The Whimsical Works of Marcel Vertès

Marcel Vertès epitomised innovation in twentieth-century design and fashion illustration. Born in Hungary, he moved to Paris and studied at the Académie Julian. He travelled to New York frequently, even staging his first show there in 1937. With the outbreak of World War II, Vertès fled Paris and settled in New York, his home for the next decade. He returned to Paris in his later years and spent the majority of his time there before his death in 1966. Among his many talents, Vertès experimented with costume design in film, painting, needlepoint, and silkscreen prints. However, his illustrated advertisements for Elsa Schiaparelli will always be my favourite.

Harper’s Bazaar, February 1944

Vertès created some of his more notable works for Schiaparelli’s perfume advertisements from the late 1930s through the 1950s. He created numerous fantastical illustrations for her ‘Shocking Schiaparelli’ campaign featured in Harper’s Bazaar. Vertès’ playful style shines through in these advertisements. Many depicted flirty and poetic drawings that often incorporated elements of the mystical. Women became dainty nymphs and fairies surrounded by autumn leaves or spring flowers as they danced around the page. The perfume bottle, designed to mimic the female form, often had bouquets of flowers blooming from the top, representing the scent of the perfume as well as implying the femininity a woman would attain while wearing it. Vertès’ passion for other art forms also manifested in his works for Schiaparelli. He frequently paralleled ethereal depictions of women with artistic tools such as painter’s palettes or bouquets made of sheet music. The designs were often suggestive and used various objects, such as a palette or leaf, to conceal yet hint at the intimate parts of the female body.

Harper’s Bazaar, October 1943

Harper’s Bazaar, April 1939

Harper’s Bazaar, October 1944

Harper’s Bazaar, October 1940

Vertès also wove societal undertones into his advertisements for Schiaparelli, altering the connotation of the campaign according to the era’s values. One of his drawings depicts a sailor on a date in a park with the female-shaped perfume bottle. This advertisement was released in 1942, and its drawing hinted at the ‘beauty and duty’ ideal that women and girls were encouraged to uphold during the war in order to bolster morale. Women pitched in for the war effort in various physical ways, but the illustration signified to women that, by wearing Schiaparelli’s perfume, they could demonstrate their patriotism while still embodying the very essence of beauty. On the other hand, one of Vertès’ 1953 illustrations exploded with the colour pink. It featured a woman beaming in a gown reminiscent of the ‘New Look’ style and high heels, the epitome of traditional, feminine beauty. With the war over, the men returned, pushing women out of workforce positions and back into the home. The fashion industry once again favoured the restrictive, ultra-feminine ensembles that signalled a return to ‘normalcy’ in society. Vertès subtly captured this shift in his illustrations.

Harper’s Bazaar, November 1942

Harper’s Bazaar, May 1953

Marcel Vertès also collaborated with Elsa Schiaparelli in designing the costumes for the 1952 film Moulin Rouge. He won two Academy Awards for his work, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Beyond these achievements, Vertès painted murals for both private and public display, including one for the Café Carlyle at the famous Carlyle Hotel in New York City. He even explored fashion design, creating pieces that showcased his whimsical illustrations.

Marcel Vertès
MOULIN ROUGE (MARIE ACCOSTE LAUTREC), 1952
Gallery 19c

Marcel Vertès Mural at Café Carlyle via Tillett Lighting Design Associates

An artist in every sense of the word, Marcel Vertès worked with a diverse array of mediums, but stayed true to his light, flowing style with every project he undertook. Vertès translated culture into his illustrations and portrayed ‘Shocking Schiaparelli’ as more than a perfume. Rather, his drawings enabled the viewer to envision and desire a way of life.

By Genevieve Davis

 

Sources:

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, April 1939.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, October 1940.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, November 1942.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, October 1943.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, February 1944.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, October 1944.

“Advertisement: Shocking de Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli).” Harper’s Bazaar. New York, United States: Hearst Magazine Media, Inc, May 1953.

The Annex Galleries. “Marcel Vertes Biography | Annex Galleries Fine Prints.” Accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.annexgalleries.com/artists/biography/3209/Vertes/Marcel.

Fashioning Femininity (and Making Masculinity) in the Post-War Era

When we think about the twenty years immediately following the Second World War in Britain, what images instantly spring to mind? Smiling women in glamorous dresses, feather duster in hand, happily making home for hardworking husbands and clean, grinning children. This construct of woman as a glamorous housewife in the 1950s is one of the most well-known images in the modern consciousness. Whatever our opinions of it, it is all-pervasive; on posters, cards and throughout the media. But how did clothing, and its depiction in advertising, feed into these constructs of femininity? And how was masculinity constructed alongside and in relation to this?

Advert for Wolsey, Woman’s Own, Week Ending 19th March 1960, p.20

Domesticity was expressed in advertising as being a woman’s ‘job’. A Wolsey advert constructs the role of ‘man’ as breadwinner and ‘woman’ as homemaker and domestic purchaser as being objective facts. The advert is aimed at presumably female ‘fiancées’, stating: ‘Sooner or later… you will find yourself buying his socks. This is the job that will probably be yours from “I will” onwards’. Through this single garment of the sock the assumed roles of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are expressed. ‘Woman’ here is constructed as residing within the domestic sphere, with mundane, everyday garments such as the sock being part of her everyday concerns. Furthermore, ‘man’ is presented here as being domestically incapable, unable to purchase even his own socks. His sharp suit, the uniform of the masculine breadwinner, further constructs him as residing in the public, rather than domestic, sphere.

Advert for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Woman’s Own, Week Ending 3rd September 1960

While a woman’s concerns may have been mundane and domestic, her appearance certainly wasn’t. Countless advertisements show women in glamorous, flattering garments even while in the home. One advert for Kellogg’s depicts the idealised couple at the breakfast table. While the man is dressed in a suit for a day of work in the economic sphere, the woman is dressed in a house coat for her day of work in the domestic sphere. Her beautifully patterned house coat and perfectly styled hair and make-up suggest that being attractive is also an integral part of her role as housewife. Similarly, in an advert for Batchelors Peas, the mother is dressed very glamorously for a casual dinner-time. She is fully made up with red lipstick, ornate earrings and colourful clothing. Her garments are soft and flowing, following the idealised lines of the hourglass figure. She cuts a very bright figure against the father, who again wears the masculine staple of the suit.

Advert for Batchelors Peas, Woman, Week Ending 17th July 1955

By analysing adverts from this period, we observe a strictly traditional representation of ‘woman’; as beauty, housewife and mother. Meanwhile ‘man’ is constructed, equally traditionally, as breadwinner. These images show us a snapshot in history at a time in which advertisements were both constructing and reinforcing real-life ideals. We see domestic ‘woman’ and working ‘man’ idealised as safe, predictable constants in a world that was rapidly changing. These images depict the moment before the liberation movements of the 1960s changed the world, and particularly the female experience, beyond all recognition.