The House of Schiaparelli

Annie Bilancini


"Shocking Pink" Bolero

Elsa Schiaparelli sits under the table. Her parents' dinner party heaves forward. Silhouettes of the guests gyre around her, heavy wool chafing the good satin cloth. She is a stowaway sun yanking in these planetary bodies. But this isn't quite right because a sun is predictable. Little Elsa is a willful supernova: an emptied jar of fleas will disrupt the inertia of any orbiting body.


Trompe l'oeil Sweater

Elsa takes her first finished sweater and slips the design over her head. It's all an illusion. What appears to be a three-dimensional bow is actually part of the fabric, an ode to the surreal ideology that blossomed between the wars. Man Ray, behind his camera, conspires with light and space, a great truth teller laying waste to Grecian busts. They christen her Schiap, a moniker that pleases her for its staccato pop, a spiked bubble in the mouth.


The Skeleton Dress

A small, bright knot forms in young Elsa's thorax when she fasts at the convent. A book of too-sensual poetry sent her to this place where the nuns stitch Victorian judgment into her skin, patching her visible body with rough scales. But their piety backfires. At night in her cloister she peels away this new husk and weaves skeins of the loosed skins into the window bars. She finds patterns and shapes, a structure that fits.


The Divided Skirt

Europe is concerned about Schiap, and all women for that matter. For one thing, they can see both her legs at once, thus rendering her unrelentingly biped. Now she might be able to jump. Or bound. Or run! She might just scurry right off the map and into some new territory. Some place where everyone could have two legs.


Optical Illusion Evening Coat

Chanel arrives at the costume party dressed as herself, but Schiap comes disguised as a surrealist tree. She hides in the corners, her arms stretched branches reaching for the ceiling. She longs for a bird to nest in her fingers with twigs and string. Soon Chanel finds her and dares her to waltz. The women take the floor, and the room stops to watch the two designers dance. Chanel takes the lead, her thin hand tightening its grip on Schiap's felted waist. A candelabra burns at the center of the room. The tiered flames dance along with the women coming closer and closer. Chanel smiles. Then suddenly Schiap is ablaze. Her branches are burning; invisible birds clamor from their nests. All their delicate eggs shatter on the ballroom floor.


The Lobster Dress

The lobster seems to have crawled out from between Wallis Simpson's thighs—the British Royal Family's newest publicity headache—the very same thighs they claim helped Prince Edward abdicate his throne. Dali drew the crustacean, and for him, it's a kind of joke, a visual pun. But it's Schiap who designed it that way. She put it right there on white silk, bright red and descending in a way that makes you really look. And Wallis loves it because Wallis knows what the world thinks of her and Schiap, the women whose faces demand strange angles and bright colors. The women who will never be enough, are too much.


The Tears Dress

Dali takes the column of silk and tears images into the fabric. A hundred miles east, the rumblings of a new regime tear images into the European countryside. The idea: that art might heal a burned civilization. Wrap a body in gauze and call it whole again. And yet, when a continent begins to fall apart, what designs can you forge but escape? It's not the dress. It's the body encased within. But Schiap knows the bodies will perish first.


Antique Chinese Robe

Schiap coins the term "shocking pink" to describe a certain shade of pink inspired by the cyclamen flower. Of the color, she says, "I gave to pink, the nerve of the red, a neon pink, an unreal pink." She is buried in this color. It is not her design.


Seed Packet Dress

When the war ends, Schiap returns to a changed Europe. The landscape favors soft, easy lines, Dior's "New Look." The shoulders are suddenly rounded, the waist decidedly cinched. The world is nostalgic for the ultra-femme, and so Schiap shutters the windows and closes the doors to her house. Later she recounts a story from her childhood. She was regarded as an ugly child, and so, knowing what she did about human appreciation for botanical grace, she planted a handful of flower seeds in her mouth and waited for a garden to bloom.