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Elsa Schiaparelli

French (born Italy), 1890 - 1973

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From her earliest years, Elsa Schiaparelli exhibited the rebelliousness, passion, and imagination that would later make her one of the most influential and copied designers of all time. Together with Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, she dominated fashion between the two world wars. The rivalry between the two couturières was legendary, with Chanel's position as fashion arbiter during the 1920s usurped by Schiaparelli during the 1930s. Although they traveled in the same social circles, their approaches to design could not have been more different: Chanel viewed dressmaking as a profession; Schiaparelli regarded it as an art. Indeed, writing in The New Yorker in 1932, Janet Flanner observed that "a frock from Schiaparelli ranks like a modern canvas."


In 1914, at twenty-four, Schiaparelli began her circuitous route into the world of fashion by taking a brief but life-altering trip to England. While in London, she met the young theosophist and spiritualist Wilhelm Wendt de Kerlor and the two married after a whirlwind romance. Two years later, during the couple's sea voyage to New York, Schiaparelli met Gabrielle Picabia (wife of Dadaist painter Francis Picabia), who would introduce her to artists in New York and Paris as well as to her mentor, the couturier Paul Poiret.

In 1922, after separating from her husband, Schiaparelli moved to Paris where she earned a living by working first as a freelance fashion designer and later as the couturière for a small dress house. The "strikingly original sweaters" she presented at 20 rue de l'Université, Paris, in January 1927--her first collection--were an overnight success. Armenian hand-knitters working in Paris produced the designs using a technique that ensured that the finished garments, unlike other sweaters of the period, held their shape. They were worn not only by the world's most fashionable women but were immediately purchased by American wholesalers, who copied them for the mass market.

Encouraged by the public's response to her work, Schiaparelli opened her own salon later that year. Through her continued use of unusual materials, bold color choices, and designs that interpreted the period's modernist aesthetic, she immediately established a reputation for daring and originality--hallmarks of a career that would revolutionize haute couture. Her trompe l'oeil (eye-fooling) designs received enormous attention as well, and a black-and-white pullover decorated with an illusionistic bowknot shown in her November collection was heralded by Vogue as "an artistic masterpiece." By early December she had found a business partner in Charles Kahn, who was associated with the Galeries Lafayette department store. His financial backing enabled her to move to larger premises at 4 rue de la Paix, where the Schiaparelli salon remained until the end of 1934.

Early Collections and Innovations

Schiaparelli's affinity with Modernism during the late 1920s and early 1930s was reflected in her predominant use of black and white, a combination that Flanner referred to as "chic melancholy." Schiaparelli not only dressed in one or the other, or both, but also had her Paris apartment decorated in the two colors by the period's most avant-garde interior designer, Jean-Michel Frank. She offset the austerity of her palette through the use of textured weaves, lacquered satins; and plush velvets; also introducing subtle gradations, such as her signature dull black and chalky whites.

Schiaparelli designed for the modern, active woman. Spanish tennis player Lili de Alvarez shocked the Wimbledon tennis establishment in 1931 by wearing the designer's divided skirt, and English aviator Amy Mollison dressed in the couturière's interchangeable travel wardrobe during her record-breaking 1936 flight from England to South Africa. The success of her sportswear led Schiaparelli to diversify her collections to include clothing for town and evening wear, and she was subsequently prized by women on the best-dressed list, including Millicent Rogers, Daisy Fellowes, Mrs. Harrison Williams, and Lady Mendl.

Asserting that the modern woman's wardrobe should be small, carefully selected, and comfortable, Schiaparelli developed wraparound dresses that tied at the side (solving the problem of finding the perfect fit), replaced cumbersome buttons with easily managed clips and zippers. She viewed clothing as a type of architecture and believed it should be closely connected to the frame of the body, just as a building's form is drawn from its structural skeleton. Her pioneering shoulder treatments, including the introduction of padded shoulders in August 1931, made the waist appear narrower and the hips smaller. A slightly raised waistline and longer skirt lengthened the figure, while its flaws were camouflaged by asymmetric cuts and closings.

The Mid-1930s

By 1935, Schiaparelli had opened a branch of her salon in London and moved her Paris salon to the more imposing 21 Place Vendôme, near the famous Ritz Hôtel. The salon's opening presentation, called "Stop, Look and Listen," declared that the strict Modernism that had defined the previous collections would be refocused to reflect the current political, social, and artistic changes in Europe. In celebration, Schiaparelli designed a fabric printed with a collage of her press clippings, created in the spirit of Pablo Picasso's and Georges Braque's paper collages. For the rest of the decade, in fact, many of the couturière's designs would be linked with the work of contemporary artists.

Schiaparelli wrote in her memoirs that "fashion is born by small facts, trends, or even politics, never by trying to make little pleats and furbelows, by trinkets, by clothes easy to copy, or by the shortening or lengthening of a skirt." Therefore, while other couturiers presented full skirts in their February 1935 showings, Schiaparelli created Indian-influenced gowns and wraps, inspired by a visit from the fourteen-year-old Indian princess Karam of Kapurthala's visit to Paris the summer before. For the following season, she transformed her Hindu-style drapery into Italian-primitive "Fra Angelico" veils and Venetian capes, anticipating Mussolini's loan exhibition of Italian masterpieces at Paris' Musée du Petit Palais. And for her August 1935 collection, she reflected on "the uncertain political temper of the times" and presented attire appropriate for either monarchies or democracies, with a few Modernist touches added for the Left. She also embarked upon a controversial trip to Russia in November 1935, the only Paris couturier who took part in the first French trade show in Moscow.


Between 1936 and 1939 Schiaparelli incorporated the theories and imagery of Surrealism into her designs, collaborating with a number of the artists at the center of the movement, including Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau, and Alberto Giacometti. Many of Surrealism's precepts, such as René Magritte's thesis that "an object never fulfills the same function as its name or its image," were translated by Schiaparelli into imaginative and often provocative designs. Thus a shoe was not a shoe, but a hat.

In designing the bottle for Schiaparelli's best-known fragrance, 1937's Shocking (a name derived from her signature pink), Surrealist artist Léonor Fini used the hourglass shape of movie star Mae West as a model. She was inspired by the life-size plaster cast that West sent to Schiaparelli in lieu of fittings (the couturière was creating costumes for the film Every Day's a Holiday). Fini continued the dressmaking theme by adding a tape measure that crossed in the front and fastened at the "waist" of the bottle.

Responding to André Breton's concept that "beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all," Schiaparelli also created "hard chic" fashions for unconventional-looking women. The Surrealist interest in metamorphosis and its symbolic association with the butterfly paralleled Schiaparelli's own attempts since childhood to make her "ugly" self more beautiful, and in 1937 she developed a butterfly-themed collection. According to former Vogue editor Bettina Ballard, "A Schiaparelli customer did not have to worry as to whether she was beautiful or not--she was a type. She was noticed wherever she went, protected by an armour of amusing conversation-making smartness. Her clothes belonged to Schiaparelli more than they belonged to her--it was like borrowing someone else's chic and, along with it, their assurance."

The Circus collection for summer 1938, Schiaparelli recalled, was her "most riotous and swaggering collection." The international Surrealist exhibition in Paris had opened just three weeks before, and the movement's influence was evident in Schiaparelli's designs--several of which were created in collaboration with Salvador Dalí, such as an evening dress embroidered with a skeleton's silhouette and another printed with a pattern of torn animal flesh. For the fashion show's finale, Schiaparelli presented a simple, white wedding gown with an amusing trompe l'oeil veil, the beaded embroidery on which took the form of wavy strands of hair or, possibly, snakes that represented the tresses of Medusa. The look could perhaps be read as the designer's commentary on marriage.

Later Collections

With themes derived from classical myths mixed with Surrealism, Schiaparelli's fall 1938 Pagan collection featured leaves, flowers, and fruit, along with accents and jewelry in the form of insects. The collection for winter 1938-39 glittered with references to the signs of the zodiac, the planets, and the constellations, the result of a childhood comparison Schiaparelli's astronomer uncle had made between the beauty marks on the left side of her face and the constellation Ursa Major. The eighteenth-century Italian commedia dell'arte (a comedic form of theater in which masked entertainers improvise within a standardized plot) became the leitmotif for Schiaparelli's spring 1939 collection, with vividly colored harlequin patchwork patterns, masks that appeared as buttons or on belts, and dramatically shaped hats enhanced the collection's theatricality. Schiaparelli's collection for summer 1939 transformed the worldly, sophisticated women of past seasons back into demure Victorian ladies, with lingerie details on black dresses, rows of shirring on bodices, and apron-like effects enhanced the femininity of the garments.

Music boxes concealed in hats, bags, and belts serenaded the audience attending the opening of Schiaparelli's collection for fall 1939, and women's rediscovered femininity revealed itself in youthful dance dresses with gently flaring skirts embroidered with instruments or bars of music. In contrast, Schiaparelli's subsequent winter 1939-40 collection, shown on August 3, exchanged the full skirts for sleek, smoothly fitting "cigarette" silhouettes, worn by the designer herself.

Exactly one month to the day after the winter presentation, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. The couture houses immediately responded with chic air-raid shelter ensembles such as Schiaparelli's one-piece, zippered jumpsuit designed for quick dressing during an evacuation.

The War Years

The declaration of war on September 3, 1939, had an immediate effect on the French fashion industry. Schiaparelli was forced to reduce the number of her employees from 600 to 150. Her October collection was less than half its usual size and was presented, she would later recall, "as a matter of prestige to prove to oneself that one was still at work." Schiaparelli came up with creative fashion alternatives during this period, such as oversized "cash and carry" pockets to replace handbags, and, to accommodate fabric shortages, an evening dress made from giant scarves printed with French regimental flags.

On June 14, 1940, German forces entered Paris. Four days later Schiaparelli arrived in New York to fulfill her contract for an American lecture series titled "Clothes Make the Woman." Following the successful thirty-city tour, she returned to France in January 1941 to oversee her business interests. By May, however, her situation there had become increasingly precarious, and she left once again for the United States, where she remained for the duration of the war. Her Paris salon was managed by Irene Dana who, after February 1942, worked under a German administrator.

During her stay in the United States between 1941 and 1945, Schiaparelli refused all design offers out of loyalty to the struggling French fashion industry. Instead she pursued volunteer activities, which included working as a nurse's aid and organizing concerts and art exhibitions (she helped arrange the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York in 1942, working with Marcel Duchamp and André Breton). When the couturière returned to France, her first collection, presented on September 13, 1945, looked to the past. Schiaparelli's postwar designs continued to rework old themes, such as asymmetrical effects and the bustle, but also included fresh ideas that exhibited the "imagination, initiative, and daring" that had always characterized her work.

After the War

Schiaparelli's position as fashion's trendsetter, however, had been usurped by a new generation of young couturiers such as Christian Dior. To keep her couture house afloat, she licensed her name to manufacturers in the United States. By the beginning of 1953, eleven American companies, staffed with their own designers, were producing clothing, accessories, and jewelry with the shocking pink-and-white label "Schiaparelli Paris." Although Schiaparelli's separately organized perfume business continued to be profitable, the precarious finances of the salon resulted in the presentation of her final collection on February 3, 1953. Ironically, this final showing was followed two days later by the return of Schiaparelli's longtime rival Chanel after a fifteen-year absence from fashion design. In December 1954 Schiaparelli's couture house declared bankruptcy.

Although Schiaparelli left the world of haute couture in 1954 and died in 1973, her legacy continues to this day. The looks she created more than a half-century ago have become an integral part of mainstream clothing design, so much so that her influence is not always recognized. Always ahead of her time, Schiaparelli revolutionized fashion by giving it a modern sensibility and relevance; she took fashion out of the closet and turned it into "dressing with attitude."

Elsa Schiaparelli's Twelve Commandments for Women

From Elsa Schiaparelli: Shocking Life, New York, 1954

  1. Since most women do not know themselves they should try to do so.
  2. A woman who buys an expensive dress and changes it, often with disastrous result, is extravagant and foolish.
  3. Most women (and men) are color-blind. They should ask for suggestions.
  4. Remember-twenty percent of women have inferiority complexes. Seventy percent have illusions.
  5. Ninety percent are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say. So they buy a gray suit. They should dare to be different.
  6. Women should listen and ask for competent criticism and advice.
  7. They should choose their clothes alone or in the company of a man.
  8. They should never shop with another woman, who sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously, is apt to be jealous.
  9. She should buy little and only of the best or the cheapest.
  10. Never fit a dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress.
  11. A woman should buy mostly in one place where she is known and respected, and not rush around trying every new fad.
  12. And she should pay her bills.
"Shocking!" The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, 2003

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