Talk for Friends of Te Papa by Dr Peter McNeil on Magic Fashion.  9 December.

While I was getting my glass of wine before going in, I heard someone saying behind me, “These talks have been good.  Really well planned.  I’m looking forward to this one.”  So was I. The last talk, Revolutionary Dress, was brilliant.  What would Dr Peter McNeil pull out of the hat for his final one, Magic Fashion?

The answer was Elsa Schiaparelli, Chanel, and other stars from an amazing decade of fashion between the first and second world wars.  Peter summed it up: “They were having fun before the clouds came.

Basing his talk on Schiaparelli herself, Peter led us through contrasting themes in women’s dress in the thirties.  Women were remaking themselves, and Schiaparelli was working across masculine and feminine tastes to make clothes for these women.  Gamine.  Hard, severe mannish chic.  Clothes as a second skin.  Satire, whimsy and playfulness.  Retro dressing up.  Surrealism.

All expressed the strength and confidence of the designers and women who wore the clothes and deliberately pushed boundaries of self-expression.

I was intrigued by the to and fro between Schiaparelli’s design sketches and famous clients:  Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Paulette Godard, the Duchess of Windsor.  Her signature design was for tall women with wide shoulders and slim bodies.  The Duchess of Windsor was short.  But somehow, when they were cut and sewn, the clothes transformed the duchess into the perfect manicured image of the sketch.  Magic.

Schiaparelli’s work acquired another quality, making her as much an artist as a fashion designer.  Instead of being just for a woman’s body, the challenging and difficult clothes pushed in another dimension.  They veered towards art, being intended as illustrations for the media like Vogue rather than wearable objects.

Collusion between fashion and art was a surprise to me.  Schiaparelli worked with her friends Giacometti and Salvador Dali.  They designed for her; she borrowed their motifs.  All three were masters of magical illusion.

Ann Palmer

Member, Friend of Te Papa