Creative Process Journal: Marie Antoinette and Elsa Schiaparelli

Insect Necklace by Schiaparelli
Sometimes inspiration comes from the least likely of places. Earlier this week, Harold Koda, chief curator of the Costume Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showed a slide of Elsa Schiaparelli's Insect Necklace during his talk as part of the Bata Shoe Museum's Founder's Lecture Series. The surrealist whimsy of this piece captivated me and I had to know more.

According to the Met's website, this piece came to the museum via the Brooklyn Museum's Costume Collection and was created by Elsa Schiaparelli in 1938 for  the fall pagan collection.  "This iconic necklace epitomizes Schiaparelli's Surrealist tendencies, perhaps more than any other design she executed because of the unreal idea of insects crawling on your skin as a fashion statement." The necklace was worn by Millicent Rogers - one of Schiaparelli's "best clients who was brave enough to wear her outrĂ© designs."

As unlikely as the connection between this necklace and Marie Antoinette is, a light bulb went off in my head when I reviewed accounts of hygiene practices in the 18th century.

In an out of print book from 1932 called The Elegant Woman, From the Rococo Period to Modern Times by Gertrude Aretz (translated and with a preface by fashion scholar James Laver), the author wrote about the lack of hygiene in 18th century, including the rank odour of the lack of bathing that was covered up with heavy doses of scent.  "Marie-Antoinette was not altogether a vain and coquettish woman, nor was her elegance altogether consistent. Her clothes were rich and beautiful, but somewhat negligently put on, and she was often careless and untidy in her dress. Her personal cleanliness was not very strict, especially before she became Queen, and she used her bathroom but seldom..... The Rococo period, with all its luxury, was a period of dirt and lack of hygiene." (pg. 62-63)

The elaborate pouf hairstyles of the period were crafted out of false hair, pins, dye, grease, and powder and then laden with accessories like feathers, flowers, jewels, and even such implausible additions as vegetables and small ships. Aretz wrote: "It goes without saying that with such complicated coiffures elegant ladies could not pay much attention to cleanliness of the head and hair. Indeed, very little consideration was given to personal hygiene in the eighteenth century. The hair was very rarely washed, perhaps once a year or even not at all. Elaborate coiffures were expected to last for weeks, and it was no rare occurrence for vermin to nest in these monstrous edifices of hair and to attack their owners in a terrible way." (pg. 76) Caroline Weber in her book Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution  also wrote about the "Queen's hallmark hairstyles" and the "special head-scratchers (grattoirs) made from ivory, silver, gold, and even sometimes decorated with diamonds" (Weber: 111).

Our perceptions of the grandeur and beauty of this period are no more than illusions. And this I think is the key to adding a subversive element to my recreation of a robe a la francaise. Funnily enough, it seems to tie in rather nicely to my previous dress sculptures made out of mosquito mesh - which originated from a play on the word "fly" as a reference to both the pest and the tag word for "cool".

I am going to appropriate Elsa Schiaparelli's insect necklace and reinterpret it in the context of the 18th century as a reference to "all manner of vermin" that crawled out of the elaborate pouf hairstyles of Marie Antoinette's time (Weber: 111).

Aretz, Gertrude. The Elegant Woman: From the Rococo Period to Modern Times. London: Geroge G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1931. (Translated by James Laver)

Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006.

Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Collection: Elsa Schiaparelli Necklace 2009.300.1234
sourced: November 12, 2011

Project Clock: +3 hours
Project Clock to date: 27.5 hours
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