Everything You Need to Know About Elsa Schiaparelli Ahead of the Shocking! Exhibition in Paris12 min read
Elsa Schiaparelli, who was known for her amusing prints, outdid herself in July 1937 with a particularly clever “passion thermometer” motif that depicted mercury rising between the poles of ‘Indifference’ and ‘Passion.’ Fashion’s love affair with the Italian designer has never been tepid, and is once again reaching boiling point as “Shocking! The Surreal World of Elsa Schiaparelli” is set to open on July 6 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
The upside-downness of the past few years has, at times, felt Surrealistic, so this aspect of the exhibition seems to be on point, if already much discussed. More salient with regards to the state of fashion today is the designer’s renegade, and highly collaborative, approach to her work. Schiaparelli was self-taught. Her social standing and education had exposed her to style and the arts, but she had no training in the fields of fashion or business. As Vogue put it, Schiaparelli “was hampered by none of the dressmaking traditions.” And though she became a naturalized French citizen, and having been born in Rome and lived in England and the United States, she remained an outsider in Paris.
In the ’20s and ’30s Paris was a hotbed of artistic innovation, and Schiaparelli forged ties with fine and fashion artists, for whom her designs became canvases of a sort. “Shocking” features a recreation of the designer’s 21 Place Vendôme salon, which opened in 1935 and was decorated by Jean-Michel Frank. The exhibition also speaks to the designer’s “world” building. Closing out the show are homages to Schiaparelli by a number of 20th-century designers, including the maison’s current artistic director Daniel Roseberry.
Schiaparelli never failed to seek out—or be delighted by—the shock of the new. This is a timeline of her achievements.
Elsa Luisa Maria Schiaparelli is born in Rome, the second of two daughters of a Neapolitan aristocrat, Giuseppa Maria de Dominicis, and Celestino Schiaparelli, a scholar from Piedmont who was appointed head of the Lincei Library in the Palazzo Corsini by King Victor Emmanuel II. She is christened in St. Peter’s Cathedral (from which she’d later borrow decorative motifs for her designs).
Schiaparelli, who had made full use of her access to the Lincei Library, studies philosophy at the University of Rome.
Publishes a book of poetry, Arethusa, which scandalizes her family, who send her to a Swiss convent school to mend her ways.
On the way to London to work as a nanny for a family friend, visits Paris for the first time. “As soon as I had set foot on the ground, I said aloud: ‘This is the place where I am going to live,’ ” the designer writes in her memoirs. While there she is invited to a ball, another first, for which she fashions a no-sew dress for herself and has to be “danced off the floor” when it starts to unravel.
Attends a lecture on theosophy in London given by Comte William de Wendt de Kerlor. “He spoke of the power of the soul over the body, of magic and eternal youth. Schiap listened spellbound,” the designer later wrote. The following day she becomes betrothed to the lecturer; they marry in a civil ceremony. Unable to stay in England, they move to Nice before sailing to New York in 1916. Meets Gaby Buffet-Picabia, a Dada writer married to artist Francis Picabia on the voyage, who will have a huge impact on her career.
Birth of her daughter, Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha Schiaparelli, known as Gogo. (Gogo will become mother to model/actress Marisa Berenson and photographer/actress Berinthia (Berry), who were often featured in Vogue.) Abandoned by her husband, Schiaparelli takes odd jobs, some via Picabia, to keep afloat. “If I have become what I am, I owe it to two distinct things—poverty and Paris. Poverty forced me to work, and Paris gave me a liking for it and courage,” the designer later said, as quoted by biographer Palmer White.
Moves back to Paris at the invitation of Blanche Hays, a divorcée. Rooms with Picabia. Works at odd jobs, one of which was to take an American client couture shopping. While fulfilling this assignment, Schiaparelli meets Paul Poiret, who would become a mentor of sorts and shower her with clothing. Thinking about fashion as a career, Schiaparelli hawks her sketches. Reviewing them, an employee of Maggy Rouf suggested she “would do better to plant potatoes.”
The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts takes place in Paris. This streamlined movement defines a decade, and has a major impact on Schiaparelli’s aesthetic. As White writes, “Art Deco stressed the practical and functional: the style was classical, symmetrical, and rectilinear, much of it reflecting the geometrical forms which had so impressed Elsa in New York City.” A friend of Hayes’s, one Mrs. Hartly, acquires the Maison Lambal, and hires Schiaparelli as designer; she divests the following year.
Now living on rue de rue de l’Université, Schiaparelli goes it alone. Presents “Display No.1,” a line of separates, from her apartment. In August, has her first international hit with a hand-knit trompe l’oeil bow sweater, which Vogue describes as an “artistic masterpiece,” in its December issue. “She happened to design a black-and-white sweater for herself, because, being Roman, she was addicted to black and white while other women were, at the moment, addicted to sweaters,” Janet Flanner, The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent would write in 1932. “This new note of chic melancholy, of Italian morbidezza … was hailed as a happy novelty by her friends.” With the help of a silent backer, the designer establishes Schiaparelli Pour le Sport at 4 rue de la Paix.
“Of all the names in gilded letters along the platinum rue de la Paix, there are none younger and few more important than the tongue-twisting ‘Schiaparelli!’ declares a wire service report. “Certainly, Schiaparelli is a name that’s made hundreds of appearances in American newspapers and magazines during the past year, connected with the idea of a new type of sweater….” Schiaparelli wins raves for her fur scarves.
Presents biggest collection to date. Tells the Sun Journal: “It is futile to attempt to dig fashion inspiration out of a dead epoch, no matter how beautiful. Our dynamic modern life demands similar attributes in our clothes. We are living in an age of steel and skyscrapers—not sighs and sofas.” Launches the unisex perfume “S,” the first in a line of successful fragrances. It is followed by the day-to-night trio: Schiap, Soucis, and Salut, with bottles by Jean-Michel Frank (1934); Shocking, in a flacon resembling Mae West’s torso designed by Leonor Fini (1937); Snuff, for men, bottled in a Rene Magritte-inspired pipe (1939); Sleeping (1940); Le Roi Soleil with bottle and packaging by Salvador Dali, (1946); Zut (1948); Succés Fou (1953); and S (1961). The stock market crashes in October.
The fashion world—and copyists—go gaga for Schiaparelli’s knit “Madcap.” “The things she creates are usually simple. But there is always something interesting and amusing about them,” notes The Pittsburgh Press. “One of her favorite words is ‘amusing.’ And she has carried this ‘amusing’ idea not only into her designing but her selection of materials.”
Vogue concurs, writing: “Hampered by none of the dressmaking traditions and possessing a strong sense of color, as well as many ideas, Madame Schiaparelli made a bold attack on fabrics. The conventions of cut held no restraint for her, rather were they something to be ignored in her avoidance of the banal. Her artistic equipment stood her in good stead, and the result was smart, unusual, individual clothes that have a practical side, as well, and no stigma of eccentricity.”
Tennis star Lili de Alvarez wears Schiaparelli’s split skirt at Wimbledon. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle declares Schiaparelli to be “modern in the real meaning of the term. …It is real modern as opposed to the rather widespread misconception of the term which assumes that modern means bizarre and ultra. …Some of the innovations which her effort to simplify dress and reduce it to a few essential principles has brought about are the knitted washable blouses to wear with suits, the matching jackets for evening gowns, the sport dress with the divided skirt, the sling scarf which gives the shabbiest suit an air of chic, and such practical details as clippers and zippers so that the modern woman who is always in a hurry need not bother about hooks and fastenings.” “In three short years, Schiaparelli and Sport have become almost synonymous to all followers of fashion. Many of the ideas that have swept the dressmaking world have been due the originality of Schiaparelli,” notes Vogue. Schiaparelli collaborates with Elsa Triolet, wife of the poet Louis Aragon, designs an “aspirin” necklace; this is one in a line of many fortuitous creative partnerships.
“One of the youngest couturieres in Paris is also one of the greatest of them. We refer to Mme. Schiaparelli,” states The Buffalo Evening News. “She has a remarkably acute sense of color. She has a feeling for young clothes, and she has a genius for simplicity. Her new summer collection is another triumph. The silhouette remains, in general outline, slim and straight, with two differences; the very high waistline and the flaring shoulder line.”
Schiaparelli continues with the Directoire line in August, but lowered backs. To accentuate the straight line of the body, The Montreal Star reports, Mme. Schiaparelli uses a square padding placed in the hollow of the back…with fullness gathered entirely to that one section.”
Flanner remarks that “one of the explanations of her phenomenal success here [in Paris] was the un-European modernity of her silhouettes, and their special applicability to a background of square-shouldered skyscrapers, of mechanics in private life and pastimes devoted to gadgetry. It is significant that, among strict Parisians, her vogue in Paris is one of snobbery; a frock from Schiaparelli ranks like a modern canvas in boudoirs determined to be à la page. In America, her limited, her exclusive, appeal has been positively wholesale.”
“Every woman has at least one of Schiaparelli’s suits or frocks,” The Daily News reports. “She’s the big vogue today….Mme. Peralta Ramos (Millicent Rogers) wears a Schiaparelli suit around Paris….and so does Lady Davis and Mrs. Harrison Williams. But you can just look at the list of the Famous Forty and save me the trouble of putting down the rest of the names.” In February, the designer shows “stiffened shoulder trays, giving the broadest line yet seen,” according to The Montreal Gazette, which also made note of the designer’s focus on the “geometrical cut…which creates a sort of flat stylized figure like those in Egyptian bas-reliefs…. While both these trends lead away from feminine curves, there is not the slightest boyish feeling in the new mode… Another thing noticeable about the new styles is the refreshing lack of period revivals. We have almost decided to ‘be our age.’ ”
In August, as one headline announced, Schiaparelli “Turn[ed] Her Back on Gay 90’s and Early 1900s”—her focus was instead on Chinese motifs.
Schiaparelli’s use of themes to organize collections was novel at the time, and was noted by The Commercial Appeal, which wrote: “It is not only the unusual designs which Mme. Schiaparelli presents which makes news, but the superior intelligence she displays in her subjects, and she never fails to select a subject, an event, or some live and interesting thing, upon which to build her designs. It is this, that she excels at to a greater degree, than all of Paris, and the world in creating outstanding and distinctive costumes for women who demand the unusual.”
In January, Vogue “Forecasts a Wind-Swept Spring.” Into this, Schiaparelli lets fly her “bird silhouette,” which was alternatively labeled “the typhoon silhouette, her latest interpretation of the windblown idea,” notes The Stockton Independent. “Jutting necklines, bodices pushed forward by darts or bias seamings, and skirts introducing a wealth of imaginative bird-and-fish details in small curved wings and fin-shaped folds—all give further impetus to the windswept movement.” This look is also termed the Cellophane. Scarves add to the fun. Schiaparelli’s “glass” dress, made of Khodophane developed by by Colcombet, and interwoven with other materials, debuts in August. Also on offer, according to the UP, were “parachute capes of stratosphere blue, dachshund dog muffs, poke bonnets, and Francois Villon hats.” Schiaparelli is featured on the August cover of Time Magazine.
Moves into a new space on the Place Vendôme, which features a take-away boutique on the lower floor, called the Schiap Shop. The designer’s First collaboration with Salvador Dali takes the form of a compact in the shape of a telephone dial. “Schiaparelli Comes Out With Celestial Silhouette, Television Hat, Rug Wrap,” announces The Cincinnati Enquirer, explaining that the new shape thus: “With the figure draped in soft, spiral folds, narrow below the knee, and somehow reminiscent of the popular idea of Cleopatra.” The collection, featuring what would become Schiaparelli’s famous newsprint, is called Stop, Look, and Listen.
“There is a tremendous effort being made in Paris to create novelties which will appeal to fashionable women and which will sell,” notes The Evening Sun. “With every biannual fashion opening one or two new novelties spring up. Some of them stay to make fashion history, as did Schiaparelli’s glass scarves, while others fade rapidly into oblivion.”
Schiaparelli’s fashions, opines The Commercial Appeal, “are teeming with action. They show trends of thought, of history, of new fields of endeavor which combine science, invention, and the art of modern industry, and yet they remain always the essence of smartness and simplicity. A Schiaparelli design is a cavalcade of the world’s events.” The Baltimore Sun reports that Schiaparelli is the best known Paris name in America, followed by Chanel.
The designer’s neo-Victorian silhouette for fall includes pantaloons worn under dresses. They share space with zippered designs, and models carried masks with metal eyelashes. In December, as part of a trade show in Moscow, Schiaparelli shows clothes designed for Russian workers. The following June Vogue would publish an “Impossible Interview: featuring an illustration by Miguel Covarrubias of Schiaparelli and Josef Stalin wearing parachutes.
“The snug, close fit of Schiaparelli clothes is ensured this season by zipper fastenings,” reports The Calgary Albertan, speaking of the summer 1936 collection. “They zip up and down side seams, in diagonal lines on evening gowns that are cut on the bias, they close pockets of country suits and sports clothes and are even found occasionally on shoulder seams.”