Elsa Schiaparelli: The Art of Fashion

schiaparelli cecil beaton

Elsa Schiaparelli, photographed by Cecil Beaton, c1930: Image Credit: The Red List.

The wonderful and eccentric Elsa Schiaparelli was one of the most predominant and successful fashion designers of the 1930’s. Her name is no longer recognised within common culture, but throughout the field of fashion history, she is often regarded as an iconoclastic adventurer, who blurred the lines between art and fashion. Mingling with the avant-garde Surrealists, and experimenting with bold and bright colours, Schiaparelli set herself apart from the rest of the 1930’s couturiers, their designs oozing restrained elegance and glamour. In contrast, Schiaparelli seemed to have no creative limitations, her garments created through a blend of enchanting and mythical themes, combined with the exquisite couture techniques which aided to reinforce Schiaparelli’s reputation for intricate and quirky embroidery/applique.

schiaparelli tears dress 1938

T.393&A,D to F-1974. ‘The Tears Dress.’ Elsa Schiaparelli gown. Viscose-rayon and silk blend fabric printed with trompe l’oeil print. c1938. The Victoria and Albert, London. This dress has the illusion of physical tears and was created in collaboration Salvador Dalí. This was part of her ‘Circus’ collection.

schiaparelli 1938 gownschiaparelli 1938 gown close up

2009.300.1166a, b. Schiaparelli floral gown. Silk, plastic, metal. c1938. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Schiaparelli’s designs were distinctively witty. She came from an academic and affluent family, born and raised in Rome. Her uncle, Giovanni Schiaparelli, was a renowned astronomer, and his work would influence her throughout her life, using space-inspired motifs and zodiac symbols for the decoration on many of her garments. Her father was also a Dean at the University of Rome.

schiaprelli evening jacket 1937

2009.300.1354. Schiaparelli evening jacket. Silk, metal, rhinestones, glass. c1937. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. According to The Met, Schiaparelli adopted the Big Dipper constellation as her own personal emblem during her childhood, and it is depicted on the left  shoulder of this jacket.

Schiaparelli was well-educated and creative from a young age. Known for being rebellious. she went against social convention, shunning the opportunity given by her family to marry a wealthy Russian aristocratic, moving to London to marry a lecturer on psychic abilities. Although their marriage did not last, Schiaparelli remained inspired by spiritualism and over-worldly phenomena.

It was a meeting with the wife of Dada/Surrealist artist Francis Picabia which spurred Schiaparelli’s creative career. Connections with Paul Poiret, a designer who prevailed during the early twentieth-century with his Orientalist/Eastern inspired garments, aided to establish Schiaparelli’s career. The pair remained close throughout her life, bonded by their futuristic visions of fashion and modern approach to combine fashion with the decorative arts.

schiaparelli 1938 evening jacketsschiaparelli 1938 evening jacket close up

Top images: 1978.288.19b and 1974.338.2. Schiaparelli Evening jacket. Synthetic. c1938. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Schiaparelli was well known for her evening jackets which exaggerated the shape of the shoulders.

schiaparelli evening jacket 1939

Above image: 1978.288.20a–e. Schiaparelli evening jacket with blouse. wool, silk, rayon, metallic thread, glass, plastic. c1939. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Schiaparelli developed a line of knitwear which became a success, promoted by Vogue. Schiaparelli remains best known for her use of the ‘shocking’ pink colour which she adored, as well as her innumerable creation of motifs, applique, and embroidery adorned on her garments. Each collection she produced throughout the 1930’s usually had a theme, ‘Zodiac,’ ‘Circus,’ and ‘Music’ ect.

schiaparelli music dress 1939schiaparelli music dress 1939 2

2009.300.1165a, b. Schiaparelli evening gown. Silk, leather, plastic, metal. c1939. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Music was the theme of Schiaparelli’s 1939 collection.

schiaparelli 1940

2009.300.1169a, b. Schiaparelli ensemble. Wool, beads. c1940. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

She was highly connected through intellectual circles. Her collaborations with surrealists Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau would be legendary. Dalí inspired many of the symbols and patterns you see in Schiaparelli’s garments; the most well-known being the ‘Lobster’ dress worn by Wallis Simpson below in 1937, inspired by Dalí’s ‘Lobster Telephone.’ An avid client of Schiaparelli’s, style visionary Simpson wore this gown before her marriage to Edward VIII, photographed by the iconic Cecil Beaton.

schiaparelli wallis simpson

Wallis Simpson wearing the ‘Lobster dress’ designed by Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí, c1937. Photographed by Cecil Beaton. Image Credit: The Red List.

schiaparelli faces evening jacket

T.59-2005. Schiaparelli evening jacket. Silk jersey, with gold thread and silk embroidery and applied decoration in silk. c1937. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. According to The Victoria and Albert Museum,

‘the design for the evening coat reveals Cocteau’s preoccupation with the double image, a motif he consistently returned to in his work. The double image held particular fascination for several other artists associated with the Surrealist movement, including Dalí. The strong linear design on this coat can be read as two profiles facing each other, and in the negative space, a vase of roses standing on a fluted column.’

schiaparelli hair evening jacket

Top image: 1969-232-22. Schiaparelli dinner jacket. Linen plain weave, gilded metallic and silk thread embroidery, beads, and paillettes. c1937. The Philadelphia Museum of Art. According to The Philadelphia Museum of Art:

‘this Cocteau design, on the grey linen jacket of a dinner ensemble, is of a woman’s head in profile with long golden hair flowing down one of the jacket sleeves.’

schiaparelli dala gali

Above image: Gala Dali wearing the shoe-hat created by Elsa Schiaparelli from a Salvador Dali design, photographed by André Caillet fils, 1938. Image Credit: The Red List.

As well as her love for mystical spiritualism and other-worldly themes, Schiaparelli also loved to play with optical illusions, the above image just an example of one of the garments created with Cocteau. One of her 1936 suits was inspired by the art of Dalí, the pockets of the ensemble resembling drawers from a dresser. Other artistic designs included the iconic shoe hat, which had the classic Surrealist sexual connotation.

schiaparelli circus buttonsschiaparelli circus buttons 2

Above Image: C.I.50.34.4. Schiaparelli blouse. Rayon. c1937. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Bottom Image: T.38-1964. Schiaparelli evening jacket from her ‘Circus’ collection. Wool, painted metal, glass beads, appliqued, padded, lined with silk. c1938. The Victoria and Alber Museum, London.

Schiaparelli’s technical ability, although never formally trained in fashion, was also exceptional. The buttons and fastening in particular were always decorated and incorporated within the design/or theme of any garment and its wider collection. Her buttons and jewellery were created by bespoke designs, further strengthening Schiaparelli’s connections with the artistic and design worlds. Schiaparelli was an avid fan of experimenting with synthetic and modern materials, insects and the theme of nature often appearing as a repetitive style motif throughout her accessory ranges.

schiaparelli bug necklace

Top Image: 2009.300.1234. Schiaparelli necklace. Synthetic, metal. c1938. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Met states, that Schiaparelli,

‘executed […] the unreal idea of insects crawling on your skin as a fashion statement. Because of the clear Rhodoid, a type of cellulose acetate plastic, the multicolored insects seem to be resting on the wearer’s skin.’

schiaparelli bug brooch

Above Image: Elsa Schiaparelli, black shetland stole with oversized insect pin, photographed by Robert Randall, c1952. Image Credit: The Red List.

schiaparelli gloves

1969-232-55d,e. Schiaparelli gloves. Black suede, red snakeskin. c1936-37. The Philadelphia Museum of Art. Hands were used as a common motif within the Surrealist movement.

Chanel was Schiaparelli’s biggest rival. Schiaparelli’s designs were fun, bold, and adventurous. Chanel’s designs were already more restrained and classic, Chanel herself often snubbing Schiaparelli’s work. In fact, when Schiaparelli finally retired in 1954, Chanel reopened her fashion house, after closing it during WW2.

Schiaparelli also established an impressive client base; socialite Daisy Fellowes, Marlene Dietrich, Millicant Rogers, Wallis Simpson, and Mae West, all frequented Schiaparelli’s salon. In fact, Mae West’s hourglass silhouette was the inspiration for the shape of Schiaparelli’s ‘Shocking!’ perfume. Schiaparelli’s perfumes were also ingenious; using the shape of a candlestick and holder, and smoking-pipe, amongst many others, as the shape of the bottles.

schiaparelli court ensembleschiaparelli court ensemble 2

Top image: C.I.46.4.3a–e. Schiaparelli court presentation gown. Silk, feathers. c1938. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This dress was owned by the Honorable Mrs. Reginald “Daisy” Fellowes.

schiaparelli perfume

Above image: 2009.300.1389a–e. “Sleeping de Schiaparelli.” Glass, metal, paper, synthetic. c1940-50. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Schiaparelli’s clothes speak for themselves. They are adorned with wonderful motifs which tell their own stories – highly creative and experimental. So why do many not know of Schiaparelli’s name? The problem was World War Two. Once WW2 had arrived in 1939, Schiaparelli closed her salon in 1941. Additionally, although she had gained tremendous successes in Paris and America, her fashion house was only situated in London for a brief period throughout the 1930’s. According to Kerry Taylor, Schiaparelli’s prosperity was limited in Britain, due her clothes,

demanding women who didn’t mind being singled out in a crowd, and many British clients had conservative values.

Despite designing fashions suitable for the uncertainty of WW2 (she designed boiler suits ready for fashionable women to dash to air raid shelters if necessary), financial pressure led to the eventual bankruptcy of the Schiaparelli business.

schiaparelli apollo jacketschiaparelli apollo jacket 2

Elsa Schiaparelli, Evening cape, “Le char d’Apollon du bassin de Versailles, embroidery by Maison Lesage, design conceived by Christian Berard. c1938. The Kyoto Costume Institute, photo by Taishi Hirokawa.

Throughout the war, Schiaparelli moved to America, preoccupying herself by volunteering as a war-time nurse. Although she reopened after the war, there was no room for her creativity – Dior had well and truly dominated French couture. The house closed in 1954 and the brand name was purchased in 2007 – Schiaparelli collections again now feature on the runways during Paris Fashion Week.

Schiaparelli’s garments were not designed for the faint-hearted. She pioneered creativity and individuality. During in era which was filled with financial and political fear due to the build-up before WW2, Schiaparelli’s garments are delightfully fun and colourful. She continued to inspire women who dared to be different in the face of social conformity. Schiaparelli herself, a divorced single mother, was determined to make her own living, despite the wealth of her Italian family. More importantly, Schiap showed us all why and how fashion connects, and remains integral to the development of arts. Both the art world and fashion feed and thrive off each-other. Little wonder then, that Schiaparelli garments often fetch six-figure sums in auction, and that many museums have a devotion and need to collect her garments to form part of their collections.

schiaparelli butterfly dress

2009.300.1347a, b. Schiaparelli evening dress. Silk. c1937. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I end with a list of Schiaparelli’s 12 Commandments of Women, which features in her auto-biography, Shocking Life: 

‘Since most women do not know themselves, they should try to do so.

  1. A woman who buys an expensive dress and changes it, often with disastrous result is extravagant and foolish.
  2. Most women (and men) are colour-blind. They should ask for suggestions.
  3. Remember, 20 percent of women have inferiority complexes, 70 percent have illusions.
  4. Ninety percent are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say. So they buy a grey suit. They should dare to be different.
  5. Women should listen and ask for competent criticism and advice.
  6. They should choose their clothes alone or in the company of a man.
  7. They should never shop with another woman, who sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously, is apt to be jealous.
  8. She should buy little and only of the best or the cheapest.
  9. Never fit a dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress.
  10. A woman should buy mostly in one place where she is known and respected, and not rush around trying every new fad.
  11. And she should pay her bills.

schiaparelli man ray

Photograph of Elsa Schiaparelli, captured by Man Ray, c1940. Image Credit: The Red List.


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