Elsa Schiaparelli(1890–1973) was an Italian fashion designer. Along with Coco Chanel, her greatest rival, she is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in fashion between the two World Wars. Starting with knitwear, Schiaparelli’s designs were heavily influenced by Surrealists like her collaborators Salvador Dalí and Alberto Giacometti. Her clients included the heiress Daisy Fellowes and actress Mae West.
Schiaparelli did not adapt to the changes in fashion following World War II and her business closed in 1954.
Schiaparelli was born at the Palazzo Corsini in Rome. Her mother, Maria-Luisa, was a Neapolitan aristocrat, and her father, Celestino Schiaparelli, was a renowned scholar and curator of medieval manuscripts. Her father was Dean of the University of Rome and an authority on Sanskrit. She was a niece of astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who discovered the so-called canali of Mars, and she spent hours with him studying the heavens. She studied philosophy at the University of Rome, during which she published a book of sensual poems that shocked her conservative family. Schiaparelli was sent to a convent until she went on hunger strike and at the age of 22 accepted a job in London as a nanny. Elsa led a refined life with a certain amount of luxury provided by her parents’ wealth and high social status. She believed, however, that this luxury was stifling to her art and creativity and so she removed herself from the “lap of luxury” as quickly as possible. Schiaparelli moved first to New York City and then to Paris, combining her love of art and design to become a couturier.
En route to London, Schiaparelli was invited to a ball in Paris. Having no ballgown, she bought some dark blue fabric, wrapped it around herself and pinned it in place. In London most of her time was spent visiting museums and attending lectures. Schiaparelli went on to marry one of her lecturers, Count William de Wendt de Kerlor, a Franco-Swiss theosophist. In 1921 they moved to New York, where Schiaparelli immediately responded to the modernity of the city. Her husband distanced himself from the city and had abandoned his family by the time their child, Maria Luisa (nicknamed ‘Gogo’) was born.
Schiaparelli was later introduced to Gaby Picabia, ex-wife of French Dadaist artist Francis Picabia and owner of a boutique selling French fashions in New York. Through her work there, Schiaparelli met artists like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. When Gaby and Man Ray left for Paris, Schiaparelli joined them.
In Paris, Schiaparelli – known as “Schiap” to her friends – began making her own clothes. With some encouragement from Paul Poiret, she started her own business but it closed in 1926 despite favourable reviews. She launched a new collection of knitwear in early 1927 using a special double layered stitch created by Armenian refugees and featuring sweaters with surrealist trompe l’oeil images. Although her first designs appeared in Vogue, the business really took off with a pattern that gave the impression of a scarf wrapped around the wearer’s neck. The “pour le Sport” collection expanded the following year to include bathing suits, ski-wear, and linen dresses. The divided skirt, a forerunner of shorts, shocked the tennis world when worn by Lili de Alvarez at Wimbledon in 1931.She added evening wear to the collection in 1931, using the luxury silks of Robert Perrier, and the business went from strength to strength, culminating in a move from Rue de la Paix to acquiring the renowned salon of Louise Chéruit at 21 Place Vendôme, nicknamed the Schiap Shop.
‘Or give me a new Muse with stockings and suspenders
And a smile like a cat
With false eyelashes and finger-nails of carmine
And dressed by Schiaparelli, with a pill-box hat.’
—Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal, stanza XV, 1939.
Colin McDowell noted that by 1939, Schiaparelli was well-known enough in intellectual circles to be mentioned as the epitome of modernity by the Irish poet Louis MacNeice. Although McDowell cites McNeice’s reference as from Bagpipe Music, it is actually from stanza XV of Autumn Journal.
A darker tone was set when France declared war on Germany in 1939. Schiaparelli’s Spring 1940 collection featured “trench” brown and camouflage print taffetas. Soon after the fall of Paris on 14 June 1940, Schiaparelli sailed to New York for a lecture tour; apart from a few months in Paris in early 1941, she remained in New York City until the end of the war. On her return she found that fashions had changed, with Christian Dior’s “New Look” marking a rejection of pre-war fashion. The house of Schiaparelli struggled in the austerity of the post-war period, and Elsa finally closed it down in December 1954, the same year that her great rival Chanel returned to the business. Aged 64, she wrote her autobiography and then lived out a comfortable retirement between her apartment in Paris and house in Tunisia. She died on 13 November 1973.
Modern art, particularly Dada and Surrealism, provided a significant source of inspiration for Schiaparelli. She worked with a number of contemporary artists to develop her imaginative designs, most famously with Salvador Dalí. From these artistic collaborations, Schiaparelli’s most notable designs were born. In addition to well-documented collaborations such as the shoe hat and the Tears dress, Dalí’s influence has been identified in designs such as the lamb-cutlet hat and a 1936 day suit with pockets simulating a chest of drawers. Schiaparelli also had a good relationship with other artists including Leonor Fini, Jean Cocteau, Meret Oppenheim, and Alberto Giacometti. Chanel referred to her as ‘that Italian artist who makes clothes’.
In 1937, Schiaparelli collaborated with the artist Jean Cocteau to design a jacket and an evening coat for that year’s Autumn collection. The jacket was embroidered with a female figure with one hand caressing the waist of the wearer, and long blonde hair cascading down one sleeve. The coat featured two profiles facing each other, creating the optical illusion of a vase of roses. The embroidering of both garments was executed by the couture embroiderers Lesage.
The designs Schiaparelli produced in collaboration with Dalí are among her best known. While she did not formally name her designs, the four main garments from this partnership are popularly known as follows:
The 1937 Lobster Dress was a simple white silk evening dress with a crimson waistband featuring a large lobster painted (by Dalí) onto the skirt. From 1934, Dalí had started incorporating lobsters into his work, including New York Dream-Man Finds Lobster in Place of Phone shown in the magazine American Weekly in 1935, and the mixed-media Lobster Telephone (1936). His design for Schiaparelli was interpreted into a fabric print by the leading silk designer Sache. It was famously worn by Wallis Simpson in a series of photographs by Cecil Beaton taken at the Château de Candé shortly before her marriage to Edward VIII.
The Tears Dress, a slender pale blue evening gown printed with a Dalí design of trompe l’oeil rips and tears, worn with a thigh-length veil with “real” tears carefully cut out and lined in pink and magenta, was part of the February 1938 Circus Collection. The print was intended to give the illusion of torn animal flesh, the tears printed to represent fur on the reverse of the fabric and suggest that the dress was made of animal pelts turned inside out. Figures in ripped, skin-tight clothing suggesting flayed flesh appeared in three of Dalí’s 1936 paintings, one of which, Necrophiliac Springtime, was owned by Schiaparelli; the other two are The Dream Places A Hand on a Man’s Shoulder and Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra.
Dalí also helped Schiaparelli design the Skeleton Dress for the Circus Collection. It was a stark black crepe dress which used trapunto quilting to create padded ribs, spine, and leg bones.
In 1933, Dalí was photographed by his wife Gala Dalí with one of her slippers balanced on his head In 1937 he sketched designs for a shoe hat for Schiaparelli, which she featured in her Fall-Winter 1937-38 collection. The hat, shaped like a woman’s high heeled shoe, had the heel standing straight up and the toe tilted over the wearer’s forehead. This hat was worn by Gala Dalí, Schiaparelli herself, and by the Franco-American editor of the French Harper’s Bazaar, heiress Daisy Fellowes, who was one of Schiaparelli’s best clients.
Schiaparelli’s perfumes were noted for their unusual packaging and bottles. Her best-known perfume was “Shocking!” (1936), contained in a bottle sculpted by Leonor Fini in the shape of a woman’s torso inspired by Mae West’s tailor’s dummy and Dalí paintings of flower-sellers.The packaging, also designed by Fini, was in shocking pink, one of Schiaparelli’s signature colours which was said to have been inspired by Daisy Fellowes’ Tête de Belier (Ram’s Head) pink diamond.
Other perfumes included:
- Salut (1934)
- Souci (1934)
- Schiap (1934)
- Sleeping (1938)
- Snuff (for men; 1939)
- Roi Soleil (1946)
- Zut! (1948)
Schiaparelli’s output also included distinctive costume jewellery in a wide range of novelty designs. One of her most directly Surrealist designs was a 1938 Rhodoid (a newly developed clear plastic) necklace studded with coloured metallic insects, giving the illusion that the bugs were crawling directly on the wearer’s skin. During the 1930s her jewellery designs were produced by Jean Clemént and Roger Jean-Pierre, who also made up designs for buttons and fasteners. She was also one of the first people to recognise the potential of Jean Schlumberger who she initially employed to create buttons for her in 1936. His jewellery for Schiaparelli, which featured inventive combinations of precious and semi-precious stones proved successful, and at the end of the 1930s, he left to launch his jewellery business in New York. In addition to Schlumberger, Clemént and Jean-Pierre, Schiaparelli also offered brooches by Alberto Giacometti, fur-lined metal cuffs by Méret Oppenheim, and pieces by Max Boinet, Lina Baretti, and the writer Elsa Triolet. Compared to her unusual couture 1930s pieces, 1940s and 1950s Schiaparelli jewellery tended to be more abstract or floral-themed.
Schiaparelli designed the wardrobe for several films, starting with the French version of 1933’s Topaze, and ending with Zsa Zsa Gabor’s outfits for the 1952 biopic of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge in which Gabor played Jane Avril. Moulin Rouge won Marcel Vertès an Academy Award for Costume Design, although Schiaparelli’s role in costuming the leading lady went unacknowledged beyond a prominent on-screen credit for Gabor’s costumes. Authentically, Gabor’s costumes were directly based upon Toulouse-Lautrec’s portraits of Avril.
She famously dressed Mae West for Every Day’s a Holiday (1937) using a mannequin based on West’s measurements, which inspired the torso bottle for Shocking perfume.
The failure of her business meant that Schiaparelli’s name is not as well remembered as that of her great rival Chanel. But in 1934, Time placed Chanel in the second division of fashion, whereas Schiaparelli was one of “a handful of houses now at or near the peak of their power as arbiters of the ultra-modern haute couture….Madder and more original than most of her contemporaries, Mme Schiaparelli is the one to whom the word “genius” is applied most often”. At the same time Time recognised that Chanel had assembled a fortune of some US$15m despite being “not at present the most dominant influence in fashion”, whereas Schiaparelli relied on inspiration rather than craftsmanship and “it was not long before every little dress factory in Manhattan had copied them and from New York’s 3rd Avenue to San Francisco’s Howard Street millions of shop girls who had never heard of Schiaparelli were proudly wearing her models”.
Perhaps Schiaparelli’s most important legacy was in bringing to fashion the playfulness and sense of “anything goes” of the Dada and Surrealist movements. She loved to play with juxtapositions of colours, shapes and textures, and embraced the new technologies and materials of the time. With Charles Colcombet she experimented with acrylic, cellophane, a rayon jersey called “Jersela” and a rayon with metal threads called “Fildifer” – the first time synthetic materials were used in couture. Some of these innovations were not pursued further, like her 1934 “glass” cape made from Rhodophane, a transparent plastic related to cellophane. But there were more lasting innovations; Schiaparelli created wraparound dresses decades before Diane von Furstenberg and crumpled up rayon 50 years before Issey Miyake’s pleats and crinkles. In 1930 alone she created the first evening-dress with a jacket, and the first clothes with visible zippers. In fact fastenings were something of a speciality, from a jacket buttoned with silver tambourines to one with silk-covered carrots and cauliflowers.
The House of Schiaparelli
The House of Schiaparelli was first opened in the 1930s at 21 Place Vendôme, but was shut down on 13 December 1954. In 2007, an Italian business man Diego Della Valle acquired the brand, but it wasn’t until Marco Zanini was appointed in September 2013 that details of the brand’s revival became public. The house has been nominated for a return to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture list of members, and presented its first show since nomination in January 2014.Schiaparelli, using a hyper-exclusive business strategy, is to sell its first collection exclusively at a by-appointment boutique in Paris.
- “Shocking!” The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (September 2003-January 2004) and the Museé de la Mode, Paris (March–August 2004).
- Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations; The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (May–August 2012)
- Couturier Christian Lacroix presented a tribute fashion collection to Schiaparelli at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in 2013.
Elsa Schiaparelli’s daughter, Countess Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha de Wendt de Kerlor, better known as Gogo Schiaparelli, married shipping executive Robert L. Berenson. Their children were model Marisa Berenson and photographer Berry Berenson. Both sisters appeared regularly in Vogue in the early 1970s. Berry was married to Anthony Perkins, who died of AIDS on September 12, 1992. Almost 9 years later, on September 11, 2001, Berry died on American Airlines Flight 11 when it crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Elsa Schiaparelli’s great grand children include actor Oz Perkins and musician Elvis Perkins.
Shocking Life: The 12 Commandments for Women
In 1954 Elsa Schiaparelli published her autobiography “Shocking Life”, which contains a list of 12 commandments (or guidelines) for women.
- Since most women do not know themselves, they should try to do so.
- A woman who buys an expensive dress and changes it, often with disastrous result, is extravagant and foolish.
- Most women (and men) are colour-blind. They should ask for suggestions.
- Remember, 20 percent of women have inferiority complexes, 70 percent have illusions.
- 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.
- Women should listen and ask for competent criticism and advice.
- They should choose their clothes alone or in the company of a man.
- They should never shop with another woman, who sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously, is apt to be jealous.
- She should buy little and only of the best or the cheapest.
- Never fit a dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress.
- A woman should buy mostly in one place where she is known and respected, and not rush around trying every new fad.
And she should pay her bills.