Elsa Schiaparelli; a biography – Meryle Secrest

I’ve been looking forward to reading this biography for ages: so long in fact that I’d forgotten I had a copy of it and bought another!

I’ve been fascinated by Elsa Schiaparelli since I read that Stalin regarded her as the most dangerous woman in the world.  I may have misquoted that as I can’t find a source but it has been lodged in my memory for years.

I also love the pre-war clothes she created as part of the Surrealist movement; the Cocteau inspired evening coat, the lobster print evening dress and the stunningly simple and elegant red evening coat.

I wanted to know more about the woman who created these fun yet fabulous clothes.  I wanted to know how she translated the art the surrealists created into wearable, stylist and elegant fashion.

And how does the daughter of a well-off and prominent Roman family end up married to a con-artist and rise to the top of Parisian haute-couture?

The book gives a good overview of Schiaparelli’s early life but thereafter it is quite a vague biography.  Very little seems to be know about Elsa as a person and no one seems to have thought to ask her friends, employees, friends and family about her whilst they were still alive to ask.  I guess that is one of the challenges of writing a biography about someone whose life melted into obscurity after WW2 when she went out of fashion, or ran out of ideas, went bankrupt and faded into obscurity.  She was also one of the fashion designers whose reputation suffered from accusations of collaboration with the Nazi regime.

I’m still not sure how this extraordinary woman managed to transform herself from a poverty-stricken single parent to being the centre of 1930s fashion design but I am pleased I read the book.  I’m pleased to have the pictures in the book so I can keep going back and marvelling over the design.  I’m also pleased that it prompted me to splurge some birthday money on a Schiaparelli hat!

Would I recommend the book as a biography?  Not unless you already know something about the label Elsa hid behind.

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