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In the continually evolving world of high fashion, names come and go, but the truly great ones live on. So it is that Elsa Schiaparelli, who was the counterweight to Coco Chanel between the two World Wars, has become the feature of an exhibition at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris. With scenography by Jacques Grange and lighting by Philippe Cerceau, the collection of vintage photographs, video, couture pieces, accessories and jewelry is derived from the combination of holdings donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1969, and to the MMT in 1973.

To visit this exhibition is to relive history, and in a sense that is what fashion is all about as it emerges and changes, drawing from the past to recreate the future. If Chanel saw couture as a profession, then Schiaparelli saw it as art. And these two grande dames formed a huge vocabulary from which modern designers continue to draw.

Schiaparelli displayed a rebellious personality even as a child in Rome, and her imagination and passion eventually led her to the world of fashion. "The first thing I made was for myself," she says on archival video. "I was invited for the first time in my life into a bar. I had no dress, so I took some pieces of material and draped them together with pins. It started out alright, but when it began to fall apart in the middle of the bar, it didn't end so well."

It is safe to assume, from viewing the sumptuous couture collection on display, that Schiaparelli's talent at dressmaking was soon perfected. The fragility of these samples necessitates subdued (dare one say blackout) lighting, and that is the sole fault to be found with an otherwise flawless exhibition. Fabrics that are black and gray, as was the style in the 1920s, are placed in dimly lit display cases lamentably obscuring details.

The situation improves on the second floor, where more generous lighting reveals sketches by Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau, as well as pieces from 1936-39 when the spirit of surrealism influenced Schiaparelli's work. Archival photography of vintage spreads taken from the pages of L'Official and Vogue are projected onto a screen in a continuous loop.

By the end of the 1930s, the clouds of war were boiling ominously on the horizon, but ironically fashion took no heed. "Paris has suddenly plunged into ingeniousness, charm, modesty and sweetness" proclaims the March 1, 1939 issue of Vogue in announcing Schiaparelli's summer collection inspired by the Belle Époque. Her bustle gowns were all the rage, and four young ladies danced in them at a charity ball hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower.

The celebration was short-lived, however, as the declaration of war with Germany on September 3, 1939 had immediate repercussions on the fashion industry. Schiaparelli was forced to reduce her staff from 600 to 150, and to cut her October show in half. She went forward with plans to present her fall / winter line "for reasons of prestige and to prove to myself that I was still working." But she also used her ingenuity in designing dresses with huge pockets to replace handbags, and evening gowns worn with large scarves imprinted with the French flag. On June 14, 1940, the Germans occupied Paris, and four days later Schiaparelli set sail for New York, where she remained throughout the war years. In solidarity with all French designers, she produced no collections between 1941-45.

Back in France, Elsa Schiaparelli showed her first post-war collection on September 13, 1945, revisiting old themes and drawing inspiration for new creations. As the years closed in, her designs arguably began to lack the panache of her earlier work, though the magnificent embroidery that crowns boleros, bustiers and jackets, is of particular interest. In once case, a top with a thin V-shaped tail is trimmed in a neo-Renaissance style with slivers of mink alternating with crystal.

As the exhibit draws to a close, two frames of sketches by Yves Saint Laurent are mounted on the wall just before the exit. From 1963 until 1972, Schiaparelli ordered various pieces from the designer for her personal wardrobe. And looking over the signed sketches, one French lady summed it up best. "You have to look and see what a lady of that age ordered from such a young couturier. And if you'll notice, she followed Chanel's classic advice - avoid sleeveless gowns and keep your knees covered."

From Schiaparelli, to Saint Laurent, to a new generation of young designers, the world continues to turn, inevitably back to the future.

Elsa Schiaparelli
From March 17 till August 29, 2004
The Musée de la Mode et du Textile
107 Rue de Rivoli
75001 Paris


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