Elsa Schiaparelli made women feel beautiful, daring and independent—by convincing them to wear insect jewelry, clown prints and shoes on their heads. Schiaparelli (pronounced “skap-a-reli”) routinely made headlines in the 1920s and ’30s, overshadowing rivals like Coco Chanel. Many Schiaparelli designs were so avant-garde that they still have the power to shock, and contemporary designers continue to riff on her work today.
And yet, despite Schiaparelli’s love of outrageous attire, her clothing was often extremely practical, adopting new technologies like plastic zippers and synthetic fabrics to create garments that made women chic and comfortable. She was a perfectionist who invented the first bathing suit with a built-in bra, the see-through raincoat, the ladies’ evening jacket and the wrap dress.
As Meryle Secrest wrote in her recent biography of Schiaparelli,
Her clothes were smart, wearable and sexy, and marked the wearer as an individualist as well as someone with a sense of humor—the Duchess of Windsor, after all, chose a diaphanous evening gown for her honeymoon that featured a huge pink lobster on its skirt, surrounded by some tastefully sprinkled parsley.
Schiaparelli, who named her favorite color Shocking Pink, her brand of perfume Shocking and her 1954 memoir Shocking Life, was familiar with the use of hype to capture public attention and market herself—think Lady Gaga, 80 years earlier.
During the designer’s heyday, Janet Flanner, a Paris correspondent for The New Yorker, wrote that “a frock from Schiaparelli ranks like a modern canvas.” The designer herself famously said that being a dressmaker was not a profession but an art.
In spite of her profound impact on modern fashion, today Schiaparelli’s work is largely unknown outside the art and fashion communities. In part, it’s because she stopped designing more than 60 years ago, following the cultural schism initiated by World War II. After Schiaparelli’s name fell from the headlines, designers like Chanel and Dior, whose traditional labels are still in production, supplanted her in our collective memory.
But Schiaparelli might also be overlooked because her story doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative of 20th century fashion: She combined her shrewd business sense with a provocateur’s eye, popularizing the eye-catching and audacious even amid the widespread austerity of the Great Depression. Though Schiaparelli was notorious in the 1930s, her embrace of Surrealism—along with its confrontational fusion of ugly and beautiful—was brushed under the rug a few decades later.
Born in Italy to a scholar father and a well-connected mother, Schiaparelli’s family was emotionally distant and cared little for her ambition to live a creative, bohemian life. At age 22, she left her home in Italy for London, New York and eventually, Paris, the modern capital of Europe. In 1914, Schiaparelli married the enigmatic Count Wilhelm Wendt de Kerlor, a self-described “consulting psychologist” whose specialty was reading palms and making predictions about the future.
De Kerlor’s unconventional profession got the couple deported from the U.K. because of a lawsuit concerning false palmistry and clairvoyance, and they eventually decamped for New York City during the turmoil of World War I. The energy of New York invigorated Schiaparelli, but she spent her days dedicated to her husband’s various schemes, living hand-to-mouth as her dowry slowly ran out. In 1920, shortly after their daughter, Maria Luisa, was born, the child caught polio and Schiaparelli’s marriage dissolved.
Schiaparelli toyed with various identities, from poet to antiques dealer, but didn’t set her sights on the fashion world until she was living in Paris, inspired by the artistry around her. By the time Schiaparelli landed in the city, it was buzzing with new technologies—telephones, automobiles and flying zeppelins—and fashion wasn’t far behind. Cutting-edge designers like Paul Poiret were eliminating heavy layers and tight corsetry, and introducing looser-fitting garments that showcased a natural silhouette and allowed women to move more freely.
While on board the ship to New York, Schiaparelli had met Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, or Gaby, the wife of Dadaist painter Francis Picabia, and the two became fast friends. Through Gaby, Schiaparelli met art-world luminaries like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, joining the boisterous Surrealist crowd at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, a fashionable bar named after a bizarre ballet written by Jean Cocteau and Darius Milhaud.
The legendary Poiret also ran in this crowd, and when Gaby wore a Schiaparelli concoction—made from yards of fabric and dressmaker’s pins—to an event hosted by Poiret, the designer himself complimented Schiaparelli’s ingenuity.
But Schiaparelli’s big break came in a more roundabout way: After admiring a curiously stitched sweater worn by an acquaintance, Schiaparelli sought out the Armenian woman who knitted it, commissioning her to make one featuring a trompe l’oeil design of a white bow around the neck with coordinated details at the cuffs. Soon after, Schiaparelli wore the sweater to a luncheon of important fashion buyers, and an American representative immediately asked for 40, with matching skirts. Vogue later called the design “an artistic masterpiece and a triumph of color and blending,” and it was copied by companies all over.
Schiaparelli jumped headfirst into the fashion world, and by the 1930s, had become a familiar name in the couture industry. Schiaparelli’s typical silhouette emphasized and extended the shoulders with peaks and padding, created a high and narrow waistline, and lengthened hemlines down below the knee. The look was a forerunner to the power suit, decades before second-wave feminists fought for equal rights in the workplace. The simplified shapes of Schiaparelli’s designs were easily adapted for mass-market copies, which made them all the more popular.
In 1931, tennis fans were shocked when champion Lilí Álvarez wore a “divided skirt” (also known as culottes) created by Schiaparelli. She later designed the practical and stylish wardrobe for aviator Amy Johnson’s solo flight to Cape Town, South Africa, in 1936.
As Janet Flanner wrote for the New Yorker in 1932:
Certainly one of the explanations of her phenomenal success here was the un-European modernity of her silhouettes, and their special applicability to a background of square-shouldered skyscrapers, of mechanics in private life and pastimes devoted to gadgetry.
Yet this functionality wasn’t limited to sporting activities, either: Some of Schiaparelli’s outfits were designed to transition from day to night, such as a dress that could shortened or lengthened by tying the skirt back. She also developed the concept of a ladies’ evening jacket, to be paired with a matching dress for added warmth and elegance after the sun had set.
Clothing that could metamorphose was especially prized during the tight years of the early Depression. “She also liked hidden pockets, skirts that looked like trousers and vice versa, whatever was versatile and unexpected,” writes Secrest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her brand weathered the financial calamity well, even as the fashion industry at large shrunk considerably.
Schiaparelli also embraced new materials and technology before they were mainstream. As early as 1935, zippers appeared prominently on her skirts, sleeves, pockets, and necklines. She worked with modern synthetic fabrics, like rayon and a metallic yarn called Lurex.
In 1935, Schiaparelli opened a 98-room salon near the Place Vendôme in Paris, with space for the new Schiap Shop—the first ready-to-wear showroom associated with a couture label. Writes Secrest,
For five years, from 1935 to 1939, she was at the height of her powers with collections that, while showing the same underlying themes, kept her clients astonished and delighted with her seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness and wit. She eclipsed everyone, including Chanel, to become the most important couturier in Paris.
Some of Schiaparelli’s best ideas came out of collaborations with established artists like Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. Elements that appeared in Dali’s paintings were translated to her garments, like a dress with drawer-like pockets along its front or the dress featuring a bright-red lobster print. In 1937, they created the Shoe Hat, whose crown pointed upward like the heel of an overturned pump. The following year, Dali and Schiaparelli designed the Skeleton Dress, a black crepe gown with cotton wadding used to imitate protruding bones. Designs like these were intentionally subversive, using elements normally deemed unattractive and elevating them to the pinnacle of style.
With Cocteau, Schiaparelli designed more traditional garments, but their embellishment was no less hypnotic. The back of a long coat in blue silk jersey was embroidered with an optical illusion created by two silhouetted faces forming the outline of a vase, topped with a splash of pink flowers. Schiaparelli also forged partnerships with other artists of the era, like Meret Oppenheim, who created fur jewelry pieces, and Alberto Giacometti, who designed furniture, brooches, and buttons. Most of these surrealist fantasies were truly statement pieces, and never made it into full production.
Beyond direct collaborations, Schiaparelli loved working symbolic surrealist forms into her clothing. Hands appeared frequently—as belt clasps, lapel clips, and buttons—and gloves were modified by adding fingernails, claws, and rings. Schiaparelli embellished more sedate garments with clever buttons, cast into the shapes of beetles, shells, faces, locks, candlesticks, acorns, and lips. She created an oft-imitated fabric printed with newspaper clippings featuring headlines about her own label. “She has a gift, almost uncontrollable at times, for discovering beauty in lowly objects which have hitherto escaped attention by being universally useful,” wrote Flanner.
By 1939, Schiaparelli had reached her zenith as the leading tastemaker in Paris. At the same time, fascist politicians were on the rise in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, leading the world to war. Hitler began his invasion of France in 1940, and Schiaparelli’s designs reflected the mood, becoming more conservative in their restrained military colors, wide pockets, and long sleeves. In the face of rumors about her collaboration with enemy forces, Schiaparelli launched her first postwar collection in 1945—but styles had changed, and Schiaparelli had not. People were after a new kind of beauty that didn’t challenge or provoke; they wanted the glamour and excitement of a new feminine silhouette. Fashion was becoming decadent and extravagant again, with frills, bows, and corseting. Now that Surrealism was no longer novel, Schiaparelli’s designs seemed to lack a clear goal, and after the war, the House of Schiaparelli floundered.
By the time styles would come back to more challenging, self-confident womenswear, Schiaparelli had quit designing altogether. In early 1954, Schiaparelli presented her final collection.
The Schiaparelli label dropped out of the headlines for the last half century, but in 2014, the House of Schiaparelli reopened its doors at 21 Place Vendôme in Paris, launching new collections designed by Marco Zanini, along with a one-off tribute couture collection by Christian Lacroix. Schiaparelli would likely be unsurprised by the revival of her own brand, for she recognized that a designer’s work had its own existence once out in the world. As she wrote in her 1954 autobiography:
A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens, another personality takes over from you and animates it, or tries to, glorifies it or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty.
Excerpted with permission from Collectors Weekly. See the full article here.
(For more on Schiaparelli, read Meryle Secrest’s biography of the designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, explore the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection online or visit the upcoming exhibition “High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection” at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.)
Top photo by John Phillips in Life magazine of Schiaparelli in 1937 wearing Napoleon hat and shocking pink (trust us) jacket, from Wikimedia Commons. Photo of 1937 coat designed with Jean Cocteau from Wikimedia Commons.