“In difficult times fashion is always outrageous.” – Elsa Schiaparelli
Elsa Schiaparelli is credited by many as the fashion designer who invented modern women’s fashion. Elsa’s modern designs were defined by her extraordinary creativity, and her philosophy of treating fashion as art.
It was this personal philosophy that lead to the Italian born fashion designer dominating the fashion world between the two World Wars. Designer Elsa Schiaparelli developed a very close relationship with the Parisian artistic community of 1920s and 1930s, especially the Surrealists which led to her collaborating with Salvador Dali.
Mae West, the biggest film star of the pre-war period was an avid fan of Elsa’s designs.
To Rome With Love
Designer Elsa Schiaparelli was born into the lap of luxury at the Palazzo Corsini in Rome as the daughter of Neapolitan aristocrat, Maria-Luisa. It was her father, Celestino Schiaparelli, the famous curator of medieval manuscripts and dean of the University of Rome who fostered in her a love of learning and a curiosity about the world around her.
During her studies at the University of Rome, Elsa published a book of erotic poetry that shocked the Schiaparelli family who in response sent Elsa to a nunnery.
At the nunnery Elsa came to believe that the life of luxury she had been living up until this point had been stifling her art and creativity. With this realization, Elsa vowed to removed herself from that world of wealth and high social status as soon as possible.
Elsa was only released from the nunnery after a hunger strike. After her release, she took a job in London as a nanny.
On her journey to London, Schiaparelli visited a friend in Paris who invited her to a ball. It was this episode that Elsa recalls that sparked her love of fashion.
Having nothing to wear, Elsa went out in Paris and bought yards of dark blue fabric. Schiaparelli took the fabric and draped it about her body and pinned it in place, creating her first fashion design.
Elsa spent most of her time in London visiting museums and attending lectures. It was in one of these lectures that Schiaparelli would met her future husband Count William, a well known French Swiss theosophist.
Back To Paris
In New York, Elsa meet Gaby Picabia, the owner of a boutique that sold French fashion in New York. Gaby was the ex-wife of French Dadaist artist Francis Picabia, it was Gaby that later introduced Elsa to the artist community of Paris. As Elsa worked in Gaby’s shop she met artist Man Ray, who would be a life long friend and inspiration. As Gaby and Man Ray left New York City to go back to Paris, Elsa and her new daughter Maria Luisa went back with to Paris as well.
Fashion As Art
In January 1927, Schiaparelli presented her first knitwear collection ‘Pour le Sport’ with the encouragement of established Fashion Designer Paul Poiret. Elsa took her experience in New York to create eye-fooling designs that proved to be an overnight success. The signature piece of Elsa’s ‘Pour le Sport’ line was a black-and-white sweater decorated with an illusion bowknot. Vogue raved it was ‘an artistic masterpiece’ and the collection as ‘striking original sweaters.’
After appearing in Vogue, Elsa added to her collection sweaters featuring sweaters with surrealist tromp l’oeil images with double layered stitching created by Armenian refugees. Among the new designs featured was a piece that crafted an illusion of a scarf wrapped about ones neck.
Designer Elsa Schiaparelli expanded the collection ‘Pour le Sport’ to bathing suits, ski wear and linen dresses. Among these were a divided skirt, credited as the pro-type of modern shorts, this skirt caused a stir that shocked the tennis world when Sports Star Lili de Alvarez worn it to Wimbledon in 1931.
Designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s fashion house kept growing, till Elsa finally moved her shop into the former salon of famous French couturier Madeleine Cheruit at 21 Place Vendome in 1935.
To celebrate the opening of Schiaparelli’s new location the ‘Schiap Shop,’ Elsa designed a fabric printed with a collage of her press clippings, inspired by Pablo Picasso’s famous paper collages.
As Schiaparelli’s fashion house grew Elsa expanded her collection into the realm of evening gowns in 1930. Reflecting her fearless nature when it came to trying new things, her creations were strikingly original. Mae West , the classic sex icon fell in love with Schiaparelli’s gowns and worn them in nearly every one of her films during the 1930’s.
Enter Dali –
During the late 1930’s Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with a number of Surrealist artists in Paris like Salvador Dali, Alberto Giacometti. Elsa followed many of the Surrealism’s ideals, crafting many imaginative and creative pieces.
During her collaborations with artist Salvador Dali, some of Schiaparelli’s most infamous designs were created. Among these infamous designs were the shoe hat, the Tears dress, and a day suit with pockets simulating a chest of drawers.
Her rival French Fashion Designer Coco Chanel called her a ‘Italian artist who makes clothes.’
In 1938 Schiaparelli created a new collection she called Circus. It was the new line that allowed Schiaparelli’s creativity to bloom as she introduced new theatrical elements that dazzled many of her public.
Among the Circus collection were the Dali dresses like the Tears Dress. The Tears Dress was a slender pale blue evening gown printed in a Dali design of tromp l’oeil with rips and tears, worn with a thigh-length veil with tears carefully cut out, lined in pink and magenta.
The print was created to give the illusion of torn animal flesh, the tears printed to represent fur on the reversal of the fabric – the whole illusion being on of animal pelts turned inside out.
Dali created three paintings that featured figures in ripped, skin tight clothing suggesting torn flesh. Dali gave on to Elsa Schiaparelli, that is still in the Schiaparelli family entitled Necrophiliac Springtime.
World War 2
As France and Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, the effect on the Fashion World in Paris was immediate. Elsa Schiaparelli’s Spring Collection was less than half its usual size and presented “trench” brown and camouflage print taffetas. Elsa Schiaparelli later told her friends “it was a matter of prestige to prove to oneself that one was still at work.”
As Paris fell in June 1940, Elsa sailed to New York and would spend the rest of the war there.
With the end of the war Schiaparelli returns to Paris only to find that fashions had changed in her absence and the house of Schiaparelli struggled in the wake of Christian Dior’s “New Look,” finally closing in 1954.
Elsa Schiaparelli spent the rest of her days writing an autobiography, and living a fantastical retirement in Paris and Tunisia. Elsa finally passed on in 1973.
The House of Schiaparelli
The true impact of Designer Elsa Schiaparelli on fashion and the fashion industry are still being felt today.
As a designer Elsa introduced more ‘firsts’ then any designs before or since to the world of fashion. It was Schiaparelli that created the runway show we use today. Elsa believed that a fashion show needed to contain elements of music and art, and she used elongated, shapeless women as models to best display the clothing without taking away from the design.
Schiaparelli invented graphic knitwear with her use of knit patterns and emblems. She introduced the use of bright colored zippers to Paris, and she was the first to dye zippers so they matched the color of garments they were on.
Among her other firsts were the creation of the ‘wedge’ heel , a shoe that is still trendy today. She also was the first to mix-and-match her sportswear lines.
Rebirth of Schiaparelli
The rebirth of Schiaparelli as an international house has followed a path similar to the one, it’s founder Elsa took in her own life. It has meandered about over the last decade since it’s relaunch, drawing directly from the diverse archives left by Elsa Schiaparelli. Yet it has struggled to find it’s own identity in the modern world. Since the reopening of it’s iconic Couture House at Hôtel de Fontpertuis where Elsa first opened her fashion house to the world, the brand has seen three creative directors come and go.
Starting with Monsieur Christian Lacroix who designed an unique Haute Couture collection in July 2013 in tribute to Elsa. In September of that year, Marco Zanini was brought on as creative director. He was in charge of all Haute Couture and Prêt-à-Couture until late 2014. As of April 2015, Bertrand Guyon is the Design Director of all Haute Couture and Prêt-à-Couture collections of the new House of Schiaparelli. In his own words, Monsieur Bertrand describes the house as “Elsa Schiaparelli is an enchanting couture house. I have always been fascinated by its exceptional legacy, its luminous and intimate story, its quirky and poetic world, its ultimate chic and its endless creativity.”