but both so prim and respectable that they could have been concierges in a convent, used to come regularly every season with a huge metal box full of paper money. They chose the most lavish dresses, mostly evening gowns, and gave no name or address, but paid in cash, counting the notes one by one. We were madly anxious to find out who they were. They came one day when a naughty old man was about.
“But, ma chère enfant,” he said to me, “since when do you receive tenancières?”
They were “mesdames” of a provincial Maison Tellier. I did not ask to visit their establishment to see what my dresses looked like on the girls. The dear soul who believed himself so wicked might have been shocked.
I took a trip to London to buy tweeds and stormed the press with my trouser-skirts. They were made for every occasion—traveling, city suits, evening, and sport. They were graceful and feminine and to my mind much more modest than skirts. After all, in all the countries where women live a retired and restricted life, they wear trousers, while men wear mostly robes.
The controversy was violent. People wrote angry letters to the editors, asking that it should be made a penal offense for a woman to appear in male attire.
“I have never heard such monstrous impudence,” wrote a woman to the Daily Mail, “in all my life, as for a foreign woman to come here and dictate to us what we are going to wear.”
And to the Daily Express: “If any
woman dares to appear at Wimbledon in that divided skirt she should be soundly beaten.”
The tennis player Lily Alvarez wore this trouser-skirt at a match in Monte Carlo and was greatly admired and discussed. Later she arrived at. Wimbledon.
“But where are your trousers?” acidly asked a rival.
“Oh,” answered Lily with a mocking smile, “so much has been said about them that I did not dare . . .”
And she walked away to the court ready to play, when everyone suddenly realized that she was wearing them.
☆ ☆ ☆
ALTHOUGH I am very shy (nobody will believe it) I have never been shy of appearing in public in the most fantastic and personal getup. Antoine of Paris made me some fabulous wigs for evening and even pour le sport. I wore them in white, in silver, in red for the snow of St. Moritz, and would | feel utterly unconscious of the stir they j created. I wore these wigs with the plainest of dresses so that they became J a part of the dress and not an oddity.
People were not afraid of being ; different then. Besides, there is nothing wrong with wigs. In the most sophisticated times most people wore them with the greatest dignity and would not have been seen in public without them. Can you imagine Voltaire or Catherine of Russia or Louis XIV without a wig?
On a gala evening you send it to your coiffeur. No loss of time, no heat, no pins, no torture. It comes home beautiful and glamorous, and you put it or y nir head and do not worry any more about how your hair looks; but on the other hand, how about swimming and playing golf and running for a bus in a wig ... ?
Curiously enough, in spite of my apparent craziness and love of fun and gags, my greatest fans have always been the ultra-smart and conservative women, wives of diplomats and bankers, millionaires and artists, who like severe suits and plain black dresses. That these suits and dresses were widely copied did not matter because when copied they looked so completely different.
All the laws about protection from copyists are vain and useless. The moment people stop copying you, it means that you are no longer any good and that you have ceased to be news.
The first time I visited Hollywood, one special item of popularity had preceded me—that of the padded shoulders. I had started them to give women a slimmer waist. They proved the Mecca of the manufacturers. Joan Crawford had adopted them and molded her silhouette on them for years to come.
They became emphasized and monstrous. Adrian took them up with ¡ overwhelming enthusiasm. He very graciously received me in his house and as a surprise had all the big stars of j the moment model his clothes for me.
I wore that day a black coat with very wide shoulders, fringed with monkey fur, and I had left it in the cloakroom downstairs.
In the middle of the show an undulating blond starlet appeared dramatically with what looked like my coat, and made for me in a straight line.
“Don’t you think it is divine? What a genius the dear boy is . . .”
☆ ☆ ☆
I NEVER quite know how to answer when people ask me how I get my ideas, but truly I get more out of an evening crawling around London pubs, or perhaps from roaming about the country in a car, than in the splendor of a ball. The simplicity and inventiveness of what used to be called in England the “lower working classes”
was inspiring because it was dictated by comfort or necessity.
One evening when I was designing dresses for the film The Ghost Goes West, I took René Clair to my beloved Wapping, and he adored it. After we had spent many hours watching the river we went to a Chinese restaurant where we began to talk about Lillian Gish in that brilliant film Broken Blossoms. We thought it must have been inspired by just such a place. What a distressing and haunting picture it was! Where was Lillian now? And what had happened to her producer Griffith?
The door opened, and there stood Griffith in person like one of the characters in his film, grey against black. He seemed in search of his past. We did not know him personally but asked him to our table. He aej cepted and we spent a charmed evening talking of the past.
Back in Paris, my premises at 4 Rue de la Paix had become too small and we moved in 1935 to 21 Place Vendôme.
! The Place Vendôme has been for years the world’s centre of elegance, and though the Rue de la Paix and the Rue de Castiglione are now unashamedly commercial, the Place Vendôme retains its proud dignity. A new Schiaparelli era came into being.
To start with there ws the birth of the Boutique.
The Schiaparelli Boutique, the very first of its kind, has since been copied not only by all the great Paris couturiers hut the idea has spread all over the world, especially in Italy. It became instantaneously famous because of the formula of “ready to be taken away immediately.” There were useful and amusing gadgets afire with vouth. There were evening sweaters, skirts, blouses, and accessories previously scorned by the haute couture.
Jean-Michel Franck made a sri’ded cage for my budding perfume business, and the Boutique took its rightful niece as a Paris landmark after the Eiffel Tower, the Invalides, the Château of Versailles, and the Folies Bergères.
I was really in business now. The thing was no longer a game. STOP, LOOK, AND LISTEN was the theme of the year. Fantasy and insrenuity broke forth, with complete indifference not merely to what people would say but even to what was practical. This notable year therefore gave forth tweeds for the evening, padlocks for ! suits, evening raincoats, embroidered saris, glass dresses, and buttons of golden sovereigns and French louis t,o mock the next French devaluation. Mrs. Harrison Williams, then the fabulous leader of fashion, had a pink glass dress with pink camellias.
One day I sent for Colcombet, the most daring of the textile men.
“I want a material printed like a newspaper,” I said.
“But it will never sell!” exclaimed the terrorized man.
“I think it will.”
I clipped newspaper articles about Schiaparelli, both complimentary and otherwise, in every sort of language, stuck them together like a puzzle, and had them printed on silk and cotton. They came out in all kinds of colors and were turned into blouses, scarves, hats, and all kinds of bathing nonsense. The man sold thousands and thousands of yards. Today in a shop near London’s Piccadilly you can still buy a tobacco pouch made of old newspaper clippings printed on oilskin. Thus I found a new way into men’s pockets!
The problems of quick dressing and the lack of servants now became acute.
I made aprons and kitchen clothes so that American women could do their own cooking and still look attractive. One of the things to be most imme-
diately affected by this simplification of life was—underwear. Disappearing fast were the pleatings, real lace, and pure silk. Slowly came an infiltration of much smaller items that women could wash themselves and wear with the minimum of ironing.
I am reminded of the sad prince who, to obtain happiness for himself, was told to wear the shirt of an entirely happy man. He went all round the world till he found a man who appeared to him completely happy. “Your shirt for my kingdom!” cried the prince in ecstasy. But the old man answered: “I have never possessed a shirt.”
So the modern woman is perhaps happier for the lack of her underwear.
Those screens I had in my first garret followed me to the Place Vendôme. As in a confessional, the screens held their secrets. Many unknown things, subterfuges, and deceits were revealed in their sanctuary, but these revelations never went beyond them. They alone heard the stories of wives and mistresses, saw the maimed bodies of women thought to be beautiful or the secret loveliness of women considered plain. And if Schiaparelli looks and listens with sympathy and pity, she forgets everything at six o’clock when she leaves the office—so all is safe.
☆ ☆ ☆
THE YEAR 1937 seemed to me to strike the knell of individuality. The Seine was getting dressed up for the Paris Exhibition and the Syndicat de la Couture organized a pavilion to the glory of this great French industry. It also dictated a great many rules, not all of them very happy, as to what one could and could not do. I felt like Don Quixote and the windmills.' The manneo'dns we were obliged to make use of were in some respects hideous. All ore could do was to hide their absurditunder voluminous skirts.
After much discussion I went and made r y 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!
At the Place Vendôme the unexpected was always taking place. One never knew if it was high or low tide, or what one would find in the salon upstairs. Women pilots, air hostesses, women from art schools, the army, or the navy; pilgrim mothers of America, tourists with rhinestones in their hats, royalty past and present; past, present, and future presidents’ wives, ambassadresses, actresses, painters, architects, playwrights, admirals, generals, journalists, explorers, governors of all nations, decorators, duchesses and duchesses-to-be; and a prevalence of princesses who were to be seen every day.
A woman came in one day from the Middle West. She was timid and did not dress well, and was definitely plain. She had large brown eyes like a startled hare and uninteresting brown hair. She had a look of gentleness, and an innate restraint.
I liked her and began to mold her. She started to slim severely and irrevocably, cut her hair in a very strict
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way that made lier head look like a cask. She seemed to become taller, and her rather large bones, that were a drawback at the beginning, became strangely interesting and took on a certain special beauty. She chose very plain dresses that followed the skeleton of her body, jewels important enough to be in proportion to her height, colors that were deep and daring, and much black and white. She married a young man of subtle taste who helped her to build up this new personality. She wore lovely Chinese clothes at home that seemed to endow her with their shadowlike, everlasting influence.
She thus became a woman who stirred interest and curiosity everywhere she appeared. She was more than smart, more than beautiful. We became great friends, and I was uncommonly proud of her because I felt I had played a vital part in this extraordinary transformation. She died tragically, but we often talk of her with her husband or her friends as the woman who understood and wore my clothes better than anybody else.
The Marquise Casati used to stay at the Hôtel du Rhin across the road. Tall and gaunt, with heavily made-up eyes, she represented a past age of solendor when a few beautiful and wealthy women adopted an almost brutally individualistic way of living and presenting themselves to the public. The marquise appeared leading a panther on a diamond leash. All she had left now was a black velvet dress covered with dead-white face powder. A salesgirl was sent round with a small gift from the Boutique. She found the marquise in bed, fully made-up in the old vamp style, covered with a rug of black ostrich feathers, eating a breakfast of fried fish and drinking straight Pernod while trying on a newspaper scarf.
She said to the salesgirl: “When I
am in France, I always take a typical French breakfast. Will you join me. ^ “Merci, madame, j'ai déjà déjeune, answered the horrified but polite girl.
☆ ☆ ☆
SHORTLY before the war I found myself, of all things, aboard the TransSiberian train bound for Moscow to design a costume for the average Soviet woman, something that every woman could wear whatever her condition of life, and that she could easily buy. It was a tall order, titillating with humor and irony but possible and vastly tempting. The famous photographer Cecil Beaton came along with me.
The newspapers made a big noise about it all. They said I had made a dress forty million women would wear. It was said that the wife of Stakhanov, the miner who had invented Stakhanovism, had been given a motor car, a bank account and the latest Schiaparelli dress.
One day, having forgotten something, I returned hurriedly to my hotel. As soon as I opened the door I heard screams of fear. My dresses had been laid out on the floor and four women were busily taking patterns. They all began to talk at the same time, not minding the fact that I did not understand a word. I sat on my bed laughing and laughing, and to their great surprise made gestures to explain to them how they could copy in an easier way.
Contrary to all expectation, I had designed a very plain black dress typically “Schiap,” a dress that was high in the neck and could be worn both at the office and at the theatre, the sort of dress I wear all day myself. Over it was a loose red coat lined with black which fastened with large simple buttons. To go with this was a hat
of knitted wool that every woman could easily copy. It was closed with a zip and had a concealed pocket. The Soviets eventually rejected this as being an invitation to pickpockets in streetcars.
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WHEN MAE WEST came to Paris she was stretched out on the operating table of my workroom, and measured and probed with care and curiosity. She had sent me all the most intimate details of her famous figure, and for greater accuracy a plaster statue of herself quite naked in the pose of the Venus de Milo. She was preparing a new film and cabled me to make her dresses.
Mae’s hourglass silhouette captivated the minds of some of my girls, but not all of them had bosoms. Bosoms were at that time taboo, especially in America where women strapped them tight with Velpo. One girl decided that she wanted to be a little more provocative, so secretly, with the fitter, while trying on a tight blue dress she decided to help Nature. She had for some time put stockings and handkerchiefs in her bust bodice but the result was not quite successful. This time she wanted it to be well thought out and of pleasing shape. She went out that night feeling wonderfully sexy and sure of being admired. But there was no reaction. At last she could not stand it any more, and asked her husband:
“What do you think of my figure tonight?”
“Most interesting,” he answered rather sardonically. “You look like the wolf of Rome.”
Something had slipped, and she discovered with terror that she had four breasts.
That is how the falsies began. The most modern are called Very Secret and
they are blown up with a straw, as if you were sipping crème de menthe.
From this silhouette also arose the bottle of perfume shaped like a woman, that famous Schiaparelli perfume bottle that practically became the signature of the house.
To find the name of a perfume is a very difficult problem because every word in the dictionary seems to be registered. The color flashed in front of my eyes. Bright, impossible, impudent, becoming, life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world put together, a color of China and Peru but not of the West—a shocking color, pure and undiluted. So I called the perfume “Shocking.” The presentation would be shocking, and most of the accessories and gowns would be shocking. It caused a mild panic among my friends and executives, but success was immense and immediate. The perfume, without advertising of any sort, took a leading place, and the color “shocking” established itself for ever as a classic.
Even Dali dyed an enormous stuffed bear in shocking pink and put drawers in its stomach. Bebe Bérard loved to put the scent on his beard till it trickled onto his torn shirt and the little dog in his arms. Marie-Louise Bousquet, the witty hostess of one of the last Paris drawing rooms, would pull her skirts up and drench her petticoat with it.
Dali was a constant caller. We devised together the coat with many drawers from one of his famous pictures. The black hat in the form of a shoe with a Shocking velvet heel standing up like a small column was another innovation. The Hon. Mrs. Reginald Fellowes, “Daisy” to her friends, the most talked-about welldressed woman, the supreme word in elegance at that time, had the courage
to wear it. There was another hat resembling a lamb cutlet with a white frill on the bone, and this, more than anything else, contributed to my fame for eccentricity. Daisy wore it defiantly and certain newspaper columnists have never forgotten it. Jean Cocteau made some drawings of heads for me. I reproduced some of these on the back of an evening coat, and one, with long yellow hair reaching to the waist, on a grey linen suit.
The Schiaparelli collections followed one another with definite themes. There was the pagan collection when women looked as if they had come out of a Botticelli painting, with wreaths and leaves of delicate flowers embroidered on simple, clinging classical gowns. There was an astrological collection with horoscopes, the stars, the moon, and the sun glittering at every step. The most riotous and swaggering collection was that of the circus. Barnum, Bailey, Crock, and the Fratellinis got loose in a mad dance in the dignified showrooms, up and down the imposing staircase, in and out of the windows. Clowns, elephants, horses, decorated the prints. Balloons for bags, spats for gloves, ice-cream cones for hats, and trained waltzing dogs and mischievous monkeys . . .
There was no criticism of “Who can wear it?” As an amazing fact, I did not lose a single one of my wealthy conservative old-fashioned clients but got a lot of new ones—and, of course, all the stars . . .
Marlene Dietrich trying on hats, her famous legs crossed, smoking a perennial cigarette as if she was posing for the movies, and like nobody else does. Claudette Colbert, mischievous and twinkling . . . Norma Shearer . . . Merle Oberon perfumed like the Queen of Sheba . . . Lauren Bogart with her aristocratic face and Brooklyn vocabulary saying a deep, long bonjour that sounded like a high note . . . Gary Cooper, shy, following with his navy-blue eyes his latest conquest . . . Michele Morgan straight out of her mamma’s concierge lodge . . . Annabella playing the grown-up in a René Clair film and looking like a little boy . . . Simone Simon tearing her dress to pieces in the face of the fitter because she did not want to wear it in spite of Sacha Guitry’s wish . . . and Constance Bennett turned into a fox, so many fox furs encircled her person . . . Gloria Swanson and Cécile Sorel.
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IN DECEMBER 1945 T was for the second time back in a Paris trying with hollow gaiety to forget a world war. I tried to make women both slim and elegant, so that they could face the new way of life. I did not immediately realize that the sort of elegance we had known before the war was now dead.
The shock I had received at the first sight of the clothes in the Place Vendôme continued with the discovery of the new public: the newly rich wives
of grocers, butchers, and provision merchants, and all kinds of slippery trades, who had discovered the maison de couture; the newly poor who had not yet got out of the habit—the subway public, coming out like moles for the sales.
The first reaction from the towering turbans in which one could have hidden three lovers, hats like storks’ nests, and shoulders as wide as the streets, was to throw away all padding and bulkiness. We had to forget all this and start a new line with shoulders that practically drooped, long dresses, high boscms.
With a reminiscence of great elegance and dignity, I turned to the Regency —there is not very much new in anything. I turned toward high col-
lars, bulky scarves, tiny waists. This proved a little rarefied . . . and a certain coarseness prevailed.
I was still a dreamer and I continued to have a vision of women dressed in a practical yet dignified and elegant way, and I thought of the ancient wisdom of the Chinese and the simplicity of their clothes. I made flat dresses with sloping lines, easily packed, easily carried, light in weight and becoming to the figure. I made an entire trousseau in a specially designed Constellation bag weighing less than ten pounds, including a reversible coat for day and night, six dresses, and three hats. I considered this the natural answer to the life that faced us, but I was wrong. That collection, which I still think was one of the most intelligent I have done, had a publicity success but no sale. Women insisted on looking like little Sjirls, even if they were old, with a silhouette that with some wishful thinking could be called slim, and built-up faces that looked as if they had cried “Stop!” to death.
I found too that the emphasis on restriction, on secrecy, that I had first noted at the time of the Paris Exhi bition of 1937 had grown. The Syndicat de la Couture had drawn up new laws, including one that the press was no longer allowed to take photographs during a show. I strongly and wholly disagree with my colleagues on these matters.
When at last photographs can be taken nowadays they cannot be published for nearly a month. Imagine how stale the news has become by then. Movies and television cameras are also banned at dress shows, thus not merely robbing us of the spontaneous publicity we used to enjoy, but leaving the stage clear for any financial or preconceived scheme that some unscrupulous set of people might devise.
When I see my first tentative ideas, my feelers, picked up not only by the usual copyists but also by people who organize well-publicized and successful collections, I feel magnificently alive. These people, of course, make much more money than I do. But what of it? What is more invigorating than to give without counting the cost? In short, I believe that these restrictions which started in 1947 now threaten the downfall of the real French elegance.
Now, when young people write to me from all over the world—and some of the letters are appealingly naïve, and some of the sketches they send me are pathetic—when they want to know how to start, and what school to attend, my answers must appear to them very disappointing.
How to start!
First, are you sure you have got IT? Or are you not sure?
The best and only school is a workroom, noisy, human, alive, and creative. To start in Paris as an arpetle, the girl who picks the pins from the floor, is the best way. To work one’s way up to become a seconde main, then a premiere main. You may become a première because of good work and talent. You may even in time become the head of a famous Paris house like Mme Vionnet who created an epoch of classic beauty, or Mme Lanvin, a monument of French couture. If these two women have been able to do it you may also succeed. The way is open to everybody who has the will, the ambition, the respect for work, and the IT.
But to attend a pretty school, cold and uninspiring, to stammer with pins and chalk in front of a dummy, is not a good thing. That sort of training is apt to kill talent and to turn out nonentities. It is merely useful for training people who want to go in for mass production. if