THE MOMENT: Schiaparelli’s Skeleton Dress

Introducing The Moment, a new column about fashion iconography. Every week, writer Mishal Cazmi will highlight an iconic piece and explore its influence on style and pop culture.

In 1938, Elsa Schiaparelli unveiled an unusual dress. Not unusual by her standards, of course. By then, the designer was already known for her avant-garde approach to fashion and her friendships with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, the A-list Dadaists and Surrealists of her time. The creation, an affront to many and loved by few, was named the Skeleton Dress.

It was a collaboration (the first of many) with surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, and appeared as part of Schiaparelli’s Circus Collection. Most likely inspired by the Surrealist preoccupation with the human body, the aptly named dress was made of black crepe, with trapunto quilting underneath to give it the anatomically appropriate effect of a spine, ribcage and leg bones.

Since then, the skeleton motif has been reincarnated in countless forms on the runway by designers such as Alexander McQueen, Christian Lacroix and the Mulleavy sisters at Rodarte, who featured it in their Spring 2009 collection and again in their diffusion line for Target. And then came Lady Gaga.

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Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946), the Howard Hawks-directed film based on Raymond Chandler’s novel.

“The purring voice was now as false as an usherette’s eyelashes and as slippery as a watermelon seed.”

Raymond Chandler isn’t known as a stylish writer in the fashion-savvy sense. His renown comes from his mastery of perfect similes like the one above, and for gifting the world Philip Marlowe, the private detective whose job description is usually preceded by the adjective “hard-boiled.” Chandler’s rep is that he writes about dames and gangsters, cops and criminals—he’s more visceral than visual.

But after reading The Big Sleep (1939)—my first on-the-page Chandler experience—I found him to be one of the most visual writers that I’ve ever read. He doesn’t drop designer names when describing a dress, but he can make you see it. His descriptions—of dresses, faces, streets—are alive to the impact of precise language, and are just as rooted in style as more traditionally glamorous writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh.

These are his and hers descriptions, heavy on the fashion content.

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THE SPIRIT OF STYLE: Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Sayre in 1919, the year before her marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Over the five weeks of the Fall 2010 collections—in New York, London, Milan, Paris, and, in Canada, in Montreal and Toronto—the attention of fashion editors and writers was necessarily focused on the concrete. What was the new silhouette, the top hue, the hemline? Are vertiginous heels coming down to earth? Who’s the new face?

But now that the sparkle has dimmed, it’s interesting to think about the more abstract elements of style—less about the individual pieces in an outfit, and more about the individuals whose approach to life is itself a lesson in style.

I started thinking about this last week, while reading Zelda, the 1970 biography of Zelda Fitzgerald by Nancy Milford. It’s a beautifully written account of a brilliant, complicated woman who became known as “the first flapper,” and served as inspiration for some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most enduring characters, including The Great Gatsby’s Daisy (with her “low, thrilling voice”) and Nicole Diver, the tragic heroine of Tender is the Night.

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