November 15th, 2014

pearly whites.

Review: Elsa Schiaparelli by Meryle Secrest

Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography
by Meryle Secrest

Never afraid to push the boundaries of propriety, Elsa Schiaparelli was a dramatic fashion designer who never feared experimentation. Her clothes were often whimsical, like a famous lobster dress worn by Wallis Simpson or a hat shaped like a shoe, inspired by her close ties and frequent collaborations with Surrealist artists. The materials she chose were unusual: rayon, latex, feathers, and cellophane. Her emphasis on color was unparalleled; it was Schiaparelli who introduced shocking pink to the world. But though her fame burned bright, it also fizzled quickly, and today she is unknown compared to contemporaries like Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. Her personal life was troubled. When young, she was plagued by her failed marriage; at the height of her success, she was suspected of being a Nazi collaborator and her career never quite recovered. But in Meryle Secrest’s latest biography, this endlessly fascinating designer is once again brought into the spotlight.

The biography has a very slow start. Secrest was unable to find a lot of material for Schiaparelli’s early life, so the beginning of the book talks a lot about her husband and his interests in pseudoscience. It’s rather rambling and doesn’t connect with the rest of the story, and considering how brief the marriage was it seemed like Schiaparelli’s husband was given unnecessary attention.

Things picked up nicely once Secrest switched to talking about Schiaparelli’s designs. It’s a bit gushing and relies on detailed descriptions that make me wish a photograph of the garment had been included instead of this flood of words, which can be difficult to follow. There are many black and white illustrations scattered throughout the text, but the picture often fails to match the description on the page, so they are distracting rather than enlightening. A note included with my advance copy says that there are 24 pages of color in the final version; I haven’t seen them but I’m sure they help illuminate the text.

While the clothes are lovingly treated, Schiaparelli remains elusive. Secrest doesn’t seem to have any new information to offer, although her research does confirm several stories by pinning characters to specific times and places. She relies on Schiaparelli’s unreliable memoirs and vague memories of her associates published previously. Secrest notes at one point that Schiaparelli’s surviving granddaughters would not cooperate with her, and one gets the impression that other doors were closed to her as well. At times the book takes on a gossipy tone as lists of celebrity friends and fabulous parties take precedence.
So was Schiaparelli a fascinating woman and brilliant designer? Absolutely. The biography, however, fails to illuminate her talents or bring new insight into her life. It will be interesting to compare this book with Elsa Schiaparelli’s Private Album, a book coming out later this year written by Marisa Berenson, Schiaparelli’s granddaughter.

3 out of 5 stars

To read more about Elsa Schiaparelli, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the in:
2013: Limit Vol. 6 by Keiko Suenobu
2012: Incarceron by Catherine Fisher
2011: Another little break for school…
2010: News?: Leaves of Grass
2009: Doodle of the Day: Twilight
2008: Dream Jungle by Jessica Hagedorn