Schiaparelli et le Moulin Rouge

Voulez-vous créditer Schiaparelli avec moi ?

Zsa Zsa Gabor as Jane Avril in Moulin Rouge.

Elsa Schiaparelli’s work as a costume designer may have been lesser noticed, but her unique vision was never more apparent than in her designs for John Huston’s 1952 film Moulin Rouge. Her illustrious garments first appeared on the silver screen way back in the 1930s. In fact, between 1931 and 1952 she worked frequently as a costume designer for films in Hollywood, France, and the U.K.

Schiaparelli had a famously brilliant career as a couturier, but her prolific costuming work went largely uncredited, possibly dismissed as an early 20th-century female dressmaker. The last and arguably best costuming feat was her final cinema collaboration on the 1952 film Moulin Rouge.

In sharp contrast to the scandalous lack of credit between couturier and costume designer (ahem– Black Swan and Rodarte? Sabrina and Givenchy?) Schiaparelli was rarely credited for her work in cinema. Schiaparelli is hardly a household name unless you’re a sartorial geek. *raises hand* but in fashion history, her name is positively legendary. She established one of the first Parisian fashion houses that produced garments teetering on the edge of fine art and high fashion.

Schiaparelli stole and insect pin, Vogue Magazine.

Schiaparelli was a daring designer with a penchant for Surrealist fantasies, befriended like-minded surrealist creatives like Dalí, Cocteau, and Man Ray. Part of the artistic vision of Surrealism was transcending the logical world and dabbling in a realm where the absurd becomes perfectly reasonable. While the artists of Surrealism were translating these visions into photography, sculptural manifestations, and paintings, Schiaparelli was envisioning the body as a new landscape.

Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí

“In both Surrealism and fashion, the body was woven in fantasy and literally reimagined.”
– Ghislane Wood, The Surreal Body: Fetish and Fashion

She pushed the boundaries of what was formerly considered acceptable adornment for dress– think Lady Gaga meat dress energy. Schiaparelli crafted a lobster dress, trompe-l’œil ripped fabric, a shoe as a hat, ceramic buttons sculpted into the shapes of human circus performers, a mouth brooch with pearls as teeth.

Moulin Rouge was a vision of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s vision of Paris nightlife from the perspective of a tortured, but brilliant, alcoholic artist. He painted the seedy nightlife scene in 19th-century Parisian society, including a few famed women in particular, who have gone down in history thanks in part to his artistic renderings. Jane Avril was one of these gals.

Jane Avril poster, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893.

In designing the costumes for Jane, Schiaparelli based her designs on actual posters rendered by Toulouse-Lautrec. She hits the mark with incredible precision and somehow still adds evidence of her own artistic perspective as a fashion visionary. One of TL’s illustrations of jane Avril depicted a giant snake design affixed to her dress. Somehow, that seems exactly like something Elsa Schiaparelli might have dreamed up as one of her own designs. She was the perfect person for the job.

If we’ve learned anything from studying couturier x costume designer collaborations, it’s that the couturier takes a back seat on credits. The case of Moulin Rouge is so different. Elsa Schiaparelli designed some of the most iconic looks in the film, but it was customer designer Marcel Vertès who won the Academy Awards for art direction and costuming.

Innocence and Glee with Mlle Amélie

The 2001 French film Amélie is quite like a dream. . .

The leading lady Amélie Poulain is something of an enigma, and so her costuming and cinematic environment had to be as well. Unlike French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s other darker films like Delicatessan and the City of Lost Children, this one carries the gentle breeze of childlike wonder and innocence.

The beginning of the film whips its audience through a fast-paced synopsis of Amélie Poulain’s inception; a lucky sperm finds an egg, a baby is born named Amélie; she savors the earthly delights of her world through the five senses. Amélie’s sensual experience of the world is a key part of her identity. As a child, we see her carefully peeling a sheet of glue off of her little hand, eating raspberries off her ten fingers, playing doctor with her imaginary friends. As an adult she’s curious and playful, pushing her hands into a vat of dry beans at the marché and spying on neighbors.

All of these details act as personality signals, cluing viewers into the vivid inner world of this shy, quiet, introverted French girl. Her wardrobe is no different. The style swings back and forth between girlish and grandmother chic. By night she wears a super feminine, floral pointelle nightie to bed, and by day, switches between figure-flattering tops to bulky, comfy, bag lady silhouettes. Amélie is a coquettish mystery from beginning to end.

It’s said that the film’s cinematographer based his painterly frames on Brazilian painter Bruno Delbonnel’s compositions. Costume designers Madeline Fontaine and Emma Lebail closely aligned Amélie’s wardrobe with this saturated, moody aesthetic as well.

Paintings by artist Bruno Delbonnel.

Several garments featured a deep, crimson red, which somehow made her both pop out of the landscape and simultaneously blend in too. If that concept seems like a riddle, then it’s a perfect reflection of this film. Amélie’s garments seemed at home in their environment, draped cozily over her gamine frame. Despite her slender figure, she sticks to comfortable clothes–—knee-length skirts, coats that shield her petite frame, knits, and clunky leather shoes with socks.

This is a look that mashes the refined French attention to aesthetics with a hint of cozy grunge. Look out for our first-ever Cinémode “Vête Comme,” a simple style guide to bring your favorite characters off the silver screen and into your very own closet.

Head to Head with Givenchy

One of the most famed costume designers of all time, Edith Head, took home an Academy Award for her work on Sabrina, but it was Givenchy whose work most fans remember.

In the Oscar-winning 1953 film Sabrina, a working-class girl goes from a suicide attempt in the garage of her father’s employer to struttin’ around Paris in haute couture. Whether climbing a tree on Long Island or walking a poodle in Paris, Sabrina Fairchild is easily one of the most timelessly chic characters in cinema history.

Is it her gamine, stereotypical mannequin figure? Her romantic, whimsical attitude? Those daringly short bangs over a bold brow?

Those might all be factors, but one definite contribution is the dynamism of her wardrobe throughout the film. Her clothes have just as much of a plot as her character does, both on camera and behind the scenes.

Prior to filming Sabrina, Audrey Hepburn was sent to Paris to meet a hot young French designer–Hubert de Givenchy. The film’s screenwriter and director, Billy Wilder, sent Hepburn there to get a feel for the magic and style of the city.

Givenchy was initially disappointed when a slender-framed Audrey strolled into his atelier wearing her classic slim pant and flat shoe combo.

The designer had been expecting a different “Miss Hepburn” (Katherine), or so the story goes, but the sartorial relationship between Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy blossomed into a decades-long esteemed fashion muse dynamic.

Much to the dismay of lead Sabrina costumer, Edith Head, director Billy Wilder instructed Hepburn to visit Paris and return with some Givenchy dresses for her character to wear upon her cinematic visit to the La Ville-Lumière.

Sabrina’s costuming aesthetic was divided into two distinct chapters for this film– before knowing the stylish sensibilities of Paris, and afterward. Hollywood costume legend Edith Head was in charge of conceiving the former, and Hepburn retrieved the latter on her own via Givenchy.

This was reportedly a bitter experience for Head, as Sabrina’s more stylish scenes held promise for her to have showcased her abilities within the world of Paris couture. Instead, Wilder went around Head completely and sourced the clothes from an actual Paris couturier. However, that didn’t stop Head from altering the Givenchy garments and sketching her own renditions of them.

As the story goes, Givenchy was expecting to meet the glamorous and esteemed Katherine Hepburn instead of Audrey. His disappointment was evident in his decision to her back to Hollywood with some samples from the previous year’s spring/summer collection.

The film was nominated for six Academy Awards in 1955 and won three, including Best Costume Design in Black and White (from 1948-1967ish, costume Oscars were two separate categories: color and black & white).

Who do you think won the award: Edith Head or Hubert de Givenchy?

If this feels like a flashback to the Black Swan controversy, that’s because it is. Givenchy’s dresses in Sabrina became famous, even synonymous with the film. But it was costumer Edith Head who took the Oscar home. She didn’t acknowledge Givenchy in her acceptance speech either. In fact, she avoided an acceptance speech altogether by swiftly accepting the Oscar and exiting stage right.

Controversies aside, both Head and Givenchy’s garments are timelessly chic. The Givenchy clothes are breathtaking, but even before Sabrina matures into a fashion-forward Parisienne, her style is still remarkable.