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“Shocking!” The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli

September 28, 2003–January 4, 2004

Writing in The New Yorker in 1932, Janet Flanner observed that “a frock from Schiaparelli ranks like a modern canvas,“ and the Paris fashion designer herself defined dressmaking as an art rather than a profession. The Philadelphia Museum of Art celebrates the extraordinary Elsa Schiaparelli—acknowledged by her contemporaries as the style arbiter of the 1930s—in the first major retrospective exhibition and catalogue to examine the ways in which her creations mirrored the social, political, and cultural climate of her times.

This survey explores the Italian-born designer’s career from its modernist beginnings in the 1920s, through its connections with surrealism, to the upheavals of war, the business struggles in the years thereafter, and finally the closure of her salon in 1954. It is particularly appropriate that this project has been undertaken by an American museum, for Schiaparelli readily acknowledged that her special relationship with the United States—sparked by the sale of a trompe l’oeil sweater to an American buyer in 1927—was the foundation of her great success, and her impact upon and relationship with the American fashion industry is considered here in detail for the first time.

Schiaparelli designed for the modern woman: she created the practical wardrobe for aviator Amy Johnson’s solo flight to the Cape Town in 1936; the culottes for tennis champion Lily d’Alvarez that outraged the English lawn tennis establishment in 1931; and the interchangeable wardrobe that she herself wore on her extensive travels. She had a close relationship with the Parisian artistic community, posing for Man Ray and collaborating with such artists as Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacometti, and Marcel Vertes for designs of clothing, fabric, embroidery, jewelry, and advertising. Schiaparelli was prized by women on the best-dressed list, including Millicent Rogers, Daisy Fellowes, Mrs. Harrison Williams, and Lady Mendl, and the clothing they wore will be among the items featured in this selection. Schiaparelli’s involvement with film and theater costume was equally celebrated—her designs appeared in more than thirty motion pictures, including Every Day’s a Holiday with Mae West and Moulin Rouge with Zsa Zsa Gabor—and is the subject of study here for the first time.

  • Philadelphia Museum of Art: September 28, 2003–January 4, 2004
  • Musée de la Mode, Paris: March 17–August 29, 2004

Main Building


Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli has been supported by Carefree and by an endowment from The Annenberg Foundation for major exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Robert Montgomery Scott Endowment for Exhibitions, The Women’s Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Otto Haas Charitable Trust #2, and the generous donors to Schiaparelli’s List. Promotional support was provided by NBC 10 WCAU, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, and Amtrak.


Dilys E. Blum, Curator of Costume and Textiles

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