Elsa Schiaparelli's Groundbreaking Career in Five Designs.
Updated: Nov 1
She socialised with the surrealists, took haute couture to the next level, and sent shock waves through the fashion industry with her unorthodox designs. Welcome to the world of Elsa Schiaparelli - the late and great fashion designer you need to know about.
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In difficult times fashion is always outrageous - Elsa Schiaparelli
I'm sure you've heard of Coco Chanel, but have you heard of Elsa Schiaparelli? If not, here's your chance to learn about one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century!
Elsa Schiaparelli was an Italian-born couturier whose career spanned from 1927 to 1954. In that time period, she revolutionised fashion for the modern woman.
Although she worked within the confines of traditional tailoring, her designs were elevated through daring experiments with silhouette and colour. This wasn't a woman who held back. She injected boundless energy, innovation, and humour into her work. It took the form of shoe hats, trapezium shaped power suits worn by Hollywood stars like Garbo and Dietrich, and bold evening dresses in what she called a 'shocking' magenta.
Schiaparelli’s influence on fashion endures today. Take one look at a modern woman’s wardrobe and you’ll probably find clothing that exists because of her. You can thank her for culottes, wrap dresses, mix and match separates, but also zips used as decoration, wedge heels, coloured tights; the list goes on...
Most importantly, she was known for her strong connections to the art world. She was aware of the different artistic movements in her time and had many artists within her social circle. In particular, she had good relationships with the Surrealists*. Her career was filled with collaborations with members of the movement including photographer Man Ray, artist and director Jean Cocteau, and painter Salvador Dali.
*Surrealism = An artistic movement founded by André Breton when he published his Surrealist Manifesto in 1928 . The movement was influenced by Freud's theory of the subconscious. Surrealists wanted to liberate the mind by embracing dreams, the imagination, and creative pursuits.
As you will see later on, these Surrealist ideas inspired much of Schiaparelli's work.
Schiaparelli and Dalí.
It's time to take a look at her designs in more detail. I've curated a selection of five Schiaparelli garments that encapsulate her pioneering career in fashion:
1. Cravat Jumper - 1927.
Schiaparelli knew little about sketching or garment construction when she began designing clothing in the late 1920s. But this didn’t stop her from creating something unusual. It all began with a knitted pullover that had a peculiar twist.
For this knitwear design, Schiaparelli used an artistic technique called trompe l’oeil. The term translates into ‘trick of the mind’ and is when a designer creates an optical illusion by playing around with placement, texture, or shape. In this case, the wool cravat jumper had a butterfly bow at the collar which was meant to mimic a real life bow tied around the neck. She would continue to use trompe l’oeil in many of her future designs.
This simple but effective jumper took the fashion world by storm. After wearing the knit at a high society luncheon, many of the other guests wanted one for themselves. In fact, a fashion buyer for the American department store Lord & Taylor ordered 40 units after seeing it. As the jumper was so successful, additional trompe l’oeil designs were released ranging from ties to handkerchiefs. It was the piece that launched her career for sure.
2. Pleated Dress - 1931.
This next garment is another example of trompe l’oeil and was Schiaparelli’s first collaboration with an artist on a piece of clothing. She worked with the Swiss, Jean Dunand - a renowned painter and interior designer.
The evening gown you are looking at was no doubt inspired by Ancient Greek clothing. Running down the length of the skirt are long column pleats. Although they look very real in the photographs, they're not real pleats pressed into the fabric. They were actually painted onto the dress by Dunand himself. He used a detailed stencil to carefully paint on the optical illusion. The end result is pure magic.
Schiaparelli had modelled the dress in a portrait taken by the photographer Man Ray whom she met through Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia in New York. In the photo she stands tall, showcasing the majesty of the illusionary folds.
3. Lobster Dress - 1937.
Schiaparelli’s most famous collaborations were with Salavador Dalí. They were close friends and magic happened whenever they worked together on a project.
Now, Dalí's fondness for lobsters was not a secret. 1936 was the year the world saw his Lobster Telephone. It was a found object art piece where the handset was replaced by the bright red shellfish. And in 1937, Schiaparelli got him to design a lobster print that would sit on the skirt of an organdy evening gown. The lobster dress was born. A stunning, off-white dress with a slight empire waistline, and a huge lobster and parsley sprig print on the A-line skirt.
It’s important to mention that lobsters have an erotically charged meaning in surrealism. That means the calculated placement of the lobster on the dress was shocking at the time!
The gown was featured in an eight-page spread for Vogue. It was worn by the socialite Wallis Simpson at the Château de Candé in France. These photos were taken by Cecil Beaton before her controversial marriage to the Duke of Windsor - one that caused the former king of England to abdicate from the throne!
4. Evening Coat - 1937
Schiaparelli also collaborated with the artist Jean Cocteau that same year. He created two drawings that she would translate onto two evening wear garments: one jacket and one evening coat. The evening coat was ankle-length and made from a dark silk jersey. On the front it was rather plain, but on the back there were magical details to behold.
One of Cocteau’s illustrations was recreated on the back of the coat using silk embroidery. It was attached by the House of Lesage who were one of the top embroidery houses in haute couture. The illustration is a double image. (Another motif the Surrealists were obsessed with). Two faces look towards each whilst their outline takes the shape of a vase standing on a fluted column. To complement the vase shape, a gorgeous section of appliquéd pink petals linger above. They spread all the way to the shoulder pads.
The evening coat was featured in Schiaparelli’s 1937 autumn haute couture collection. It was also worn by a 1930s socialite named Doris Castlerosse; one of her most dedicated customers.
5. The Tears Dress - 1938.
Next up is another Dalí collaboration. It’s a dress from 1938 when Schiaparelli released a circus collection inspired by clowns, acrobats, leaping horses, and other performance motifs. According to the V&A website, the show for the collection was labeled “the most riotous and swaggering fashion show that Paris had ever seen.”
Despite the kookiness of the circus-inspired collection, there were a few designs featured with dark undertones. One of them was the ‘tears’ evening dress that Schiaparelli and Dalí had worked on. It featured a violent trompe l’oeil that mimicked deep rips and tears on the human body. There was even a matching veil created to complete the elegant but gruesome look.
It’s likely that the dress was inspired by Dali’s 1936 painting: Three young surrealist women holding in their arms the skins of an orchestra.
Even in the midst of a jolly circus theme, the presence of the violent tear dress did make sense. It reflected the horror of the Spanish Civil War which, at that time, still raged on. It also anticipated the Second World War that was set to begin just under a year later.
Elsa Schiaparelli - What a Life!
And there you have it. Five of the best garments from Elsa Schiaparelli’s career in fashion. If you didn’t know who she was, I hope this has gotten you interested in her amazing life. Did you have a favourite garment from the list? Be sure to let me know in the comments below.
Thank you so much for reading this.
See you next time,
Holly xoxo @chicandcultural.