Features | July 24, 2018
Rags to Riches: Five Biographies from the World of High Fashion
“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” —Oscar Wilde
Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney. Penguin Books, 2011, 448 pp., $18 (paper).
Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, 377 pp., $35 (hardcover).
Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man by Mich le Gerber Klein. Rizzoli Ex Libris,è2018, 254 pp., $37.50 (hardcover).
Alexander McQueen: Blood beneath the Skin by Andrew Wilson. Scribner, 2015, 367 pp., $18 (paper).
As a child, the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli thought she was ugly. In her memoir she wrote that she had “enormous eyes and looked half starved.” It didn’t help that she was often compared unfavorably to her beautiful mother and older sister. During a moment of inspiration, she decided to turn her face into a “heavenly garden.” She planted seeds in her ears, nose, and throat, but as she waited for flowers to sprout and adorn her face, she discovered that she couldn’t breathe. It took two doctors over seven hours to remove the seeds. The vision of young girls with faces obscured in flowers stuck with her as an image of self-transformation, and years later, in her Paris salon windows, her mannequins often sported bouquets of flowers for heads. Alexander McQueen, as a young man from East London, felt
equally self-conscious about his appearance. Inspired by Schiaparelli, he sometimes covered his runway models’ faces in blossoms and butterflies, creating a whimsical obfuscation. The lives of the four fashion designers whose biographies are reviewed here are united by their tenacity, intelligence, and imagination, as well as their quests to reinvent themselves through fashion. Their stories are dark fairytales, as each worked to metamorphose from poor, unattractive outsiders into stylish, attractive fashion insiders, only to discover later an underside in their extraordinary rags-to-riches life courses.
Lisa Chaney’s Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life uses newly discovered letters, archival material, and interviews with family and friends of Chanel’s lovers and fellow artists to revise the portrait of a narcissistic world-class couturier into that of a compassionate, humanized version of one of the greatest pioneers of modern womanhood. After a brief depiction of her rural peasant lineage in preindustrial France, Chaney begins Gabrielle Jeanne Chanel’s story with her birth in a charity hospital in 1883. Her parents, Jeanne and Albert, were impoverished seminomadic traders who sold haberdashery and domestic tools. Her father, a drinker and womanizer, was forced by the court to marry Gabrielle’s mother and acknowledge paternity. Yet his wandering spirit was undeterred; he often left his wife and children in run-down accommodations. When Jeanne was struck down with asthma and bronchitis, she died unattended by a doctor in a garret at age thirty-one. “All too soon, I realized that life was a serious matter,” Chanel recalled.
Along with her two sisters, eleven-year-old Gabrielle was sent to a convent orphanage in Aubazine, where she was trained for six years in religion and domestic work. Rather than marry a village peasant, she moved to Moulins, where she first took a job as a seamstress, then
became a performer in small-scale music halls. While she didn’t have much of a voice, she was coquettish and witty. Her elfin beauty attracted a following of rich young officers who nicknamed her Coco for two songs in her repertoire: the verse of a revue called Ko Ko Ri Ko and the song “Who’s Seen Coco at the Trocadero?” After minor successes in Moulins, she moved to Vichy, one of the most fashionable spa towns in France. To Coco, the wealthy people who paraded the boulevard represented worldliness and sophistication. According to Chaney, she longed to conquer “the citadel of extravagance.” Chaney sees this moment as a turning point for Coco, who felt that “there exist in the world things that I should be that I am not.” Living in Vichy clarified that what she wanted most was to escape the poverty of her upbringing.
Chaney details with precision France’s well-defined system of prostitution, which included street and brothel prostitutes, kept women, and courtesans. Coco chose for a time to live openly as a mistress. Her lover, Étienne Balsan, a wealthy French ex-cavalry officer, inspired her love of horse riding and her first sartorial discovery. Preferring not to ride wearing the women’s riding habits of the day, she borrowed clothes from his closet—fisherman’s shirts, turtlenecks, oversized sweaters, and polo shirts—modifying them for her own use. Unknowingly, she was working out how women should look in the new century.
Coco knew that money was the key to freedom, but she also wanted to have a vocation, which was unusual for French women. She opened a shop that sold simple, unadorned hats of her own creation. By 1911, she owned a shop in Paris during a time when a new kind of marketplace was overtaking the city. Chaney depicts the exciting world of le grand magasin—the Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché—offering “off-the-peg” clothing that freed women from hiring dressmakers or making their own clothing. She places Coco among this new religion of commerce that based style and elegance on individuality rather than membership in any particular class.
The financial and social support of two wealthy former lovers—Étienne Balsan and Arthur Capel—helped begin Coco’s transformation into an elegant sophisticate. Yet when she arrived in Paris, she neither took the city by storm nor launched herself as a socialite. The person she aspired to become—a designer and a businessperson—had a lengthy gestation. Slowly and methodically, she formalized her ideas about fashion as both self-presentation and conformity: “Like music, it is improvisation within a structure.” Her avant-garde friends—Sergei Diaghilev, Serge Lifar, Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau—provided support and inspiration and encouraged her belief that art released people from standard conventions.
A rejection of the Belle Époque tendency to turn women into monuments of flamboyant art by dressing them in costumes, Coco’s earliest known dress design was a simple dark velvet sheath with a collar of delicate white pearls. Convinced that the practical and the everyday could be a source of high style, she was in sync with the changing times. The onset of World War I made a pared-down, sober wardrobe a necessity. Shortage of textiles required that Coco make her clothes from machine-made knit jersey. Rather than keep it natural cream or gray, she dyed it corals and blues and transformed it into a high-fashion textile. She also raised the hemline, lowered the neckline, and relaxed the silhouette. Soon the most stylish women were seen in Coco’s salons buying her “ruthlessly simple clothes.” By 1916 she had three hundred people working for her. She recalled, “I was in the right place, an opportunity beckoned. I took it. What was needed was simplicity, comfort, neatness, unwittingly I offered all of that.”
Coco had now traveled beyond the early humility of poverty when she “fed on sorrow and horror, and regularly thought of dying” to exemplify the very sense of modernity. She dictated her own life, financing herself and her work and becoming the best advertisement for her fashion. Yet by 1935, the woman whom Samuel Goldwyn had called “the biggest fashion brain ever known” was in creative decline, replaced by her first serious competitor, Elsa Schiaparelli, “that Italian woman.” While Coco was known for her austere elegance, Schiaparelli reveled in witty, outrageous designs—“a hard elegance”—many of them done in collaboration with Salvador Dali. Chaney takes great pleasure in characterizing the rivalry between the two designers. The women’s personalities were at odds. Coco was understated while “Schiap” was flamboyant. “Chanel launched sailor sweaters, the short skirt, I took her sweaters, changed the lines, and there Chanel is finished,” Schiaparelli boasted. This was not exactly true. In 1954 the knit Chanel suit once again became the image of youth and elegance, and the sales of Chanel No. 5 had always remained healthy since its formulation in 1921.
Toward the end of her life, Chanel wrote: “I am not a heroine. But I have chosen the woman I wanted to be.” She found herself alone, having outlived most of her friends and lovers. While work had helped her transcend “the meanness of her upbringing” and sustained her through two world wars and many personal tragedies, she grew tired and disillusioned and became addicted to morphine, dying in 1971. She might have questioned her life, but not her accomplishments, knowing that she left behind many fashion innovations that have become part of the grammar of fashion: the little black dress, costume jewelry, sling-back shoes, trench coats, and suits and trousers for women.
In many ways, the narrative arc and themes of Elsa Schiaparelli’s life resemble those of Chanel’s. Both women recreated themselves when they were young and then nourished their images over a lifetime. They used clothes as protection to conceal feelings of shyness and inadequacy, and they also knew how difficult life was without money. As self-taught designers, they built their fashion empires through tenacity. Schiaparelli’s life is a rags-to-riches saga that biographer Meryle Secrest relishes telling. Secrest knows her way around the art world, having written about the lives of Salvador Dali, Frank Lloyd Wright, Amedeo Modigliani, and Leonard Bernstein, among others. In Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography, she revels in her subject’s improbable success as an inventor of wide-leg pants, swimsuits with built-in bras, and dinner dresses with matching jackets. Secrest delights in the ways “Schiap” translated concepts of surrealism into fashion: her pockets looked like drawers, her hats were high-heeled shoes, and her buttons could be anything from lips and eyes to vegetables and insects.
Born in 1890 in the Palazzo Corsini in Rome to a half-Scottish mother and an academic father, Elsa had a childhood that was comfortably middle class, but she battled feelings of inferiority when she compared herself to her beautiful mother and older sister. Fueled by her youthful reading and writing of erotic poetry, she cultivated an independent personality and dreamed of a romantic life. When her family sent her off to a convent school in Switzerland, she went on a hunger strike. Her father retrieved her, ending her formal education, though she did learn the rudiments of sewing.
At twenty-three, Elsa married a penniless theosophist, Count William de Wendt de Kerlor. The couple moved to New York and lived on her dwindling dowry as he told fortunes and eventually passed himself off as a criminal psychologist. While the fight for mere
sustenance became acute, Elsa was building a sturdy self-reliance and resourcefulness, which she needed in 1922, when he left her and their daughter, “Gogo,” penniless. At thirty, she had no means of making a living. She divorced de Kerlor, moved to Paris, and went back to her maiden name. She credits this period of poverty as changing her life: “If I have become what I am, I owe it to two things: Poverty and Paris. Poverty forced me to work, and Paris gave me a liking for it.”
Through a Dadaist group of artists, Elsa met Paul Poiret, the fashion revolutionary who was credited for liberating women from the corset and introducing harem pants, the tubular coat, and the lampshade tunic in fauvist-inspired printed textiles. He mentored Elsa and helped her gain entry into Paris society. Dissatisfied with her looks, she decided she was what the French call a jolie laide. With her dark eyes, high forehead, and wide mouth, she would emphasize her dramatic features and use clothes to boost her self-confidence.
When a spokesperson for a fashion house saw her early portfolio of designs, he told her she was more equipped to dig potatoes. She was undeterred. By 1924 she was able to eke out a living on the fringes of the fashion world. Her break came when she saw the need to bridge the gap between casual and dressy. She designed a V-neck sweater with three-quarter sleeves in an amazing variety of geometric patterns. Her silhouette was sleeker and jazzier than Chanel’s. In less than three years, she attracted the attention of Galeries Lafayette and was able to establish Schiaparelli Inc.
As she aligned herself with the surrealists, her sweaters and dresses became more eccentric. She saw in clothes the capacity for art and had the ability to transform fringe ideas into wearable, flattering garments. Her collections found their inspiration in the circus, the solar
system, paganism, music, the zodiac, and commedia dell’ arte. Her most famous surrealist-inspired piece is the lobster dress, a sleeveless white organza evening gown with a gigantic lobster printed on the skirt. Like Chanel, she also responded to the realities of women’s changing roles. Chanel gave women freedom of movement, while Schiaparelli made clothes even more adaptable, designing clothes that could go from day to evening with the addition of a stylish jacket. She also made women feel powerful with her “hard thirties chic” and wooden-soldier silhouette.
While her energy was prodigious, the demands of the profession and her own perfectionism took a heavy toll. She understood that in the world of fashion “an out-of-date dress is absolutely worthless.” By 1950, though she was working ceaselessly to maintain her reputation, her star was in decline. She was trying too hard; her clothes became pedestrian. Christian Dior’s “New Look,” launched in 1947, had reintroduced to women’s fashion the restrictive elements Chanel and Schiaparelli had eliminated: a wasp waist cinched with a modified corset and a voluminous skirt layered in petticoats, squeezing women back into an hourglass shape.
As business dropped off, debt mounted. Schiaparelli presented her last collection in 1954. Like Chanel before her, she questioned both her life’s work and the hard-edged, fault-finding personality that she had cultivated in order to survive. “Alas I am not in love with myself for I am devoured with a burning desire to criticize. I criticize everything and everybody.” In the end she felt as if she mostly criticized herself. Secrest contends that after she shut her shop, she lost her reason for existing. Schiaparelli died in 1973 at eighty-three.
Like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, Charles James was self-taught, yet he was never able to sustain a commercially viable career and achieve the visibility and renown of his peers. Mich le èGerber Klein’s Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man portrays James as someone who relentlessly revised and revisited his masterworks. As a result, Klein writes, “His complete oeuvre might be as few as 250 to 300 independent designs over three decades.” She argues that while he was a wonderful fashion designer who contributed several innovations, he could never get out of his own way. A complicated, self-destructive genius, he too often bit the hand that fed him. It was often said of James, “The only talent he lacks is getting along with people.”
Charles Brega James was born in 1906 in Surrey, England, to a wealthy family that provided “entrée to society on two sides of the Atlantic.” His stylish, beautiful mother, Louise, came from a shipping and real-estate fortune in Chicago, while his father was a British aristocrat from an eminent military family. Privilege did not mitigate his personal struggles. Despite the comfort of Edwardian opulence, his childhood was marred by the brutality of his father, who felt that his precocious son was cosseted by his mother. In 1920, fourteen-year-old Charles was sent to Harrow, where he made friends with the photographer Cecil Beaton. He chose to openly call himself homosexual. For his father, this put an end to an already tempestuous relationship. Disapproving of his son’s arty, sloppy friends, his father withdrew him from Harrow during his third year, ending his formal education.
When his father cut him off financially and from the family, Charles moved to Chicago and with a small inheritance from his grandfather opened a hat boutique. From there he moved to New York to establish a style headquarters that would cater to a community of intellectually and culturally influential peers. Because Charles did not have income from his family, he had to rely on his own talent and personality to succeed. Exaggerating his dandified proclivities, he became known for his brilliant, outspoken, and larger-than-life persona.
Unlike Chanel and Schiaparelli, James never tried to build a traditional business. He focused on designing fashion for some of the richest, most remarkable women of the era—Millicent Rogers, Rosamond Pinchot, Tilly Losch, and Austine Hearst—whose own interesting stories Klein also brings to life. During the stock market crash, he relocated to London and catered to a small group of aristocrats, theater professionals, royals, and members of the influential Bloomsbury Group. Working among this intellectual and artistic society, Charles developed his theory of style. Klein writes, “Individuality was an absolute prerequisite for what he would come to define as elegance, which for him always had more to do with character and intelligence than symmetrical shape.” James made as few as ten dresses a year, each designed for a woman to stand apart from her peers. Being dressed by James helped these women be recognized as original and elegant. But it didn’t help his bottom line. Often on the verge of financial collapse, he went bankrupt a number of times. Schiaparelli, an early inspiration, teacher and friend, often helped him run out on debt collectors, a skill she had acquired from her early years of dodging creditors with her husband de Kerlor.
James and Schiaparelli also shared an interest in wrap dresses. They were both looking for a leaner, closer fit. James played with the placement of darts and seams, moving them from the side to the front to create what he called a “false profile.” His first radical design was the “Taxi Dress,” a wrap dress with a hook at the hip for easy removal in the back of a taxi. They also played with the exaggerated broad shoulder. And while Dior was more widely credited with the “New Look” that was the antithesis of Chanel’s and Schiaparelli’s designs, James’s own silhouettes with diminutive waists and crinoline-lined skirts contributed to the 1950s return to a highly feminized style of dress.
Other than a brief stint designing a custom fashion collection for Elizabeth Arden’s cosmetic empire, he lived in professional uncertainty and was often entangled in a web of business complications. At the end of his career, he mourned the increasing commercialization of fashion: “What the market takes up the markets destroys.” James, with his English manners, elite American background, and fierce talent for creating beauty, brought to America unparalleled luxury, but by the 1960s, he was penniless. He retired to the famed Chelsea Hotel in New York City, where he lived rent free and spent his days perfecting his designs. He died in 1978. When a hospital attendant asked him his name, he reportedly had said, “It may not mean anything to you, but I am what is popularly regarded as the greatest couturier of the Western world.”
The story of Alexander McQueen, as told by Andrew Wilson in Alexander McQueen: Blood beneath the Skin, shares similar elements with Chanel, Schiaparelli and James: a humble, impoverished childhood, feelings of inadequacy, unstoppable energy and love of work, and, most of all, the desire to transform the self through reinvention. While Chanel’s fashion was classic and functional, Schiaparelli’s artistic and playful, and James’s architectural and elegant, Alexander McQueen’s designs embodied his personal biography and emotional state in ways the others would never have hazarded to explore in their own work. He considered his fashion work a form of “confessional poetry” as he battled in life and work between the dark and light. McQueen stated, “I oscillate between life and death, happiness and sadness, good and evil.”
Wilson imbues Alexander McQueen’s story with the quality of fable as he traces his rise from shy, homely working-class kid to the millionaire bad boy of fashion. Lee Alexander McQueen was born on March 17, 1969, in southeast London, the youngest of six children. His father, Michael, was a taxi driver, whose mental breakdown shortly after Lee’s birth left money in short supply. The McQueens were not alone. Wilson reminds us that life in 1970s Britain was gripped by economic and social unrest. Lee’s father expected his sons to get steady, reliable jobs as plumbers, bricklayers, or electricians. If he saw his children “getting beyond or above themselves,” he could be harsh. Yet at a young age, Lee wanted more. He was absorbed early on “by the style of people, by how they expressed themselves through what they wear.” He started to read books on fashion at the age of twelve. In school, he later recalled, he “didn’t learn a thing. I just drew clothes.” While he was a fat boy with “buck front teeth” who was often teased for being goofy looking, he had what his mother recalled as a “strange mix of surface toughness and unusual vulnerability.”
McQueen’s sexual awakening in the ’80s coincided with the rise of AIDS. Wilson details the era of the “gay plague” in London and the impact that growing up under the specter of the virus had on an imaginative gay man like Lee, who witnessed the generation before him decimated. McQueen felt that despite the grimness, it gave him a sense that “I have only one life.” What he wanted to do in that life was to design clothes. He apprenticed as a tailor at Anderson & Sheppard and enjoyed “sitting cross-legged on a bench and padding lapels and sewing all day.” From Anderson & Sheppard, he moved to Gieves & Hawkes, where he learned the art of cutting without a pattern.
In 1990, after a brief stint in Italy working for Romeo Gigli, a designer who blended postpunk street fashion, Japanese avant-garde style, and Italian refinement, he went to Saint Martins, the London art and fashion school, and asked for a job as a cutter. After looking at his portfolio of drawings, the director enrolled him in an MA course, despite the fact that he did not have a BA degree in fashion. In 1992, McQueen met Isabella Blow, an influential stylist who worked for British Vogue. She recognized in his work his immaculate tailoring that beautifully manipulated and flattered the female form, bought many of his designs, and promoted him as often as she could. They bonded over their belief that clothes shielded a person from the brutalities of the world.
Having proved himself a skillful tailor, he also became known as a showman. McQueen’s fashion shows and collections became first-rate theater, taking inspiration from film, art, history, and literature. His show Eclect Dissect was a mélange of visual references to anatomical drawings, Edgar Allen Poe, Frankenstein, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. With each runway show, his fame increased, but as an overweight gay man working in the fashion industry, which had a near fanatical emphasis on appearance, he began to feel like a freak. He shaved his head, fixed his teeth, lost weight, and started dressing in elegant, flattering fashions of his own design. The scruffy common boy from London’s East End was replaced by a sleek and elegant man.
Wilson contends that the journey from McQueen’s hard East London upbringing to the hedonistic world of fashion was especially difficult. In 1996, when he was hired as director at Givenchy, he got a full dose of the elitism of the Paris fashion world. His workload was heavy: four collections a year plus two shows a year under his own label. Friends felt as if fame had begun to change his humble, self-effacing character and that he was surrounded by exploitive people. Dogged by self-doubt, he feared that his couture house would fire him when they realized he was nothing more than “an East End yob.”
There was something deeply toxic about the world of fashion and the unrelenting treadmill of producing. McQueen began dreaming of escaping the fashion bubble, but many people relied on him. In 2000, he cut a “super-deal” with Gucci that turned him into a very rich man, but he knew he had lost the sense of anarchy and chaos that fueled his best work. A clutch of stresses and anxieties left him drained. He said, “I have built my own prison.”
When McQueen saw Lady Gaga perform in 2009, Wilson writes that the designer recognized in her music themes from his own life: “The pressures of fame, the dangers of celebrity, the pleasures of hedonistic abandon, and the interchange between sex and violence.” Forty-year-old Alexander McQueen committed suicide on February 11, 2010 at his London Mayfair flat. Close friends believed that death for him was an escape that he had longed for. He believed in the power of fashion to transform the appearance and mindset of those who felt ugly, shy, and strange in the world, but in the end what he created was not enough. Still, he was concerned about his legacy. He said, “I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette or a way of cutting, so that when I am dead and gone people will know that the twenty-first century was started by Alexander McQueen.”
Chanel, Schiaparelli, James, and McQueen moved fashion beyond the borders of applied art and into the realms of high art, offering new, more intellectual ways of looking at dress. Their lives were also works of art, in which they reinvented themselves and then translated that
vision to a new way of looking and being. As they made themselves interesting, they made fashion interesting through a unique and passionately felt aesthetic. One of Charles James’s loyal clients, Augustine Hearst, remembered her grandmother telling her as a child, “If you have a black lace dress and a ham in the ice box, you are ready for any emergency.” She liked to interpret her grandmother’s wisdom to mean that “If you could cover your body gracefully then you can cover whatever upsets your heart.” These four fashion designers believed that if they created themselves anew and then dressed beautifully, they were in control. For much of their lives, that belief served them well.
If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.
Want to read more?Subscribe Today
SEE THE ISSUE
Jun 19 2020
Foreword: Elemental Force
I happen to have discovered a direct relation between magnetism and light, also electricity and light, and the field it opens is so large and I think rich. —Letter to
Jun 19 2020
Neo Rococo: The Work of Nine Contemporary Artists
“We must begin by saying to ourselves that we have nothing else to do in the world but seek pleasant sensations and feelings.” —Madame du Châtelet, natural philosopher, mathematician, and
Jun 19 2020
Interview: A Conversation with John Balaban
John Balaban is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including four volumes that together have won the Academy of American Poets’ Lamont prize, a National Poetry Series