The Internet Erupts over a Controversial Schiaparelli Show - Is the Outrage Warranted?
Shock and awe are part and parcel of the Schiaparelli viewing experience. This is a house that famously decorated a gown with Salvador Dali’s famous lobster drawing. Lobster was considered peasant food back then, so imagine the shock of the elite when the dress first came swishing into view on the body of socialite Wallis Simpson. Unhampered by tradition and social mores, Elsa Schiaparelli continued to shock with unconventional elements like gilded body parts, embroidered insects, and bejeweled lips, eyes, and ears. She gave her autobiography the name Shocking Life and distilled the essence of shock into a perfume aptly titled ‘Shocking!’.
However, for its Spring 2023 Couture show, Schiaparelli elicited a different type of shock, one that came packaged with revulsion and an ensuing social media outcry. When I first saw the image of Kylie Jenner walking into the show venue (wearing a look from the collection before it had even come down the runway), I was surprised by my own instantaneous reaction of disgust. Affixed to the front of her slinky black gown was a faux lion’s head that looked so real it was like it had been roaring only minutes ago. I have never had that kind of reaction to a Schiaparelli look before, and in examining my feeling I realized I had reacted that way precisely because it was so realistic. That the animal heads in the collection were such faithful renditions was the crux of their downfall.
That the animal heads in the collection were such faithful renditions was the crux of their downfall.
The comment sections on Instagram and Twitter quickly erupted in anger. Many people thought the animal heads were real, which I will refrain from speaking on except to say that this only demonstrates how elite the couture technique was in their creation. However, the more rational argument that circulated had to do with the glorification of poaching and trophy-hunting, especially when lensed on someone like Kylie Jenner who is already a lightning rod for controversy. “Collection by Cruella De Vil”, said one clever commenter, “This is tone deaf fashion at its finest”, said another. “You don't celebrate the ‘glory of the natural world’ by wearing it like a tacky trophy,” concluded yet another. Top fashion critics like Suzy Menkes and Tim Blanks glided blissfully over the outrage, with the former issuing a statement on Instagram that amounted to blame-shifting over the audience’s lack of artistic understanding.
When it comes to understanding why the house showed these looks, Schiaparelli’s Creative Director Daniel Roseberry supplied Dante’s Inferno as his primary reference. In the 14th-century poem, Dante is confronted by three beasts on the way up a small mountain – a leopard, a lion, and a wolf that represent the sins of lust, pride, and avarice. However, as houses that have faced similar social media backlashes (like Gucci) can attest, opaque references can frustrate the messaging. The controversy overshadowed the rest of the collection, which frequently showed abstracted animal forms, like a gilded bodice etched with sculptural golden wires embedded with blue-green glass that resembled a peacock’s feathers, or a shellacked black tile gown that looked like a beetle’s carapace.
On Instagram, Schiaparelli posted videos of how the animal heads came together out of careful sculpting with foam and resin, applications of silk faux fur, and painted detail work. Strangely enough, I can both appreciate the artistry and effort it took to create these looks, but I can also understand where the outrage is coming from. These realistic heads strongly resemble horrific images of people posing with their slaughtered prizes, a sport that is sickening and depraved. Rewind a few decades and women used to wear furs with the heads of animals still attached as a way of flaunting the authenticity of their trophies. Elsa Schiaparelli herself often wore a (real) cheetah-face hat.
But I see something else at work within the screeching outrage, and it’s likely something we as humans don’t want to examine too closely. We are divorced from nature. The majority of us sit on leather-upholstered seats as we drive to work, regularly eat meat, buy from fast fashion labels that assault the environment, and take plane rides that choke the air with carbon.
Albert Camus put it best in his essay (ironically enough called ‘Saving our Skins’) in the collection Neither Victims nor Executioners when he said, “....they were really unable to imagine death. It is a freak of the times. We make love by telephone, we work not on matter but on machines, and we kill and are killed by proxy. We gain in cleanliness but lose in understanding.” He wrote this prescient paragraph in 1946. Seeing a realistic animal head separated from its body brings this horror of consumption and Manifest Destiny to the fore, and if you’re like me, your outrage might be coming from a place of deep human discomfort and guilt.