Hannah Carlson | Books

Schiaparelli’s Pockets

LEFT: Fashion sketch from Bergdorf Goodman illustrating Elsa Schiaparelli’s bureau-drawer suit, 1936. (Image Art Resource.) RIGHT: Venus de Milo with Drawers, by Salvador Dalí, 1936. (Image Art Resource © 2023 Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society)

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Pockets: An Intimate History of How We Keep Things Close © 2023 by Hannah Carlson. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books.

Sensible aspects of clothing are “no sooner put into use than put into play,” dress historian Ann Hollander observed. Nowhere is this inclination to make the functional serve double duty more adeptly handled than in the work of Elsa Schiaparelli, who utilized the most diverse and improbable of sources in her deployment of pockets and throughout her career. Famously aligned with avant-garde artists, Schiaparelli used clothing as her medium for creating modern art. She discovered in clothing an unparalleled means in which to “make the fantastic real,” as Salvador Dalí famously endeavored to do with his surrealist objects. Schiaparelli’s designs confounded much of the couture-buying public, but her “apparent craziness,” as she called it in her 1954 autobiography, Shocking Life, could be better described as a willingness to consider just what strange things clothes actually are, including the fact that garments specifically shaped to fit our bodies also comment on them and their erotic natures. Because of these fetishistic possibilities, clothes are always more than they appear.

Many of Schiaparelli’s famous jokes, her punning, and what she called “fun and gags” have to do with pockets, including her lip-applique pockets on a 1937 day suit and her “bureau drawer” pockets in a 1936 collaboration with Dalí. “Dalí was a constant caller,” Schiaparelli recalled of their first collaboration. “We devised together the coat with many drawers from one of his famous pictures.” For Dalí, that series of pictures worked out variations on a theme, a bureau transformed into a woman, what he called an “anthropomorphic cabinet.” A committed, if not the most nuanced, reader of Freud, Dalí’s drawers hang open in provocative ways. Drawers and pockets were one of those enclosing, hollow spaces Freud identified in his 1899 The Interpretations of Dreams as having clearly sexual analogues. When, also in 1936, Dalí desecrated the goddess of Love, the Venus de Milo, with drawers in a half-size plaster reproduction of the famous marble statue, the image was nothing if not salacious.

The trompe l’oeil drawers that embellished Schiaparelli’s day suit, in contrast, were firmly shut. Several of the bureau drawers had no pocket attachment, but a few were made into true, functional pockets, a feint that acknowledges the kinship between these interior places. Rather than exploring some personal psychosexual anxiety, as did Dalí, Schiaparelli was involved in a punning exegesis on a familiar artifact, exploring a human propensity to see bodily analogues in the domestic landscape. A chest, we say, stands on legs and may have a tall back. Schiaparelli’s placement and sizing of her suit’s drawers allude to other fleshy parts. Offering two-, five-, and eight-pocket-drawer versions of the suit that slyly accentuate the breasts and belly, Schiaparelli created a “chest of drawers” rearranged, hinting at and yet resisting identification.

Completing the bureau illusion, Schiaparelli outfitted her drawer-pockets with a variety of drawer handles, employing plastic crystal doorknobs, black plastic rings, and hanging pull tabs. As she noted in her autobiography, Schiaparelli worked closely with talented jewelers, sculptors, and artisans who used “the most incredible things” to make her closures. “Not one [button] looked like what a button was supposed to look like,” she reflected. Crafted from plastic, wood or metal, they were shaped to resemble crawling insects, peanuts, chains, locks, clips, spent bullet casings, and lollipops. While Schiaparelli stayed close to her sources in this instance (drawers and doors), Dalí turned to mink-tufted pom-poms to act as drawer pulls in his Venus sculpture. These differing choices suggest that for all the productive spark of collaboration, these individual partners still pursued their own paths. Dalí’s drawer pulls seductively invited touch. Schiaparelli’s pull tabs, witty and slightly alarming on second glance, offered one of those invitations an observer knows not to follow up on. Of all the options, the hanging pull tab, so close to the nipple, seems to have been a little too racy for the retailer Bergdorf Goodman: the sketch of the model shows that a buyer crossed it out.

Did Schiaparelli tame Dalí’s work into a conservative suit that any woman could wear, as some critics have maintained? She clearly backed away from the overtly sexual. But one could also say that she had other motives, and that she intended to allow the wearer to keep hold of her secrets. As Gaston Bachelard observed in his 1954 book, The Poetics of Space, drawers and the locks and keys with which we secure them have resonances other than the sexual ones psychoanalysts have so “monotonously” attributed to them. Chests and drawers are hiding places, “hybrid objects” important to imaginative life that satisfy our need for privacy and mystery. Significantly, a drawer is a “space that is not open to just anybody.” No chest or drawer exists that cannot be ransacked, however, and so rather than attempt to “frighten” the trespasser with ornate latches and bolts, “it is preferable to mislead him,” mused Bachelard. In her bureau-drawer suit, only the wearer has privileged access to intimate space. Only the wearer knew which pockets were real and which were red herrings. Attentive to women’s imaginative lives, Schiaparelli offered imaginative work that did not tame the suit so much place the wearer in control.

At the time, the suit itself was something over which women hoped to gain some control. Much of the drama in women’s wear over the course of the twentieth century involved appropriating the forms and symbolic authority of menswear. Influenced by Schiaparelli (a “cunning carpenter of clothes,” as Janet Flanner observed in the New Yorker in 1932), sleeker suits in a wider range of materials steadily replaced dresses for chic urban living. These suits were still almost universally worn with skirts, which would seem to confirm their femininity, but they nevertheless looked modern and severe. It is not surprising that ambivalence over women’s encroachment into menswear, and their parallel quest for increasing power and status, occasionally played out on the surface of coats and suits tailored to fit women’s bodies. At the same time, pockets—and the manner in which they were manipulated at breast and hip—registered and animated those cross-gender tensions.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Books

Jobs | July 19