Frocking Life by BillyBoy*: What’s in a Blue Box

Circa 1976 image of Billy Boy from his archive.

Let me begin by stating that Frocking Life, BillyBoy*’s new book is worth it’s weight, but if you are faint of heart proceed with caution. His explanation of interacting with his first Schiaparelli acquisition, a hat, crosses over into an almost divine experience. He openly talks about his life’s journey which yes…gasp… involves, dare I say S E X…. However, I promise his emotional and physical partners are always enthralling and lead you down a path that brings to life fashion, art, and culture. His in depth more personal description of Elsa’s journey brings to life more details as well as a clearer path in terms of how she became an icon. Where many historical depictions of Elsa, skim her early failures and successes, through his collection of personal letters and beyond, Billy breaths life into her story.
Anyone who has seen his creations, met, or read about BillyBoy* probably understands
that this is an individual which one can NOT know well from one interview or meeting. He’s got layers, sometimes too seemly fantastic to comprehendimmediately. It is very
similar feeling to glimpsing a multilayered deep chocolate fudge cake, then being told it is from an ancient secret cacao source? I will tell you, after having gotten through a bit of his layers, that I am biased andthis review will be a bit unprofessional (Lucky that I am not a newspaper writer, I guess- but I promise it will be factual not factoidual:) Initially, of course I enjoyed the book, because I want to know more about the designer of Surreal Bijoux-the jewelry I enjoy so much. However; now this has led to insights on someone who has become a friend. Just when I think well let me focus on what I am enthralled with about his work, he throws out things like well you know I used old Gripoix sample stock earrings on many of the dolls?

Marisa and BillyBoy* at the Schiaparelli show, with Go Go Marisa’s mother.

The book is for fans of his creations, but it is also for those who have any interest in fashion, vintage, Schiaparelli, or life really, because he throws very deep and juicy details out throughout the book. His candid life’s experiences seem almost to great to be true, but they are, as you see by connecting the dots to his work, collection, sketches, and photographs all very real. So, if you are doubting how someone can have meet so many amazing iconic people, refer back to my original interview with him which is chalked full of photographs. I enjoyed this book, as it challenges us to look again at it’s subjects were made of and the notion of what fashion and such artists were like before social media and reality TV. It’s the description of icons in their candid older years and tales of some of them in real interactions, that reminds us how life used to be lived and hopefully inspires one to just get a “Frocking Life”. Here, he’s searching for Schiaparelli, whose own life shaped how he saw the world in part. However, as interested as I am in Elsa…I still cannot get passed the steamer trunks full of old couture he collected or his descriptions of hunting vintage pieces in New York and Paris, when they were ripe for picking. His relationship to fashion is enthrallingly realist, yet stepped at the same time in fantasticalness.

Outfit made for Daisy Fellowes 1929-30 by Elsa Schiaparelli, from Frocking Life.

It is in this deep conversation that we get very dear and special glimpses of Elsa’s not so glamorous and inspiring beginnings as well as her personality as seen via his first hand account of speaking with  the mentor’s daughter in the 1970s.

He quotes Perrine, daughter of Paul Pioret: “They really appreciated each other’s company, and when my father had financial difficulties, it was Schiaparelli who came to his aid…At one point, he was in deep financial trouble and she’d rally all the designers around to give him help. But not in a humiliating way… she was so elegant and so devoted to him. I know he much appreciated her work…She wore his clothes and he was very pleased by that, he said she wore them to perfection….”(Frocking Life, 173).

BillyBoy* Interview:

Let’s start with a discussion of our custom made Surreal Bijoux box, which BillyBoy* and LaLa insisted on making for a 1980s surreal mouth necklace and earrings set, that Iwas obsessed with….and well had to have.

*Why was the box so important to competing this set, which was originally done in the 1980s? *Great question! Well, when I started Surreal Couture, as you read in my recent book Frocking Life, Searching for Elsa Schiaparelli,…it was about doing things organically and things which were not necessarily wearable. My only objective was to create artworks which was commentary and reflection about fashion and what fashionability meant. Back then, I used to make the jewels almost as installations, to be used as sculpture… I did boxes, stands, sets, scenarios, and all types of way to complete the work. Quite regularly and each piece I did had some set up ranging from simple to elaborate. When Lala and I were doing Surreal Bijoux on rue de la Paix in Paris, we did that much less, though we did still do it regularly. Lala understood the idea immediately, organically and as if by osmosis. These last years, let’s say this last decade, we decided to go back to our roots, or rather my roots and we decided even to go all the way back to Surreal Couture manifestos I wrote as early as 1972. We focused on doing many of our creative processes and things as I originally saw them, and I may add, we also went back to ideas Lala had as a young artist at roughly the same time I was thinking these things up. …. back then, when someone purchased the necklace from Surreal Bijoux, I wanted it to be the fullest expression of Surreal Couture and Surreal Bijoux combined. We do this now whenever any piece is sold. As you know we studied and worked on your piece for quite a while and I am delighted with the results. It’s funny because Lala says he sees me in the piece and I see him.

He is very gifted with so much that we do. We have a funny expression about our osmosis. I once said that “I am the genius and Lala is the one with talent” as a joke but he repeats it since 30 years or more by this point. I know someone could be mean and throw this joke back at me for having said it publicly, but it’s true. Lala has an incredible understanding of what I really need to say in my work and I believe I have a total understanding of his needs as co-author of the works we do together, our work is alchemistic and follows all Wiccan, if you will, “protocol”. It expresses completely my Wiccan origins, my belief in love spells which my mother taught me…and it is a tangible object which is the metaphysical existence of the soul contract I have with Lala. As I feel our work is not that easy to understand and perhaps some people possibly don’t understand us, I have to work harder to allow the work to be as organic as possible but the nomenclature must be clear. I want the work to let people know who I am and who my soulmate Lala and I are.

*I love the blue lip painting, Why blue? AH! As I may have mentioned to you when we’ve chatted, colour is an important part of Wiccan energy and like things such as feng shui and other various affirmative rituals in the world, colour is of great importance in our lives. Since I was a child, I had to sleep in a violet room, with pink incorporated with gold. I have maintained this all my life, so far. Violet is the furthest on the spectrum of the rainbow and blue is right behind, which can symbolise sky, water and earthly delights. The blue was essential for this piece as it was to surround the pieces inside…and protect it. As a double Pisces, water is my element and this box is a way of protecting it’s Wiccan powers and the energy Lala and I put in your hands, so-to-speak. We entrust you with our work and it comes along with it’s own magick spell.

*What was the original inspiration for the lip necklace? There were several, clearly one is Schiaparelli and Man Ray. But also it represents sensuality and life, fertility. At the time I was very much into the leitmotivs of the Dadaists and the Surrealists but they have a Wiccan significance as well. In the Bible it signifies various things notably doctrine. The mouth also is the center of many of the fundamental aspects of our humanity. Lips can mean consumption, breath, romance and speech (as in any kind of doctrine). It is communication, interaction, almost a door to the soul. As the mouth of a river, it assumes the meaning of a door, a gate or an entrance which can lead to another realm of existence. Andy Warhol even named a blue after me called Billy Boy* Blue and some silly déclassé society woman named her race horse Billy Boy Blue after me. Blue is one of my colours aside from those I mentioned. One other thing, rather hard to explain but poignant is my Wiccan mother’s views on the existence of life on earth and my role in her life. When we did the small painting on canvas incrusted into the box, we distinctly were recalling some very personal things my mother spoke to me about regarding her views about non-earthly space travel vehicles. These things my mother told me have been always a subject of discussion between Lala and I. They range from ridiculous to serious discussions and the idea of this spaceship is represented by the blue lips.

Book: *The text is very candid and really helps one to understand many motivations behind your work is this why you choose this subject? You could have focused on your collection or jewelry, you had done a book already on the dolls? As you already know, Rizzoli really wanted a memoir of myself because the huge manuscript they bought after reading it, they’d decided it was too academic and that, for a publisher is a fancy way to say fewer people would like to buy and read it. The original manuscript, while I tell anecdotes, was literally every single thing of every single year I had uncovered about Schiaparelli and I had detailed outfit by outfit descriptions for each collection she ever did as well as every license and every anecdote and document I had. Rizzoli felt the fact I knew and still know many people in a diverse array of milieu and some of whom were highly identifiable and in our current zeitgeist, they wanted my story mixed in. So, I did it though I was a bit disappointed to do so. It was difficult only in that I had not anticipated doing a whole new book and I had exceptionally many important life things to deal with including my mum’s suicide. So, though it was written through a ring of fire, the result is what it is…though hybrid, I think it makes sense when you read it. I cannot be objective. I was battling endlessly with copy editors and in total, I think there were five. They really did not know, in my opinion, what they were doing or even reading and it slowed the process down. If they had their way, I am convinced there would not be much reference to my spiritual and metaphysical journey…which is ironic as it is the singularly only thing which counted for me. The very first time I spoke to the publisher of Rizzoli, the first thing I told him was my metaphysical journey was the most important thing I wanted in the book and asked him if this would be an issue to which he replied “no”. Nonetheless, it was and I had to really battle with quite frustratingly unenlightened copy editors. Listing my own pieces would not have been an option as I already had plans for other books to deal with the various collections on academic levels, and these will come out, hopefully, on a more regular basis now that this “BillyBoy* 101” is out.

*Where did your name come from, you’ve hinted you did not give it to yourself…Is it somehow related to your real family? You don’t have to give details but we must know how such a great calling card was attributed to you My real name is Billy and my surname Boy. I certainly did not give it to myself as it’s not the kind of conspicuous name I’d want though I am proud and happy to have it now as an adult. The surname Boy originates in Berwickshire many hundreds of years ago. There was an Earl of Berwickshire (in some way related to my families) who was surnamed Boy. My real family who were purely Austrian and my adopted family who were purely Russian were linked and knew each other for literally many generations. So, with the English name Boy, through this British link, I guess it all got put together and I was thusly named, so vôila, … my adopted family did not follow through on the name agreed upon with my real family which was long and stodgy and decided this was the best solution. That’s what was always told to me…as vague as it is. I had severe issues with my family about my adoption and had many years of suffering and temper tantrums to find out more and even on the eve of my mum’s suicide she refused to tell me one single thing more about it. She always maintained that it’s best I not know about “all of that” as she’d say. So, I finally accept that as gospel and not longer suffer in that regard. The eve of her death I told my mum I forgave her all and everything and hope she forgave me and we were very happy at letting go of all old issues. I had no idea she’d kill herself, so I feel blessed this occurred before that finality. I found great peace, even after her death, knowing we’d arrived at a mutual agreement on my origins and all the issues of the many years where it was unbearable for us both.

*You were not born in the US, but I do feel you really grew up very touched by the culture until you left in your teens- so I kind of want to claim you as one of us. How important was your time in New York to your identity? Hahaha, sure! I am fine with that, you can claim me as one of your own. I’m touched and flattered. Thank you. I am Swiss though as you know. And I may add very proud of my Swiss nationality. I cannot imagine life being any other nationality. Did you keep the collection you sent over in the LV steamer trunks, do you still have most of it? Yes, I have essentially everything still, though now it’s grown to unreal dimensions. I had to buy a factory to house it. I will one day de-acquisition and finally sell it privately to major museums whom already solicited me for a variety of different things in the collections. I don’t want my family to have to deal with it and certainly not my son, he’d be lost in it. As much as he lovesit, it’s not his nature to keep and store and take care of so many ephemeral and fragile things.

Reading about the time in New York I started to dream about going to one of those packed apartments..How many were there full of vintage couture clothing? Did you leave an storage lockers or apartments by chance so I can just take over:) Those trunks held masterpieces that rival the best of the best but they also had Bugs Bunny dolls and Eve Plumb memorabilia. Those trunks held everything which had meaning for me, so a lot of art, jewellery, haute couture, Pop culture…in my book I mention things I traveled to the Chelsea Hotel with….so you can get a good idea of what they held in them. Unfortunately for you, dear …there are no longer any empty apartments filled with my stuff. I finally got my life together and it’s better organised now. Those trunks were transformed into works of art which have been shown in various shows around the world.

I was very impressed by your descriptions and Schiaparelli’s life from a more detailed stance, which gave me a sense of who she was emotionally. To speak to this, you mention her letters….Do you have an extensive collection of first hand historic documents concerning her or her own letters? Oh yes, I am an avid documentarist. I have literally thousands of documents, letters, photos, all sorts of personal things. Go Go Schiaparelli gave me things from her mother, like Le Roi Soleil flacon designed by Dali, some jewellery which Schiap owned and wore (though did not design or have anything to do with it’s creation), her initials entwined in silver dating to maybe 1900 or so, something she wore as a young girl and later, a few things, costume jewellery in bakelite with her initials, which were hers as an adult. These pieces are not valuable unto themselves, they are not fine jewellery, but to me they are priceless. You know, I have saved every single letter, card, invitation I’ve ever received, it’s hundreds and hundreds of archival boxes and books of documents. I have collected letters from the most famous people in the world, to completely unknown people whom I had experiences with, or loved. Seeing it now, a number of these people in fashion and the arts can sort of be, to an extent, summed up and you get an idea of their work or life incredibly well. As for my collecting documentation, it’s a fascinating experience and is very thought-provoking. It has always given me helpful insight into things I was not able to fully comprehend. It adds so much dimension to a story and to the history. I guess you can see the humanity of iconic people (and even events) through the remaining letters, documents, photos and even things they owned or were made at the same time. What I don’t like, which happens occasionally, is the way someone implies the reason why I am (and others) can be so passioned by collecting documentation is linked to something fetish-y. I preserve these things, not stroke them delicately at night. Apart from this one slightly annoying thing, all of these elements are always very interesting for me. I was fortunate to be invited to some extraordinary events, and shows, fashion défilé etc and as an ensemble when I see it now it seems almost to summarise some of the mondaine events, but also some of the most outside the box underground culture that existed during 1970s up until now. I think about doing something creative with it all …like books. I will show it on my Youtube series no doubt. It’s called Spinach is Fashion and will debut in the late spring and it is going to be a show and tell of all kinds of cultural and lifestyle-related things. I wanted it laid back, casual and friendly. I hope it’ll be perceived as such.

Find: Super Chanel Runway Cuffs Via Katy Kane

Okay, so at the weekly finds we focus on accessories that make us dream, deals, couture and whatever inspires. The fashion accessories that blew my mind this week were : a pair of runway Chanel cuffs in leather and metal listed by veteran shop Katy Kane on 1stdibs.

Katy’s client attended haute couture shows regularly in the 80s and 90s and purchased these right off of the runway. Honestly, it doesn’t get much better than these! Right now the 1980s vintage designer accessories are picking up steam with collectors and wearers showing renewed interest. The big golden CC and powerful look are a no brainer for the Chanel lover.

You can see them linked here for more info.


Katy Kane image, via her 1stdibs storefront. You can shop them here.


SHOES SHOES SHOES: An Interview With The Curatorial Director Of The Fashion History Museum, Canada

Bata Shoe museum image, French 1760s silk shoe in the Rococo style, rights reserved.

Many of us have an ongoing affair with shoes. My interest stems from my fixation with jewelry as material culture, so shoes as accessories are alluring.  I am interested in these fashion artifacts, because they tell us about status, culture, beauty standards and such. In this sense, while the history of shoes is not my strong point, I have started to include them in my shop inventory. I do love the 40s styles.  Today’s shoe brands like Jimmy Choo and the Manolo Blahniks, that Carrie tap danced across New York wearing in Sex and the City, still have the devotion of many a fashion lover.  However what about those that came before them?  What can we learn and appreciate from vintage shoes?   This where Jonathan Walford can shed some light on the subject.  He is an avid researcher and collector of antique and vintage clothing, with a focus on shoes.   After coming across some interesting and rare vintage shoes, I began thinking about how these pieces really complete the larger picture.

1937 Perugia shoe/ Image from Jonathan Walford’s archive, rights reserved.


What is your formal background?

History and museum studies, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia

When and how did you get into researching and collecting shoes?

I have been a collector of antique and vintage clothing since I was 17 but there were and still are very few fashion museums in Canada, so I focussed on the one that appealed to me the most, and that was the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. Most of my shoe research occurred while I worked there in the late 1980s and 1990s. 

What are some important things one should look for when collecting shoes? Is there a go to source for dating them or researching them?

As a collector I always look for and try to obtain the best I can find or afford. And I mean that in every sense – the best design, condition, style, example, designer, provenance… I would be a bad self-promoter if I didn’t suggest my own books as useful sources for dating and researching footwear: The Seductive Shoe and Shoes A-Z, were both published by Thames and Hudson. The Seductive Shoe focuses on the fashion footwear 1600 – 2000, with examples from my own collection as well as from important collections around the world. Shoes A-Z focusses on the leading shoe brands and designers 1950 – 2010.

About how many shoes do you have in your permanent collection?

I haven’t done a ‘foot’ count in a while, but last time I did seven years ago it was 780 pairs. It’s probably over a thousand now. 

I know you sell on etsy, discuss your store’s focus and what kind of shoes come into the shop for sale?

I don’t consider myself a dealer, but rather a collector with an open door policy for improving the collection. As I said before, I am always looking for the best I can find and afford, and that sometimes means getting rid of lesser or duplicate items in the collection as I find better examples. That’s not to suggest I sell crap in my etsy store! just that I already have something similar or better.

1670s shoe example, via Jonathan’s archive, rights reserved.

Who was your favorite maker of any era? What would be the holy grail of shoes? If you could get your hands on any pair from any person, time period, or culture what would it be?

If I had to pick just one designer I would go with Perugia. He was an innovative designer with an eye for beauty and quality, and always kept looking for the next new thing. He was active from the 1920s to the 1960s – a really interesting period of shoe design. As for the holy grail of shoes, It’s already very difficult to find anything pre 1750 anymore. So if I were to ever find a pair of Chopines (platform mules) from Venice from the early 17th century, I think that would be as holy grail-like as you could get, and something I would definitely like to get my hands on for the collection. 

I have a shoe from the 1660s that was possibly worn in New Amsterdam (New York when it was still in Dutch hands). I don’t have definitive proof, however the evidence is strong. If it was worn there it is the oldest extant fashion shoe worn in North America. When I worked at the Bata Shoe Museum, I handled the oldest extant shoe ever worn in North America, a sandal from the Anasazi of the American southwest that dated from over 3,000 years ago – remarkable when you think about it. 

What is your favorite era in terms of shoes and or fashion? I know you are quite studied in terms of vintage and historic fashions. Who is your favorite designer? I honestly don’t have one – every era has its strengths and weaknesses, although some are heavier with faults like the recent 2000’s (certainly the worst decade in my lifetime and I lived through the 70s!) Similarly, I can’t say I have a favorite designer because nearly everyone has done something I have admired and something I thought was crazy or bad.

How many exhibits and publications have you done? What was your favorite or most fun to do?

I never kept track of all the exhibitions because they range from mini-shows for special events to huge exhibitions that have travelled the world. Also, before I was working in fashion-oriented museums I curated shows for regional history museums, including displays of carpentry tools, firefighting, Art Deco, dolls, kitchen utensils, World War II, basketball, as well as photo shows of architectural history and bridge building! I have always preferred fashion-theme exhibitions because its what I personally like, but a good exhibition is about choosing interesting artifacts and images that illustrate the storyline or theme of the show that the audience can also connect with, and if you can do that in your preferred topic, you can do it in others. However, without a doubt, the most fun is what I am doing right now – setting up the Fashion History Museum for our grand opening in mid July. The inaugural display will be a curator’s choice timeline of fashion history 1800 – 2000 (in other words my favourite frocks from the past two centuries in the collection!) 

What is your role at the Fashion History Museum, Could you tell me more about-The Art of the Shoe: 200 years of footwear?

I am the curatorial director of the Fashion History Museum, which means I am the head curator but not the only curator. We will be working with a variety of collectors, curators and artists to create exhibitions in the museum. I feel its important for the curator to have autonomy over their show, so I am there to help them realize their vision.

The Art of the Shoe: 200 years of footwear exhibition is a highlights from fashion footwear history, from 1750 to 2000, including examples of shoes by leading designers – Ferragamo, Perugia, Vivier, Levine, Steiger, Jourdan… We alter the size of the show between 50 and 80 pairs depending upon the venue and always make it a bit different. It has travelled to several venues in Canada, as well as half way around the world to Hong Kong and Bahrain. 

This exhibition of 50 pairs of shoes and boots has traveled to Hong Kong. Is it coming to the U.S. at any point? 

We do have a booking in Kuwait this fall.  We don’t have any American sites confirmed.

What was the story behind the best haul of vintage shoes or clothing you acquired?

I’ve had a few good hauls in my life, but the best was the estate of a woman whose husband was an air conditioning dealer in the 1950s and 1960s – just when people were buying air conditioning, so as he made money, her taste for couture grew. She kept EVERYTHING she ever wore, in double walk-in closets — 17 of them! Although Sotheby’s got a good look at everything first and siphoned off a dozen frocks, we were very happy with the leftovers. It took 4 or 5 days just to pack everything up and get it out of the house.

I asked Jonathan to quickly give us some tips concerning how to analyze or date a shoe:

It is difficult to be specific about what to look for when dating a pair of shoes because everything has to be considered — Style: shape of heel, shape of toe, type of shoe (slingback, open toe, sandal…), materials (leather, neolite, wood…) colour (wartime colour restrictions of leather footwear, aniline dyes), decoration (embroidery, tooled design, buckle, trim…) even the colour of the lining. Maker: label of store (location might have changed over time), designer, manufacturer, typeface used in lettering, type of label (stamped gold, fabric…) Origin can be determined by sizing (German and British, American and Canadian, and French and Italian each share a similar sizing…) Sometimes there is an overwhelming element that defines a pair of shoes, or any garment, but as fashion from the last twenty years has been a series of revivals, and newer items can appear very much like older examples, it becomes more difficult to be sure. I have a problem telling the difference between 1970s and 1990s platform shoes sometimes and have to rely on maker information to be sure. Above all, I would always prefer to handle an item before I decide on the most accurate date.

I wanted to thank Jonathan for his time, and I hope you all enjoyed discussing vintage shoes. Maybe you’ll take a second look the next time you see an “old pair of shoes”. The Anasazi shoe spoke to the anthropologist in me and the Perugia sang to the deco side of my heart. What vintage shoe designs speak to your heart?  Feel free to comment, ask questions, or discuss vintage shoe designs you love below. 


The Bata Shoe Museum-

Jonathan’s blog

Link to publications on vintage fashion by Jonathan-

Older Comments:

1. Kelly Jackson said…
Great post. I lived in Toronto for seven years before moving overseas and never went to the Bata Shoe Museum, for shame! Shoes aren’t my thing but I would appreciate learning of their historical and cultural significance over time. Though I’m a vintage jewellery fiend I think shoes would be way more interesting from those perspectives, somehow.

2. Sarara  said…

Thanks! I also found myself neglecting shoes and boy do I love vintage jewelry. They both have tales to tell, but I think shoes somehow are indeed often a bit left out.

3. Blanche said…