Wit, innovation, transformation, freedom, defiance, chic—and shock
. How many of us would dare to take fashion inspiration from the most iconoclastic of designers?
Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome in 1890. A defiant girl from the start, she ran away from home at the age of six only to be found several days later, at the head of a parade. When she was 21, Schiaparelli wrote a book of erotic poetry, shocking her aristocratic parents who promptly sent her to a convent. When she waged a hunger strike they were forced to bring her back home.
|The youngest in this family portrait from 1892|
Repeatedly told by her mother that her older sister was a beauty and that she was homely, as a girl Schiaparelli once tried to plant flower seeds in her nose, mouth and ears, presciently imagining she could make herself blossom into a beauty. She gradually found love and admiration through the creation
After a hasty, early marriage fell apart in 1914, Schiaparelli began to discover her life’s work. Her marriage had taken her to New York, and with the help of connected friends, she relocated to Paris where she became associated with artists and made her way into the domain of fashion.
Schiaparelli was at her height in the inter-war years, an equal to her rival Coco Chanel, and most of these style elements for which she is known are tied to that time.
Collaborations with artists
Schiaparelli was greatly influenced by the artists whom she considered her soulmates. First by the Dadaists, then even more profoundly by the Surrealists, her friends and collaborators included Jean Cocteau, Christian Bérard, René Magritte, Alberto Giacometti and most especially Salvador Dalí.
|Coat; evening suit jacket (both 1937) by Schiaparelli, embellishments designed by Jean Cocteau; Wallis Simpson wearing the Schiaparelli/Dalí-collaboration lobster dress (1937); the famous shoe hat (winter, 1937) another Schiaparelli/Dalí collaboration; Giacometti for Schiaparelli ring (1935).|
The dream worlds of the Surrealists particularly appealed to Elsa Schiaparelli, and her creations reflected those dreams tinged with her own iconic wit.
|Lobster hat (1939)—lobsters were one of Dalí’s favorite subjects and Schiap took to them equally; gloves (1936); models wearing Schiaparelli in a surreal landscape, photographed for Vogue by André Durst (1936); the iconic Tears Dress in collaboration with Dalí (1938); another image of the shoe hat, this time shown with a suit with red lips for pockets (1937); glasses (1951).|
Elsa Schiaparelli first made her mark on the fashion world in 1927 with boxy sweaters knit in a special double layered stitch to keep them from losing their shape—and most importantly featuring trompe l’oeil in their designs. These caused an immediate sensation and were the basis for her opening her atelier, even if just in a garret to start. By 1935, her atelier was the 98-room salon and work studios at 21 Place Vendôme, which was christened the Schiap Shop
. She had had no formal training.
|Trompe l’oeil sweaters (1928, 1930s, 1927); woodgrain dress (1938); fabric sample for Schiaparelli (1936); silk gloves decorated with plastic discs reminiscent of chain mail (1935-40).|
Surrealism, trompe l’oeil...the humor in Schiaparelli’s work is undeniable. That lobster dress? There are parsley sprigs scattered near the hem. Gloves have manicures, pockets have lips.
|Hat and gloves (1949); pair of ostrich clips by Jean Schlumberger for Elsa Schiaparelli, Circus Collection (summer, 1938); Cane Purse (1950s); Schiaparelli Sleeping perfume bottle and suede case (another Circus Collection item, 1938); gloves (1936); Dalí/Schiaparelli telephone dial compact (1935); suit and hat with braid (1951).|
Before evening wear, Schiaparelli made her name in sportswear and she never lost sight of practicality in her design. She created a wardrobe of mix-and-match, easy-care separates for her own travel. She dressed the English pilot Amy Johnson in a handsome, work-worthy outfit. In 1931, she put the tennis star Lilí Álvarez in a split skirt, shocking the staid Wimbledon crowd.
|Schiaparelli, with her daughter Gogo, St. Moritz (1934); Schiaparelli dressed for travel (1941); pioneering English aviatrix Amy Johnson in Schiaparelli (1936); Lilí Álvarez wearing a divided skirt by Schiaparelli (1931).|
Struggling with the curse of being told she was unattractive from early on, Schiaparelli seemed to seek redemption through fashion, both in beautifying herself and through the glorification of the ordinary in her design.
|As a girl, Schiaparelli was troubled by the moles on her face, but her uncle, a noted astronomer, said they outlined the Big Dipper, which was good fortune. This later became her symbol and she commissioned a diamond pin of it. The famous Horst photo of Schiaparelli in an oval mirror reflects a wary introvert. Patchwork print evening dress (1936); simple black dress with elaborate jeweled sleeves (1938).|
Not just a favorite symbol of the Surrealists, but surely of personal significance to a woman who wanted to transform her appearance, butterflies are a recurrent theme in Schiaparelli’s work. Sometimes they are unfettered, as butterfly button-like decorations seem to take flight off a jacket, other times caught, as a black netting over-dress envelopes a butterfly-printed dress beneath.
|Dress and over-dress/jacket (1937); jacket with butterfly buttons (1937).|
Playing a very important role in many of Schiaparelli’s 1930s creations was the embroidery realized by the House of Lesage. In some cases it nearly covered the fabric on which it was stitched, yet always heightened the design of the garment without overwhelming it. With Schiaparelli and Lesage one feels the sense of great dancers in a pas de deux, their arts completely intertwined.
|Zodiac Collection evening jacket (1939); evening jacket with padded embroidery (1938); evening gown (1940); Circus Collection jacket (1938); evening jacket (1937-39); evening ensemble (1940); evening blouse (c.1938); veil (1938); jacket (1938).|
Somewhere between fastener and jewelry, Schiaparelli’s buttons very often were set free from their usual roles and wended their way diagonally down the front of a jacket or floated onto a hat. The placement, the size and most of all the themes (everything from snails to shell casings) were deviantly inventive.
|Trapeze artist buttons on a Circus Collection jacket (summer, 1938); cicada button on a Pagan Collection jacket (winter, 1938), astrological figure button on a jacket from the Zodiac Collection (summer, 1939), lyre and piano buttons from the Music Collection (fall, 1939).|
The ‘Lightning Fastener’
In another technically inventive inspiration, Schiaparelli took to the zipper (the Lightning Fastener) at the vanguard of its popular use. Instead of keeping its practicality hidden, she glorified it in her designs, using it as a jolting focal point.
|Lightning fastener advertisement (1935); evening gown with angled zipper (1935).|
Schiaparelli upended the expected in fabrics, using day fabrics for evening and evening fabrics for daywear. Her couture garments combined even suede with lace. She experimented with new man-made fabrics, including a glass-like Rhodophane (which proved impractically fragile). Her wit extended to prints featuring seed packets, carousel animals and her own press clippings.
|Rhodophane ‘glass’ cape - André Durst Harper’s Bazaar photo (1935); evening blouse and bag of silk printed with the number of ration coupons required for each of the garments pictured (1940-45); plastic belt painted with pink stars (1938); cotton seed packet-print dress (1940-41); highly-textured wool dress (1930); carousel animal-print silk dress (1938).|
The evening suit
So many of Schiaparelli’s 1930s creations were in the form of suits, most notably and inventively her evening suits. The dresses, sleek and baring gowns, were relatively unadorned, while their jacket mates could be ornately embellished.
Her other advancements include a wrap dress, a backless swimsuit, a built-in bra, culottes/trousers and folding glasses.
|Evening jacket (winter, 1937); dinner jacket with insect buttons, 1938; Schiaparelli ensemble in front of Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” sculpture, photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1939); dinner jacket (1940).|
Themes often ran through seasonal collections, giving direction not only to the designs and embellishments, but to the performance art theatrics of Schiaparelli’s fashion shows.
The Music collection of 1937 included music boxes in belt buckles and on hats, colorfully sparkling embroidered musical notation, and buttons shaped like instruments:
The Zodiac collection of winter 1938-39 was an homage not only to astronomy, but to the Sun King Louis XIV, and to Apollo:
In her extraordinarily prolific 1938, Schiaparelli produced not only the Zodiac collection but the Circus and Pagan collections. The Commedia del’Arte came in 1939.
Edgy black was a Schiaparelli speciality, as brazenly exemplified by the Skeleton Dress from 1938. Made of fine, matte silk in a clingy cut, the ‘bones’ of the dress are formed by normally delicate trapunto quilting thickly stuffed with cotton wadding.
Her edginess carried into a sort of eek chic, with a brilliant array of realistic bugs crawling around an innovative clear plastic collar (as if directly on the wearer’s skin), and fine silk printed with what look like gaping wounds used for the Tear Dress.
|Outfit and veil hat (1949); insect necklace (1938); Skeleton Dress (1938); detail of the Tears Dress, showing both the printed silk of the dress and the 3-D effect used for its companion hood (1938).|
Famously described as “...an aggressive, brawling, warrior pink” by Yves Saint Laurent, this vibrant color was the non-sweet signature of the designer, giving name to her most famous perfume, color to her packaging, and finding its way into her fashions from head to toe throughout her career. Her autobiography Shocking Life
sealed her own sense of connection to the color, the connotation of the hue expressing her provocative, enthralling work.
|Cotton suit with mermaid ceramic button (1938); detail of evening jacket (1947); Shocking de Schiaparelli perfume ad by Marcel Vertes (1950—the perfume was first created in 1936); boots designed by Elsa Schiaparelli in collaboration with André Perugia (1939-1940).|
|The cover of Schiaparelli’s 1954 memoir.|
“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.”
—One of the “12 Commandments for Women” from Shocking Life
📧 Keep track of my vintage fashion ideas and deals by subscribing to the denisebrain newsletter!