SCHIAPARELLI, Elsa

Born Rome, 1890.
Died Paris, 1973.


‘That Italian artist who makes dresses’ was how chanel sneeringly described Schia-parelli but it is, in fact, a good description of this original and rather startling star of 1930s fashion. Her viewpoint was much more in line with the Surrealist artists' thinking than with traditional couture approaches. She was a sensational designer, not a sophisticated one. In place of a continuous development based on a design philosophy, she had a brilliant knack of producing the witty shape or the clever accessory which was perfectly in tune with the moment. Her very entry into couture was accidental.
The daughter of a Roman professor of oriental languages, she studied philosophy, married and moved to New York. In 1920 her husband left her and she went to Paris with her daughter, but no money. She designed herself a black sweater with a trompe I'oeil white collar and bow which was knitted for her by an Armenian peasant. A buyer saw it, gave her an order, and she was in the fashion business practically overnight. She had found her metier. As a brilliant self-publicist and exploiter of novelty, for whom to be ‘amusing’ was more important than to be tasteful, she was given huge press coverage. By 1930 the little band of Armenian knitters with whom she had started had swollen to more than 2,000 employees working in twenty-six workrooms.
In 1935 Schiaparelli moved to the Place Vendôme, where she opened one of the first couture boutiques. She sold sweaters, blouses, scarves and jewellery. The boutique’s decoration included ‘Pascal’, a life-size wooden artist’s figure, and a stuffed bear (which Dali had dyed shocking pink) with drawers in its stomach. Schiaparelli’s originality had a permanent effect on fashion, and not everything she designed had merely the shock of surprise to recommend it. In 1933 she created the ‘pagoda’ sleeve which, in its new large dimension, became the pattern for several years. Wide padded shoulders, reminiscent of those on a guardsman’s greatcoat, were thus invented and they remained the major fashion shape until dior’s ‘New Look’. Apart from this, Schiaparelli’s genius lay in her ability to take something ordinary and transform it, with witty detail, into something amusing and new. She used tweed for evening; coloured plastic zips as decorative features on dresses; padlock fastenings on suits; and huge ceramic buttons in the shape of hands, butterflies or whatever else took her fancy. Her hats were notorious. She made them in the shape of a shoe, a lamb cutlet — whatever amused her. She is best remembered for the very strong pink which she introduced. She called it 'shocking pink' and indeed it was. Such a strong and violent shade had never been seen in couture before. Her perfume, ‘Shocking’, in a bottle shaped like a tailor’s dummy, became world-famous.
Like Chanel, Schiaparelli was more than just a dressmaker. She mixed with intellectuals and artists, and perhaps her most lasting contribution to couture was to involve artists in fashion. Cocteau and Bérard both provided her with ideas for embroidery and hats, but it was with Dali that she developed the most productive partnership. They were an ingenious pair. They devised a skirt printed with a lobster, materials patterned with her press clippings, and even a coat based on Dali’s
City of Drawers, with pockets like drawers. She was the first to show collections with themes such as the zodiac or the circus.
All this chic outrage died with the fall of France in 1940. Schiaparelli left for the United States and remained there for the duration of the war. She re-opened in Paris in 1945, but although she continued until 1954, her day was over: fashion had moved forward. She closed her doors to spend her retirement in Tunisia and Paris. Her approach to fashion was slick, sophisticated and instinctive: her sense of humour was in strong contrast to the serious self-infatuation of Chanel and she had the courage to be outrageous. If poiret was the fashion leader in the teens of the century and Chanel dominated the 1920s, then Schiaparelli's vitality epitomized the 1930s. In 1940 she received the Neiman-Marcus Award and in 1954 she published her autobiography, Shocking Life. She was sufficiently well-known in intellectual circles for her name to appear
in Louis MacNeice's poem, 'Bagpipe Music’, where he writes of the Muse:
‘With false eyelashes and fingernails of carmine
And dressed by Schiaparelli, with a pill-box hat.’
Major perfumes: Shocking
(1937); Zût (1948); Succès Fou (1953).