‘To create a being out of oneself is very serious,’ wrote the late Clarice Lispector in her 1973 work, Água Viva. The personal branding needed to attain commercial success and visibility in today’s fast-paced, oft-intersecting fashion and literary circles lends Lispector’s words a strangely prophetic resonance. For women in the arts especially, the necessity to carefully craft a desirable public image – particularly by paying close attention to personal style – so often determines the content of the conversations that arise around their work.
The title ‘Shocking Life’ alone suggests multiple readings. ‘Shocking’ refers to her life, one of excitement, privilege and excess; it also references ‘Shocking Pink’, the colour she created, which acts as a synecdoche for her provocative designs; finally, it underscores her commercial success by echoing the name of the fragrance she launched in 1937. But as critic Judith Thurman observes, ‘what is most shocking about Schiaparelli […] is her obscurity.’
While fashion designers today reach the heights of celebrity status, the roots of the phenomenon lie in fin de siècle intellectual salons in Paris, where fashion first became an autonomous discourse and a vehicle of contemporaneity. As popular haunts for bohemia and artists alike, literary salons favoured the cult of personality and, along with parties, performances and gallery openings provided artists with the opportunity to socialise with peers and potential buyers. This new necessity also reflected a shift in the production and dissemination of art. Its creators were increasingly forced to embrace democratisation and to negotiate their position within mass culture.