One of the sadder things about the fashion industry is that household names generally garner more attention and appreciation than actual innovation. While most of the world has forgotten Elsa Schiaparelli, her work in the 1930s still continues to motivate stylish unconventionality, and inspire the fashion industry as a whole. Here’s her story. If you haven’t yet heard of her, I promise you won’t regret reading on.

Schiaparelli was born into the lap of luxury, and spent much of her childhood upsetting her conservative family of aristocrats. Upon publishing a book of sensual poems, she was sent to a convent, a stint that quickly ended when she protested with a hunger strike. At the age of 22, Schiaparelli decided her privilege was stifling her creativity and removed all familial ties.

En route to London, Schiaparelli was invited to a ball in Paris. In being freshly financially independent, Schiaparelli bought some blue fabric, wrapped it around herself, and pinned it into place in place of a ballgown. This was the first known Schiaparelli original. And it became quite the sensation when it began to unravel as the night went on.

When she eventually got to London, Schiaparelli spent most of her time visiting museums and attending lectures. In 1921, she married one of her lecturers and moved to New York, where she took to urban modernity. Her social circle included Parisian boutique owner Gaby Picabia, and Dada and Surrealist artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. When she found herself abandoned by her husband one night, she moved to Paris with them.

In Paris, Schiaparelli began making her own clothes. Yves Saint Laurent once described her career launch quite aptly, “She slapped Paris. She smacked it. She tortured it. She bewitched it. And it fell madly in love with her.”

In 1925, Schiaparelli sketched a black sweater with a large white bow motif. She launched a collection of knitwear in the early 1927, featuring the world’s first graphic knit prints. It wasn’t long before it landed on Marlene Dietrich, and became immensely coveted.

Schiaparelli’s career was illuminated with fashion innovations. She made the colour ‘shocking pink’ famous, and used zips and phosphorescent clasps instead of buttons. She also pioneered culottes, embroided shirts, wrapped turbans and ornament buttons.

She was the first designer to use synthetic materials like rayon, jersey and cellophane in couture. Schiaparelli also pioneered in using unusual materials like oilskin and sackcloth together with basic materials such as tweed.

She was also the first designer to employ circus, theatre and ballet elements into fashion play.

During the Depression between the World Wars, Schiaparelli began laying emphasis on shoulders with padding, pleats, and braids on rather severe-looking dresses for day. Her evening dresses however, remained glamorous to cater to a clientelle like Daisy Fellowes, Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich both on and offscreen.

Mae West in Every Day’s a Holiday and Zsa Zsa Gabor in Moulin Rouge

Between 1936 and 1939, Schiaparelli began collaborating with Surrealist artists like Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and Alberto Giacometti, with whom she was introduced to through her old friend Man Ray. These works are considered her most memorable.

Patchwork evening coat inspired by Man Ray’s Le Beau Temps

Vase evening coat, featuring an optical illusion of a vase of roses and two profiles facing each other by Jean Cocteau

Tears dress, inspired by three of Dali’s paintings that feature skin-tight gowns, with a Dali print of rips and tears cut out and lined in pink and magenta.

Lobster dress, inspired by Dali’s Lobster Telephone, a silk evening dress featuring a large lobster painted by Dali onto the skirt. The dress was famously worn by Wallis Simpson.

Skeleton dress, a collaboration with Dali, a black crepe dress with trapunto quilting to create protruding bones.

Shoe hat, inspired by a photo of Dali balancing a slipper on his head taken by his wife, Gala Dali.

Gala Dali with the orginal shoe hat design

The Shoe Hat also appeared on Katherine Helmond’s head in the 1985 film Brazil

And even on last year’s catwalks!

Eric Tibusch, Karl Lagerfeld, Japan

Schiaparelli also launched a line of perfumes in the ’30s; the most renowned of which was called Shocking. The bottle was designed by Leonor Fini and inspired by Mae West’s tailor’s dummy.

Looks a little like Jean Paul Gaultier’s Classique collection, no?

I for one, love her eyewear. There isn’t much written about them, and they’re pretty excruciatingly hard to find, but they’re too gorgeous for summer!

In her time, Schiaparelli was rivaled to no one other than Gabrielle Coco Chanel. While Chanel was known for her craftsmanship and conservative minimalism, Schiaparelli was celebrated for her artistic avant gardian approach to fashion. 

When World War II started, Schiaparelli moved to America, where she continued as a successful designer and entrepreneur. When she returned to Paris after the war however, trends had changed profoundly and her designs were no longer in style, with Christian Dior having taken over the Parisian couture scene.

In 1954, Schiaparelli closed her boutique and ceased work as a designer. Perfume sales became a steady income until her death in 1973.

The closing down of her business led to the world forgetting about her designs and her creative voice. But even still, critics continue to see Chanel as lucratively conservative, and Schiaparelli as genius.

I think its amazing how she was able to transmit her flamboyant persona, artistic preferences and creative spirit into fashion designs that complimented a woman’s shape. Personally, I secretly wish she or her fashion house were still around to dress Lady Gaga! What do you think of Elsa Schiaparelli?

 

 

Related Articles: Icon of the Week: Marlene Dietrich, Icon of the Week: Lady Gaga

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