Focus on Fashion: Elsa Schiaparelli

by Raymond


Elsa Schiaparelli was born in 1890 into a wealthy, distinguished Roman family and grew up surrounded by scholars and artists. She was a headstrong girl and loved shocking her staid family. She rebelled against her Catholic upbringing and studied philosophy; she scandalized her family by publishing a book of sexually suggestive poetry; and she caused outrage by attending a ball in Paris wearing only a length of fabric wrapped around her body--which promptly unraveled. 

In her early twenties, she traveled to England to work in an orphanage. In London, she met and married Count William de Wendt de Kerlor. When World War 1 broke out, William's income from his philosophical talks dried up, and the couple lived on Elsa's dowry on the French Riviera before moving to New York in 1919. William couldn't settle down, and his affairs continued. When she was 29, Elsa gave birth to her only child, a daughter, Yvonne, nicknamed Gogo. A few months later she divorced William, and supported herself working as a translator and scriptwriter. She returned to Paris in 1922, and quickly fell in with the city's artistic elite, befriending artists such as Cocteau, Picasso, Picabia and Stravinsky, and she resumed friendships with artists she had met in New York, including Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. 
On a shopping spree, Schiaparelli met Paul Poiret. She showed him her designs and with his encouragement, she began working as a freelance designer. As a result of his encouragement, Schiaparelli and Poiret became devoted friends and she continued to wear his clothes until he died.

Her career in haute couture began almost by accident. One day in 1927, she saw a woman wearing a sweater knitted with a special stitch that appeared to keep its shape. Schiaparelli learned that it had been hand knitted by an Armenian woman and she tracked her down. Schiaparelli sketched a simple sweater design and asked the woman if she could reproduce it. She was delighted with the result - a simple black sweater with a white trompe-l'oeil bow at the neck.

She wore her new sweater to a society lunch, where it caused a great deal of interest. She was photographed wearing it, and the photo was featured in Vogue. The New York department store Strauss placed an order for 40 sweaters - and matching skirts - to be delivered within a month. The entire stock sold out in a two weeks. Schiaparelli the fashion designer was born.

In 1927 she opened her couture house at 4 rue de la Paix, selling only knits, skirts, and sportswear. In 1930, she took over the downstairs studio and added "day wear and evening wear" to her collections.
In 1934 she opened a shop in London and also moved her Paris salon to 21 Place Vendome. After the move, she continued to produce up market sportswear, but she began making the fantasy clothes, fabulously colorful and decorative, using technical collaborators in the fields of textile design and embroidery that would make her a household name. Between 1930 and 1935, she was vital to the establishment of what we now think of as the feminine, continental silhouette. But by the end of the decade, she was the fashion designer, eclipsing even Coco Chanel, with clothes based on a perfect cut and decorative motifs.

The high point of her career was the period from 1935 until the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1936 she introduced her Egyptian look with pagoda sleeves, and made gowns with zippers in a contrasting color. She also produced her desk suit, a twin set inspired by Dali, with false and real pockets, all made to look like desk drawers. During the 1937 to 1938 season her Surrealistic designs had the fashion world gasping. She turned again to trompe-l'oeil, with a jacket bearing a woman's profile, drawn by Jean Cocteau.

She had Dali paint the famous lobster dress. She did a dress covered in musical notes, and another using a Dali-designed fabric that appeared to be ripped. It was during this period, also, that Schiaparelli set the standard for fashion shows as spectacular entertainment, with a series of themed collections including Music, Circus, Butterflies, Commedia del Arte, Astrology and Cash & Carry. Each show was more flamboyant and extravagant than the last. To the chagrin of Chanel, Schiap became the world's most renowned couturier.

Hollywood also came calling. Hollywood loved Schiaparelli's vibrant, theatrical style and her daring color combinations. Soon she was designing costumes for Zsa Zsa Gabor, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, Tallulah Bankhead and, most famously, Mae West, whose hour-glass figure inspired the bust-shaped bottle of Schiap's perfume, Shocking.

Chanel may have started the trend for costume jewelry, making imitation stones fashionable. It was Schiaparelli who took the trend and pushed it until it became an art form, using both real and paste gems on fabrics and in embroidery. Her coats, accessories, perfumes and hats were all wildly successful. During the 1930s, no fashionable woman went anywhere without a hat, and Schiaparelli was undoubtedly the most fashionable hat-maker of the time.
Towards the end of the 1930s, with the Second World War looming, female fashion adopted militaristic details - broad shoulders, tight-fitting skirts, masculine caps, shoulder bags and flat, sturdy shoes. The overall look was neat, polished, and alert. Only Schiaparelli seemed to be working a different vein, still obsessed with creating her own fashion vocabulary, a surrealist grammar. She fled France at the outbreak of war and dedicated herself to speaking tours and her work in Hollywood.

Schiaparelli returned to Paris in 1945. Though she enjoyed some measure of success, she had seriously misunderstood the profound changes that had taken place during her absence. Refusing to curb her imagination and flamboyance, she found her designs no longer captured the public mood. A new generation of male designers--led by Christian Dior--was poised to take over. Realizing that her moment had passed, she retired and closed her couture house in 1954, before publishing her autobiography, Shocking Life. Thanks to her perfumes, she had a good income right up to her death in 1973, but the last 20 years of her life seem rather sad compared with her phenomenal time at the top. She died in 1973 at the age of 83.

When Elsa Schiaparelli opened her couture house in 1927, she couldn't sew on a button. When she closed it in 1954, she was still had no dress-making skill. She never learned to sew, cut, knit or even pin fabric to a dummy. She didn't know one end of a tape measure from another, and probably never handled a pair of fabric scissors. And yet she was, with Madeleine Vionnet and Coco Chanel, part of the great feminine trio, the women who first defined 20th-century fashion.

In an age when couturiers still made their prototypes by hand--cutting, draping and pinning cloth--Schiaparelli broke with convention. She would sketch a dress, and have her technicians make it to her specification, always refining and editing their work until it matched her vision. While this might seem mundane in today's world, it was radically innovative in the mid-1930s. She collaborated closely with fabric designers, having her own exclusive materials made to order, often involving innovative techniques or prints. She was the first haute couturier to work extensively with major artists such as Dali and Cocteau, and the first European designer to have a major influence on Hollywood costumes.