Elsa Schiaparelli, or “Schiap” to her inner circle, was one of the world’s most prominent fashion designers between the two World Wars. And while her rival Coco Chanel often refered to her as just that Italian artist who made clothes, she rose to prominence with what was considered at the time, provocative and progressive creations. Writer Leo Lerman described her in an article as “a headline attraction in the international glitter-glamour freak show of the late twenties and pre-war thirties.” It was during this time, at the height of her Studio’s production, Schiap created much of what came to define her iconic style.
Her designs, testing the definition of wearability, began to break up the literalness of the fashions of the day. From where we are now, experiencing the Red Carpets populated by the design statements of Lady Gaga and Bjork, Schiaparelli’s work seems demure, even polite, but at the time, she was making groundbreaking steps in the deconstruction of fashion. She disregarded the boundaries of acceptability and just let herself create.
A women with many friends including Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Raoul Dufy, Man Ray even Salvadore Dali, her work was laced through with influences from Dada and Surrealism. One of her most famous pieces was an evening dress made in 1938 titled ‘Tear,’ made in collaboration with Salvador Dalí. The painter designed a fabric printed with a torn flesh motif, pale strips peeled back to reveal a visceral red, that first appeared in Dalí’s 1936 painting ‘Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra.’
She had many firsts over the course of her career. She mixed real jewels with fakes, and plastics with gold. She introduced the first jumpsuit, wrap dress and the idea of paper clothes. She invented foldable eyeglasses, brought new materials to couture including latex, straw, rubber, cork, mattress ticking, and made the first shoulder bag for women. Collaborating with Dali, to make early wearable electronics, they designed an evening bag that features a tiny battery-operated street lamp on the outside,
|Schiaparelli is famous for her devotion to shocking pink.
Much as we need to see her clothes in the time they were made to truly understand their genius, Schiaparelli herself is also a product of her time. Her twelve commandments for women, starts out with the brave and progressive advice, “Since most women do not know themselves, they should try to do so.” But as her commandments continue they begin to show their age. She tells women to only shop alone or with a man. Why? Because women have an inherent tendency to be jealous. And while she tells women to “buy little and only of the best or the cheapest,” she also says “never fit a dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress,” which sounds horribly body-phobic to modern ears. Her position on women and clothes was complicated, and sometimes intentionally provacative, when describing the meaning behind fashion she once said “When you take off your clothes, your personality also undresses and you become quite a different person- more true to your self and to your real character, more conscious, sometimes more cruel.”
Schiaparelli’s work left waves in fashion that are still felt to this day. Interestingly she also seems to be an early progenitor of a common theme in clothes today: the skeuomorphic or as the fashion industry would call it trompe-l’oeil shirt. These are meta garments intentionally made to reference another category of clothing while still maintaining their conceptual distance. Much like t-shirts printed to look like tuxedos, these sweaters were made to resemble flouncy blouses. In fact these knit sweaters are what boosted her career, and brought her designs to a wider audience.
After the trials, and liberations that came with WWII, including women now frequently working traditionally male jobs, women had changed. Her theatrical designs no longer appealed to the more practical post war woman, and sadly in 1954 Schiaperelli’s house went bankrupt. To keep herself afloat she was one of the first designers to liscense her name to be used by Playtex girdles, Cutex Nail Polish, Congress laying cards, Sealey mattresses, Longines watches, Vat 69 Scotch, Kraft Italian Dressing, as well as lingerie, handbags, jewelry, eyeglasses, table lines and chewing gum.
Schiaparelli was a powerhouse of design, a whirlwind of a personality and a women unafraid of her own abilities. Her ground breaking passion is an inspiration to this day. For more on Schiaparelli check out her autobiography “Shocking Life” or Patricia Volk’s book “Shocked, My Mother, Schiaparelli and Me”.
– Emily Eifler, Writer, Colour Studio
– Jill Pilaroscia, Principal, Colour Studio