SCHIAPERELLI: A WOMAN WHO FOREVER ALTERED FASHION
“ The perfect dress, the one that will never go out of style. is just one: the dress of freedom” -Elsa Schiaparelli
“She slapped Paris. She smacked it. She tortured it. She bewitched it. And it fell madly in love with her” -Yves Saint Laurent on fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli
Elsa Schiaparelli made women feel beautiful, daring, and independent — by convincing them to wear insect jewelry, clown prints, and shoes on their heads. Schiaparelli routinely made headlines in the 1920 s and ’30 s, overshadowing rivals like Coco Chanel with her outlandish costumes and endlessly copied staples. Many Schiaparelli designs were so outstanding that they still have the power to shock, and contemporary designers continue to riff on her work today.
And yet, despite Schiaparelli’s love of outrageous attire, her clothing was often extremely practical, adopting new technologies like plastic zippers and synthetic fabrics to create garments that made women chic and comfortable. She was a perfectionist who invented the first bathing suit with a built-in bra, the see-through raincoat, the ladies’ evening jacket, and the wrap dress.
A model wears Schiaparelli designs in 1952, including an oversized fly brooch. Above: A pair of black suede gloves with red snakeskin fingernails from 1936 and a pair of aqua doeskin gloves with golden fins from 1939. Courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In spite of her profound impact on modern fashion, today Schiaparelli’s work is largely unknown outside the art and fashion communities. In part, it’s because she stopped designing more than 60 years ago, following the cultural schism initiated by World War II. After Schiaparelli’s name fell from the headlines, designers like Chanel and Dior, whose traditional labels are still in production, supplanted her in our collective memory.
But Schiaparelli might also be overlooked because her story doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative of 20th century fashion: She combined her shrewd business sense with a provocateur’s eye, popularizing the eye-catching and audacious even amid the widespread austerity of the Great Depression. Though Schiaparelli was notorious in the 1930 s, her embrace of Surrealism — along with its confrontational fusion of ugly and beautiful — was brushed under the rug a few decades later.
A Schiaparelli necklace of metal insects mounted on clear plastic from 1938.
Schiaparelli toyed with various identities, from poet to antiques dealer, but didn’t set her sights on the fashion world until she was living in Paris, inspired by the artistry around her. By the time Schiaparelli landed in the city, it was buzzing with new technologies — telephones, automobiles, and flying zeppelins — and fashion wasn’t far behind. Cutting-edge designers like Paul Poiret were eliminating heavy layers and tight corsetry, and introducing looser-fitting garments that showcased a natural silhouette and allowed women to move more freely.
Schiaparelli jumped headfirst into the fashion world, and by the 1930s, had become a familiar name in the couture industry. Schiaparelli’s typical silhouette emphasized and extended the shoulders with peaks and padding, created a high and narrow waistline, and lengthened hemlines down below the knee. The look was a forerunner to the power suit, decades before second-wave feminists fought for equal rights in the workplace. “She was making very smart-looking clothing, body conscious but in a tailored way,” says Blum. “You could tell a woman was wearing Schiaparelli just by the style of her garments.” The simplified shapes of Schiaparelli’s designs were easily adapted for mass-market copies, which made them all the more popular.
Her designs were also aimed at a specific segment of the traditional high-end clientele. “It was young, sporty, American,” says Blum. “I’m sure she was aware that in order to survive, she would have to have an American client base.” In 1931, tennis fans were shocked when champion Lilí Álvarez wore a “divided skirt” (also known as culottes) created by Schiaparelli. She later designed the practical and stylish wardrobe for aviator Amy Johnson’s solo flight to Cape Town, South Africa, in 1936.
Her most imaginative collections included Zodiac, Pagan, and Circus — all in 1938 — and Music and Commedia dell’Arte in 1939. The Pagan collection incorporated hats made from fake flora and buttons shaped like insects, while the Zodiac silhouette was drawn from Euclid’s treatise on geometry, its garments embellished with views of planets and constellations. For the Circus collection, clown hats and balloon-shaped purses shared the stage with spectacular prints that buttoned using miniature acrobat and horse shapes.
Schiaparelli also embraced new materials and technology before they were mainstream. As early as 1935, zippers appeared prominently on her skirts, sleeves, pockets, and necklines. She worked with modern synthetic fabrics, like rayon and a metallic yarn called Lurex. For a 1934 collection, Schiaparelli developed rhodophane, a fragile and brittle “glass fabric” that had to be interwoven with other materials to keep it from ripping. Secrest describes the varied cornucopia of textures Schiaparelli chose for her garments: “shaggy furs made of metal, moirés in metallic gunmetal, wrinkled velvets, fabrics [resembling] tree bark, cellophane, and straw — whatever made news.”
“Shocking-pink” was Schiaparelli’s signature color. She described hot pink as “life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world put together, a color of China and Peru but not of the West.”
The Schiaparelli label dropped out of the headlines for the last half century, but in 2014, the House of Schiaparelli reopened its doors at 21 Place Vendôme in Paris, launching new collections designed by Marco Zanini, formerly of the label Rochas, along with a one-off tribute couture collection by Christian Lacroix. Schiaparelli would likely be unsurprised by the revival of her own brand, for she recognized that a designer’s work had its own existence once out in the world. As she wrote in her 1954 autobiography: “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 it or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty.”