Elsa Schiaparelli: The Couturière and the Avant-Garde

shockingOn the 10th of September 1890, fashion pioneer Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome, Italy. She is remembered for her witty accessories, such as a purse in the shape of a telephone and reoccurring motifs such as masks, cages, and butterflies. She was also famous for creating garments with multiple uses, such as a skirt that could be worn as a cape. During her shows she played on the idea of metamorphosis through clothing which was employed to conceal one facet of a woman only to reveal another.

Although she came from a well-to-do educated family –  her father was a scholar of Arabic and Islamic studies, which inspired her fashion work; a cousin was an Egyptologist; and her uncle, an astronomer – Schiaparelli had her fair share of struggles and her success was entirely self-made. Moving to Paris as a single divorced mother, Schiaparelli started her career by producing elegant and simple clothes for herself and her friends. She then met Paul Poiret, perhaps the most distinguished designer of his time, who kindled in her the taste for design and by 1927, her sweaters knit with trompe l’oeil bows attracted international attention. A significant sportswear wholesaler started importing her garments in New York and soon, inexpensive copies of her designs cropped up everywhere. Even though these fakes costed her a small fortune in losses, Schiaparelli maintained that when people cease to copy you, your work is no longer significant. She managed to sell her collections to important American and British department stores of the day and distributed her patterns through women’s magazines. In 1935, Schiaparelli famously opened a 98-room salon in Paris at 21 Place Vendôme, establishing the “Schiap Sho51vuuK1C6RLp” on its ground floor – the first ready-to-wear boutique by a large fashion house on the highstreet.

“By 1935 she was a leader in haute couture and was quickly expanding into jewelry, perfume, cosmetics, lingerie, and swimsuits. Her designs were noted for combining eccentricity with simplicity and a trim neatness with flamboyant colour. In 1947 Schiaparelli’s new colour, “shocking pink,” was the sensation of the fashion world. She escaped to New York during World War II and opened a branch in 1949 to mass-produce suits, dresses, and coats of her design. Along with designer Christian Dior, she was instrumental in the worldwide commercialization of Parisian fashion. (Britannica) 

“A dress cannot just hang like a painting on the wall, or like a book remain intact and live a long and sheltered life. 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 or destroys it, or makes it not a song of beauty. More often it becomes an indifferent object, or even a pitiful caricature of what you wanted it to be – a dream, an expression.” (Elsa Schiaparelli)

“Unlike her great rival Coco Chanel, who struggled from poverty and ignominy to achieve professional distinction and regarded couture as a business, Schiaparelli always viewed her work as art. She associated herself professionally and socially with major artists, utilizing their talents and contributing to their projects. Even without the validation of this rarified company, Schiaparelli’s visual intelligence, humor, and ability to integrate complex ideas brings to her work a distinction beyond the ephemeral. To her, fashion was “born by small facts, trends, or even politics, never by trying to make little pleats and furbelows…or by the shortening or lengthening of a skirt.” Her aerodynamic silhouette, a kind of angular draped bustle, was introduced in 1933, the same year as the Boeing 247, the first all metal passen51rVRRqC7SLger plane. One aspect of Schiaparelli’s forward-looking vision was her eagerness to incorporate, even instigate, novel color and fabric treatments. She registered a number of patents, including one for a back-less bathing suit. She also introduced the split skirt, undisguised by panels, shocking Londoners when she wore one there during a 1931 trip to buy tweeds.” (Robin Rice, review of Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli by Dilys E. Blum, in Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring – Summer, 2004).

Schiaparelli’s ingenious creations were closely linked to the artists of her time, the trends they initiated and their ways of thinking. “Her “use of zippers as decorative elements in her Winter 1935-36 collection was a design and marketing coup. Among her lasting innovations were the first tennis costume with a divided skirt and a fabric print composed of press clippings. The latter, which she used until her salon closed in 1954, was inspired by Picasso’s and Braque’s collages, but Schiaparelli’s clippings were all about her own designs.” (…) Dali collaborated with her many times, most notably on the infamous shoe-shape41HTZ0KRTPLd hat and the lobster-painted dress, which he apparently expected Schiaparelli to adorn with real mayonnaise. He utilized her designs in various Surrealist tableaux. Meret Oppenheim was wearing a fur bracelet, the only design she acknowledged selling to Schiaparelli, when she encountered Picasso and Dora Maar at the Cafe de Flore. Picasso’s chance remark that anything could be made of fur inspired Oppenheim’s signature work, Le Dejeuner en fourrure (1936). Schiaparelli’s gloves with fingernails (1938) are a reversal of Picasso’s 1935 hands painted to resemble gloves, photographed by Man Ray, and related to Oppenheim’s Fur Gloves with Wooden Fingernails (1936). The designer’s evening coat from her 1939 spring collection, “A Modern Comedy,” a patchwork of graduated black, blue, red, yellow, and white wool felt lozenge shapes, came to life in the patterned figures in Man Ray’s The Good Times, painted six months later.” (Robin Rice)