Elsa Schiaparelli is an Italian designer who became popular in the first half of the twentieth century. She is considered the creator of the Pret-a-porter style, and she was the main rival of Coco Chanel. The creativity of Schiaparelli is a shining example of surrealism in fashion.
Today the name Elsa Schiaparelli is known to a few people, mostly to lovers of the history of fashion and art surrealism. However, in the 20s-30s of the last century, it was on par with the greatest designers and artists of the era.
Elsa was born on September 10, 1890, in the city of Rome. The childhood of the future artist was held in a creative and intellectual environment. Giovanni Schiaparelli, her uncle, was a famous astronomer. He discovered the canals on Mars. Elsa’s parents were aristocrats, impoverished after World War I. However, despite this, the girl was brought up in the traditions of high society. She studied painting and art history, loved to attend the theater, and enjoyed theatrical costumes. Of course, such education affected the development of the child’s character.
In 1922, Elsa decided to leave for Paris, where at that time were concentrated the main art industry. She is getting married, but the marriage breaks soon, and Schiaparelli has to survive with a little daughter. To support herself and the child, as well as pay for painting lessons, Elsa works as a guide. She guides a small group of tourists in the historical places of Paris. But her listeners were predominantly wives of rich Americans. These ladies weren’t really interested in architecture or paintings of the Louvre in Paris; they wanted only to visit fashion shops. These women were buying up everything to join the “Parisian fashion.” Firstly, it strongly resented Elsa, but further, it gave her an ingenious idea.
She thought that she could create something that no one would buy, but everyone would want to see. She realized that the best way to become popular in the fashion industry is to shock the audience.
One day she was visited by her old American friend. He was wearing a knitted sweater which struck Elsa with its simplicity and elegance. She became interested in the origin of this thing, and it turned out that it was made by an immigrant from Armenia who lives nearby. Schiaparelli met this Armenian woman and offered her cooperation. Together, they started creating unusual clothes. According to the information on the official website, they created a woolen pullover in black decorated with a bow tie. In 1927, it was a real invention that amazed everyone.
Later a popular sportswear shop, «Strauss,» made a huge order for clothes made by Elsa. Therefore Elsa Schiaparelli and almost all of the female part of the Armenian community of Paris have been working hard on its implementation. This order made Schiaparelli and the Armenian knitwear factory famous. It was a beginning of a tight friendship between factory owners and designers.
Elsa founded her fashion house, Schiaparelli. At first, it was located on Rue de la Paix in three small rooms. The first collection sold in this shop consisted of sweaters, which were carried out in the African style. This collection was influenced by the works of Cubists. Later, Elsa Schiaparelli found her inspiration in sailors’ tattoos. Snake, heart pierced by an arrow, an anchor, all these caused a shock. She created a famous drawing called “fish spine.”
In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made his first flight across the Atlantic Ocean. This event pushed Elsa to create a new collection, which became the basis of the “aviator” style. After a few years of creating sportswear, Schiaparelli began to design evening gowns. It is important to mention the sheath dress, which was long, made out of black cloth in combination with a jacket and white scarf casually slung behind the back. It was a new model of impeccable style and elegance.
In 1934, Elsa Schiaparelli opened a boutique on the Place Vendôme, which was a favorite place of rich people. Here lies another invention of the designer. For the first time in history, there was such a thing as a boutique, i.e., a shop selling small series of designer clothes. According to Bloom, “At this point, she had 400 employees working in eight different workshops.” (p. 17)
In 1935, according to the official website, “The Couture House moves to Hôtel de Fontpertuis, 21 place Vendôme: five floors, 98 rooms, a ground-floor store, interior design by Jean-Michel Frank and lighting by Giacometti.”
In the mid-30s, Elsa’s popularity reaches its peak. Any creation of this woman becomes a sensation. For example, a collection of “Stop, look and listen.” This collection consisted of evening dresses presented in the form of rainwear, unusually embroidered sari, and buttons in the form of louis d’or (French coins). It was the first collection of clothes where a zipper was used. Previously, it was used only for bags. In those years, it was more than a surprise, and it was revolutionary.
Elsa created collections that she presented in other countries. For example, in Germany, she created such collections as “Pagan,” “Musical Instruments,” and “Butterflies” The most famous was a collection called “Circus.” Elsa was impressed by the American circus «Barnum.» Jane Michelle Franke, a famous designer, has decorated a place where the collection was presented. Clothes were literarily dazzled with images of elephants, clowns, balloons, and other circus motifs. Buttons were made in the form of gymnasts on trapezes. Gloves resembled gaiters, and hats looked like inverted ice cream cones. The presentation itself was more like a spectacular show. This, incidentally, was another invention of Elsa Schiaparelli, which many designers adopted later.
Elsa worked closely with many celebrities of that time. For example, Katharine Hepburn once said that her career began to develop only when she first began to wear clothes from Schiaparelli. Marlene Dietrich, Harry Cooper, Greta Garbo, Michelle Morgan, Joan Crawford, and many other actors were fans of Elsa’s clothing brand. Celebrities bought Schiaparelli clothes not only for performances and public events but also bought her clothes to wear in everyday life. There was even a multi-year between the leaders of Hollywood and designers.
The closest person to the House of Schiaparelli was Mae West. This actress has brought real fame to the designer. West was a charming blonde and a sex symbol of the 30s. She looked gorgeous and had an extraordinary mind. Her manners were frank and provocative, and it often looked like she went beyond what was permitted. Mae West ordered dresses from Schiaparelli very often. She sent Elsa a sculpture depicting her in the same pose as that of Venus de Milo. This subsequently inspired the designer to create a bottle for her first perfume. Dunn underlines the fact that pink color was one of the factors which influenced the success of this perfume “Pink can be more dangerous. In 1937, the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli, a friend of Salvador Dali and Alberto Giacometti, launched the perfume Shocking.”. “Shocking” had a bright pink package which was very unusual.
Since then, the names of all the perfumes of the House of Schiaparelli begin with the letter S. For example, men’s perfume “Suff” was shaped like a tobacco pipe. In the last prewar years, Elsa Schiaparelli produced a fascinating autumn-winter collection called “Astrology.” It consisted mostly of coats decorated with hand embroidery of gold brocade. There were Zodiac signs and celestial bodies depicted on these clothes. Drawings were created by “Lesage,” the famous Parisian house of embroidery.
In 1939, World War II began, and Elsa had to significantly reduce the production of her clothes. In 1940, the Nazis set an occupation regime in Paris, and Schiaparelli went to the United States. There, she continues to work. In Paris, the company is headed by one of its managers, Bettina Berger.
In late 1944, Elsa returned to France with the intention of becoming famous again. However, things have changed. Chanel and Christian Dior reigned over Parisian fashion style. Schiaparelli’s style became outdated. Then Elsa decides to permanently leave the world of fashion. She began to spend more time with the artists. The latest collection of Elsa Schiaparelli was presented in 1953. According to LIFE magazine, “Schiaparelli was not as successful as Chanel in the post-war years, and the house went bankrupt and closed its doors forever in 1954.”
The France of 1920 has become home to a new direction in art, which is called surrealism. It combines reality with a dream and illusion. This style was focused on understanding the depths of the human subconscious, and surrealists wanted to express it in art in an irrational way. Among the representatives of this trend were André Breton, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Ernst Fuchs, and many others. The ideas of these people made a huge impact on the literature, art, and cinema of the twentieth century. Surrealism was introduced in the fashion industry by Elsa Schiaparelli. According to Bollier et al., “Schiaparelli made dresses inspired by the Surrealists, transplanting trompe l’oeil techniques from paintings to dresses. Her motifs often drew upon the playful, Conceptual art of such painters as Marcel Duchamp and Paul Poiret.” (p. 17)
Elsa actively cooperated with many followers of surrealism and used surrealistic motifs in her clothes. There was no bound of her imagination. Each model created by Elsa was like an artwork, a mini-masterpiece. For example, the dress is torn out in clumps, a costume worn backward, or scarves decorated with newspaper clippings. The constant shock was caused by clothing adorned with X-ray images and gloves with long red nails. Many things were created by Elsa in a single copy. They were designed for a specific person, which makes them unique.
Blum, D. E. (2003). Shocking!: the art and fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli. Yale University Press.
Bollier, D., & Racine, L. (2005). Ready to share: creativity in fashion & digital culture. Norman Lear Center, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California.
Alison, D., “THE MEANING OF COLOUR,” Caboo Design
Elsa Schiaparelli: Coco Chanel’s Great, Forgotten Fashion Rival | LIFE | TIME.com. (n.d.) Retrieved November 26, 2014, from http://life.time.com/culture/elsa-schiaparelli-coco-chanels-great-forgotten-fashion-rival/#1
Schiaparelli. (n.d.). Retrieved November 26, 2014, from http://www.schiaparelli.com/en/maison_schiaparelli_dates_clefs