Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Elsa Schiaparelli: a biography by Meryle Secrest

I enjoy fashion design, particularly that of the 1930's and 1940's so when I saw noted biographer Meryle Secrest had written a book on the life of Elsa Schiaparelli I was very excited and requested it for review from the Blogging for Books program.  Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography was an educational and insightful book packed with photos detailing Schiaparelli's work and also offered candid shots of her family life.

I came for the clothes, but I was intrigued by the designer herself.

The author mentions on several occasions that there isn't a lot of personal ephemera in the way of letters or diaries left behind by Schiaparelli.  She also adds that many of the stories the designer related of her early life and her personal life may have been embellished and were likely fabrications.  Although Schiaparelli left behind an autobiography, most of the stories were taken with a grain of salt and the author often states when the stories she related veer into conjecture.  I loved the dramatic flair Schiaparelli possessed and her use of "stunts" to gain attention as a child.  A story in which a young Elsa tried to emulate the beauty of her older sister by planting flower seeds in her nose and ears is both humorous and yet describes her difficult childhood.  Ms. Secrest works hard to separate fact from "possible fact" and from outright fiction, but doesn't shy away from relating events in Elsa's own oft embellished voice.

While the author researched her biography of Salvador Dali her interest in Elsa Schiaparelli was sparked.  The two artists' friendship, collaboration and shared love of surrealism were evidenced in their creation of a gown purchased by Wallis Simpson which featured a lobster and parsley sprigs painted on its diaphanous white fabric by Dali.  This dress is featured in one of the three color photo sections which are printed on glossy paper.  It is one of the things I knew the designer for.  When I thought of Elsa Schiaparelli I pictured whimsical hats, feathers as adornment, her signature shocking pink and this dress.

What I had no idea about, and what were to me the most intriguing aspects of this book, were the many unsung contributions to fashion that she made throughout her career.  These include the built in bra for swimsuits which she patented, her version of a one piece dress which wrapped around the body, her early embrace of zippers as a design element and her invention of the matching coat or dinner jacket to go with her evening gowns.  At every turn Secrest weaves the stories of Schiaparelli's innovative work in the field of fashion with stories from her personal life gathered from her daughter, her friends and her admirers.  At times the stories were shocking - for example her admission of leaving her infant daughter on the balcony of the hotel to "sleep in the sun" all afternoon as she tried to manage her career in fashion with her duties as a single mother.  She is often unlikable, but is rarely uninteresting.

As much as I am a fan of fashion, I also am a fan of fragrance, and Schiaparelli's achievements in this field are also described in detail.  I was intrigued by the fact that Mae West was the inspiration behind the curvaceous perfume bottle Schiaparelli's signature fragrance "Shocking" was packaged in.  The cover of the book is an illustration for an advertisement for the perfume, its bottle the female figure with a head of flowers, a tape measure and a button at the waist which had a signature S on it.  All of these iconic images of the design icon.

I think this book would appeal to fans of fashion and the photographs would appeal to anyone.  The sumptuous descriptions of the fabric modifications, pleating, color and texture of the garments Schiaparelli created can't compare to the beauty of these photographs and the vibrancy of color which jumps off the page.  The book will be published on October 7th and would be a lovely addition to your bookshelf or your local public library.  You might consider requesting it for the collection of a library near you, to make it available for others to enjoy as well.

Thank you Blogging For Books for providing this copy of Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography for the purpose of review.  I would give this book a three and a half star rating.

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