Women’s fashion is, at its center of gravity, an art form. Conception, design, color, light and shadow, spatial relationships and that all-important eye of the beholder play equal parts in its success or failure.
Elsa Schiaparelli was a leading light in the fashion world for nearly 30 years, beginning in 1920s Paris. She was a designer and an innovator. And she was an artist, whose iconic pieces — including the wrap dress, the shoe hat and the bug necklace — came to define a generation of elegant, chic fashion, first in Europe and then the United States.
“Her clothes were smart, wearable, and sexy, and marked the wearer as an individualist as well as someone with a sense of humor,” wrote Schiaparelli’s biographer Meryle Secrest. Schiaparelli was famously associated with the surrealist art movement in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Salvador Dalí became a lifelong confidante, inspiration and running buddy.
Both Schiaparelli and Dalí, points out Bay Area playwright and actress Roxanne Fay, had a “loose relationship with reality.”
Fay’s newest theatrical work, Fabrication, is being presented Wednesday, Nov. 8 as part of its current exhibition Dalí & Schiaparelli. It’s a dialogue between two historical figures, what theatrical types call an “impossible conversation.”
Don’t, however, look for Dalí and his famous moustache in Fabrication. While Schiaparelli is portrayed by actress Debbie Yones, her stage partner – played by Fay herself – is Schiaparelli’s bitter rival, Coco Chanel.
“Yes, it’s a manufactured, of course, because I wasn’t there,” says Fay, who conducted extensive research on both Schiaparelli and Chanel. “All of the stories and all of the things you’ll hear in the play are recounted, either factually or mythologically, in Schiaparelli’s autobiography.”
The two women traveled in the same circles, but they were fierce competitors who well and truly hated one another.
“I wanted to find the secret life that existed beneath the catfight,” Fay explains. “Beneath the couture, you know? I wanted to get underneath the clothes and have the women really talk to each other. And really explore the nature of their relationship.”
She wanted them, she says, to have a “surreal” conversation.
“Surreality, to Dalí, is like ‘What’s underneath?’ It’s very Freudian. ‘You can see the surface …but what’s under here?’ I know that the factual part — the surface stuff — has to be there. But then I get to go underneath that surface and go ‘But what about this?’ And in my world, nobody gets to say ‘That’s not possible.’”
Both women were driven and determined. Schiaparelli came from an aristocratic Italian family.
“Her uncle was an astronomer who discovered the canals on Mars,” Fay reveals. “She had another uncle who was an Egyptologist, who was the man who discovered the tomb of Nefertiti. He opened the first museums in Turin. Her father was a scholar on Middle Eastern literature and Sanskrit.”
Shy and introverted, Elsa was told by her mother, for years, that she was as ugly as her older sister was beautiful. Eventually she rebelled against her parents, married young and raised a sickly daughter — alone, after her ne’er-do-well husband ran off.
In New York and Paris, Fay discovered, she fell in with an artistic crowd. “She was in tune with this Bohemian, otherness, dreamworld. Elsa was always attracted to things like that.”
Entirely self-taught, she began to design clothes.
Chanel’s parents were never married; after her mother’s death she was sent to a convent school in Central France.
“The rudimentary thing they were taught by the nuns was how to sew,” explains Fay. “It was very stentorian. But in the summers, she was allowed to go and stay with her two maiden aunts, who loved to sew. One of the aunts made hats, with lots of frills and ruffles. Chanel was really a milliner at heart.”
The rest of the story has been well-documented. Both the House of Schiaparelli and the House of Chanel created and produced jewelry, perfumes and accoutrements, as well as dresses and separates. And both were wildly successful and influential.
After World War II, however, Schiaparelli’s exquisite designs fell out of favor with an exhausted Europe.
“Chanel adapted, but Schiaparelli really chafed,” Fay says. “She just couldn’t adapt to this austerity, emotionally and professionally.
“She had licensing in the United States, but in Paris, her sales declined so badly she was only living on the sales of her perfume line. But it was just paying the debt off. So she ended up declaring bankruptcy in 1954.”
Fay has been a successful theater artist since 2003, when she left her last day job (ironically, as a manager in the perfume division at Elizabeth Arden headquarters in Chicago).
“I’ve been very fortunate, and I know it,” she says. She has appeared regularly in nearly all of the professional theaters in the area (starting in January, she’ll be onstage in Shakespeare’s The Tempest at Jobsite) and has a recurring, annual, pay-the-bills gig at EPCOT’s Holidays Around the World production.
Her resume includes numerous playwriting grants as well as a residency at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, and she was recently named a 2018 Artist-in-Residence by The Growlery in San Francisco.
Fay was awarded the 2017 Creative Pinellas Professional Artist Fellowship.
Her play Dream Child: The Trial of Alice in Wonderland was produced last year at the Dalí Museum, in conjunction with the Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination exhibit. That one later went to a New York production, as Fabrication is expected to.
Like all artists — working in paint, or fabric, or words — she’ll be honing her work until the last minute.
“It’s going to be as memorized as we can because of the flux of the text,” Fay says. “We will have the script there to refer to, because it is very long and very wordy. But we’re not going to sit there with the books in our faces.”