Elsa Schiaparelli made women feel beautiful, daring, and independent—by convincing them to wear insect jewelry, clown prints, and shoes on their heads. Schiaparelli (pronounced “skap-a-reli”) routinely made headlines in the 1920s and ’30s, overshadowing rivals like Coco Chanel with her outlandish costumes and endlessly copied staples. Many Schiaparelli designs were so avant-garde that they still have the power to shock, and contemporary designers continue to riff on her work today.
“A frock from Schiaparelli ranks like a modern canvas.”
And yet, despite Schiaparelli’s love of outrageous attire, her clothing was often extremely practical, adopting new technologies like plastic zippers and synthetic fabrics to create garments that made women chic and comfortable. She was a perfectionist who invented the first bathing suit with a built-in bra, the see-through raincoat, the ladies’ evening jacket, and the wrap dress.
As Meryle Secrest wrote in her recent biography of Schiaparelli, “Her clothes were smart, wearable, and sexy, and marked the wearer as an individualist as well as someone with a sense of humor—the Duchess of Windsor, after all, chose a diaphanous evening gown for her honeymoon that featured a huge pink lobster on its skirt, surrounded by some tastefully sprinkled parsley.” Schiaparelli, who named her favorite color Shocking Pink, her brand of perfume Shocking, and her 1954 memoir Shocking Life, was familiar with the use of hype to capture public attention and market herself—think Lady Gaga, 80 years earlier.
During the designer’s heyday, Janet Flanner, a Paris correspondent for the New Yorker, wrote that “a frock from Schiaparelli ranks like a modern canvas.” The designer herself famously said that being a dressmaker was not a profession, but an art. “I found that it was a most difficult and unsatisfying art because as soon as a dress is born, it has already become a thing of the past,” Schiaparelli wrote in her autobiography. To stay relevant, Schiaparelli repeatedly worked the element of surprise into her designs.
In spite of her profound impact on modern fashion, today Schiaparelli’s work is largely unknown outside the art and fashion communities. In part, it’s because she stopped designing more than 60 years ago, following the cultural schism initiated by World War II. After Schiaparelli’s name fell from the headlines, designers like Chanel and Dior, whose traditional labels are still in production, supplanted her in our collective memory.
But Schiaparelli might also be overlooked because her story doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative of 20th century fashion: She combined her shrewd business sense with a provocateur’s eye, popularizing the eye-catching and audacious even amid the widespread austerity of the Great Depression. Though Schiaparelli was notorious in the 1930s, her embrace of Surrealism—along with its confrontational fusion of ugly and beautiful—was brushed under the rug a few decades later.
Born in Italy to a scholar father and a well-connected mother, Schiaparelli’s family was emotionally distant and cared little for her ambition to live a creative, bohemian life. At age 22, she left her home in Italy for London, New York, and eventually, Paris, the modern capital of Europe. In 1914, Schiaparelli married the enigmatic Count Wilhelm Wendt de Kerlor, a self-described “consulting psychologist” whose specialty was reading palms and making predictions about the future.
De Kerlor’s unconventional profession got the couple deported from the U.K. because of a lawsuit concerning false palmistry and clairvoyance, and they eventually decamped for New York City during the turmoil of World War I. The energy of New York invigorated Schiaparelli, but she spent her days dedicated to her husband’s various schemes, living hand-to-mouth as her dowry slowly ran out. In 1920, shortly after their daughter, Maria Luisa, was born, the child caught polio and Schiaparelli’s marriage dissolved.
Schiaparelli toyed with various identities, from poet to antiques dealer, but didn’t set her sights on the fashion world until she was living in Paris, inspired by the artistry around her. By the time Schiaparelli landed in the city, it was buzzing with new technologies—telephones, automobiles, and flying zeppelins—and fashion wasn’t far behind. Cutting-edge designers like Paul Poiret were eliminating heavy layers and tight corsetry, and introducing looser-fitting garments that showcased a natural silhouette and allowed women to move more freely.
While on board the ship to New York, Schiaparelli had met Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, or Gaby, the wife of Dadaist painter Francis Picabia, and the two became fast friends. Through Gaby, Schiaparelli met art-world luminaries like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, joining the boisterous Surrealist crowd at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, a fashionable bar named after a bizarre ballet written by Jean Cocteau and Darius Milhaud.
The legendary Poiret also ran in this crowd, and when Gaby wore a Schiaparelli concoction—made from yards of fabric and dressmaker’s pins—to an event hosted by Poiret, the designer himself complimented Schiaparelli’s ingenuity. Though she couldn’t afford his clothes, Poiret gifted the fledgling designer several pieces, ostensibly to help publicize some of his more daring designs. Schiaparelli continued making outfits and accessories, using herself as a model, and even showed some of her jewelry at the influential Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in 1925.
But Schiaparelli’s big break came in a more roundabout way: After admiring a curiously stitched sweater worn by an acquaintance, Schiaparelli sought out the Armenian woman who knitted it, commissioning her to make one featuring a trompe l’oeil (a 3-D illusion) design of a white bow around the neck with coordinated details at the cuffs. Soon after, Schiaparelli wore the sweater to a luncheon of important fashion buyers, and an American representative immediately asked for 40, with matching skirts. “Vogue” later called the design “an artistic masterpiece and a triumph of color and blending,” and it was copied by companies all over.
Partnering with businessman Charles Kahn, Schiaparelli officially launched her label in December of 1927. “It’s interesting to note that she was 37 at that time,” says Dilys Blum, who curated the exhibition Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2003. “Today we think that if you’re in your 20s, that’s a good point at which to launch yourself, but Schiaparelli was 37.
“She was a smart businesswoman picking up on something that the other more conservative designers didn’t quite understand,” Blum continues. “I think she had a better grasp of what was going on because of her association with artists. Schiaparelli was probably more visually and intellectually astute than other designers, and since she was just starting out, she had less to risk.”
Schiaparelli jumped headfirst into the fashion world, and by the 1930s, had become a familiar name in the couture industry. Schiaparelli’s typical silhouette emphasized and extended the shoulders with peaks and padding, created a high and narrow waistline, and lengthened hemlines down below the knee. The look was a forerunner to the power suit, decades before second-wave feminists fought for equal rights in the workplace. “She was making very smart-looking clothing, body conscious but in a tailored way,” says Blum. “You could tell a woman was wearing Schiaparelli just by the style of her garments.” The simplified shapes of Schiaparelli’s designs were easily adapted for mass-market copies, which made them all the more popular.
Her designs were also aimed at a specific segment of the traditional high-end clientele. “It was young, sporty, American,” says Blum. “I’m sure she was aware that in order to survive, she would have to have an American client base.” In 1931, tennis fans were shocked when champion Lilí Álvarez wore a “divided skirt” (also known as culottes) created by Schiaparelli. She later designed the practical and stylish wardrobe for aviator Amy Johnson’s solo flight to Cape Town, South Africa, in 1936.
As Janet Flanner wrote for the New Yorker in 1932: “Certainly one of the explanations of her phenomenal success here 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.”
Yet this functionality wasn’t limited to sporting activities, either: Some of Schiaparelli’s outfits were designed to transition from day to night, such as a dress that could be shortened by tying the skirt back or lengthened by untying it. She also developed the concept of a ladies’ evening jacket, to be paired with a matching dress for added warmth and elegance after the sun had set.
Clothing that could metamorphose was especially prized during the tight years of the early Depression. “She continued the challenge of interchangeable pieces that could be used in various ways: sashes that turned into impromptu skirts, jackets that became headdresses, skirts that became capes. She also liked hidden pockets, skirts that looked like trousers and vice versa, whatever was versatile and unexpected,” writes Secrest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her brand weathered the financial calamity well, growing year over year even as the fashion industry at large shrunk considerably.
Schiaparelli also embraced new materials and technology before they were mainstream. As early as 1935, zippers appeared prominently on her skirts, sleeves, pockets, and necklines. She worked with modern synthetic fabrics, like rayon and a metallic yarn called Lurex. For a 1934 collection, Schiaparelli developed rhodophane, a fragile and brittle “glass fabric” that had to be interwoven with other materials to keep it from ripping. Secrest describes the varied cornucopia of textures Schiaparelli chose for her garments: “shaggy furs made of metal, moirés in metallic gunmetal, wrinkled velvets, fabrics [resembling] tree bark, cellophane, and straw—whatever made news.”
In 1935, Schiaparelli opened a 98-room salon near the Place Vendôme in Paris, with space for the new Schiap Shop—the first ready-to-wear showroom associated with a couture label. “For five years, from 1935 to 1939, she was at the height of her powers with collections that, while showing the same underlying themes, kept her clients astonished and delighted with her seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness and wit,” writes Secrest. “She eclipsed everyone, including Chanel, to become the most important couturier in Paris.”
Her most imaginative collections included Zodiac, Pagan, and Circus—all in 1938—and Music and Commedia dell’Arte in 1939. The Pagan collection incorporated hats made from fake flora and buttons shaped like insects, while the Zodiac silhouette was drawn from Euclid’s treatise on geometry, its garments embellished with views of planets and constellations. For the Circus collection, clown hats and balloon-shaped purses shared the stage with spectacular prints that buttoned using miniature acrobat and horse shapes.
Some of Schiaparelli’s best ideas came out of collaborations with established artists like Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. Elements that appeared in Dali’s paintings were translated to her garments, like a dress with drawer-like pockets along its front or the dress featuring a bright-red lobster print. In 1937, they created the Shoe Hat, whose crown pointed upward like the heel of an overturned pump. The following year, Dali and Schiaparelli designed the Skeleton Dress, a black crepe gown with cotton wadding used to imitate protruding bones.
Designs like these were intentionally subversive, using elements normally deemed unattractive and elevating them to the pinnacle of style. One of the duo’s most startling illusions was executed for the Tear Dress, a bluish-purple sheath printed with a pattern of torn fabric pieces falling open to reveal a rich, pink lining underneath. The trompe-l’oeil design was punctuated by a matching veil with pieces of cut fabric hanging loosely to resemble the tears printed onto the dress. Inspired by the ripped clothing and decomposing flesh in paintings like Dali’s “Nechrophiliac Springtime” from 1936, Schiaparelli’s finished garment playfully balanced the extremes of perfected couture and its inevitable disintegration.
With Cocteau, Schiaparelli designed more traditional garments, but their embellishment was no less hypnotic. The back of a long coat in blue silk jersey was embroidered with an optical illusion created by two silhouetted faces forming the outline of a vase, topped with a splash of pink flowers. For an evening jacket, Cocteau sketched a woman in profile, her golden-beaded tresses flowing down the garment’s left sleeve.
Schiaparelli also forged partnerships with other artists of the era, like Meret Oppenheim, who created fur jewelry pieces, and Alberto Giacometti, who designed furniture, brooches, and buttons. “All these people are still relatively young and trying to figure out how to earn a living with their art,” says Blum, “and Schiaparelli was able to provide freelancers employment.”
Most of these surrealist fantasies were truly statement pieces, and never made it into full production. “All those little jokes, they livened up her presentations. There are always unwearable things on the runway that feed the press, and she was very aware of that,” says Blum. “She definitely wore them, and maybe she’d have her friends wear them out to an event because they’d get talked about. They were good publicity.” (Socialite Wallis Simpson chose her lobster gown for a photoshoot with Cecil Beaton shortly after she married the Duke of Windsor, supposedly to make her seem more likable.)
Beyond direct collaborations, Schiaparelli loved working symbolic surrealist forms into her clothing. Hands appeared frequently—as belt clasps, lapel clips, and buttons—and gloves were modified by adding fingernails, claws, and rings. Schiaparelli embellished more sedate garments with clever buttons, cast into the shapes of beetles, shells, faces, locks, candlesticks, acorns, and lips. She created an oft-imitated fabric printed with newspaper clippings featuring headlines about her own label. “She has a gift, almost uncontrollable at times, for discovering beauty in lowly objects which have hitherto escaped attention by being universally useful,” wrote Flanner.
By 1939, Schiaparelli had reached her zenith as the leading tastemaker in Paris. At the same time, fascist politicians were on the rise in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, leading the world to war. Hitler began his invasion of France in 1940, and Schiaparelli’s designs reflected the mood, becoming more conservative in their restrained military colors, wide pockets, and long sleeves. She left for New York that year, refusing to design clothes while in exile out of solidarity with the couture houses of Paris. While abroad, Schiaparelli continued her creative pursuits, such as helping to organize the “First Papers of Surrealism” exhibition with Marcel Duchamp and André Breton in 1942.
In the face of rumors about her collaboration with enemy forces, Schiaparelli launched her first postwar collection in 1945—but styles had changed, and Schiaparelli had not. People were after a new kind of beauty that didn’t challenge or provoke; they wanted the glamour and excitement of a new feminine silhouette. Fashion was becoming decadent and extravagant again, with frills, bows, and corseting. Now that Surrealism was no longer novel, Schiaparelli’s designs seemed to lack a clear goal, and after the war, the House of Schiaparelli floundered.
The 1950s brought Dior’s “New Look” and the mass-hysteria of mid-century fashion, when women no longer wanted to stand out from the pack. The American fashion industry had also matured during the war years, as European imports had dwindled. Even as her couture line shrunk, Schiaparelli continued to authorize licensing deals, allowing department stores to sell lines of Schiaparelli clothing and housewares; by the 1950s, 11 American companies with in-house designers were producing Schiaparelli goods. “She did more licensing than probably any other designer,” says Blum, “and those items ranged from shower curtains to mattresses. You name it, it was licensed. All the mid-century jewelry that says Schiaparelli, that’s all licensed jewelry, probably made somewhere like Trenton, New Jersey, by American designers.”
When Schiaparelli hired the young Hubert de Givenchy in 1950, he could see that her approach was no longer on trend. “When I arrived at the house and saw her wearing two different color shoes,” Givenchy explained, “I said to myself, ‘How can a woman with so much talent not understand that that is all over?’ But she persisted in her ideas. And in the end, she was right. Her fashion was very modern. It wasn’t unwearable. It was daring. And never vulgar.”
But by the time styles would come back to more challenging, self-confident womenswear, Schiaparelli had quit designing altogether. In early 1954, Schiaparelli presented her final collection—the same year that Chanel returned to designing after a 15-year hiatus. But Chanel’s classic feminine look appealed to postwar consumers in a way that Schiaparelli’s look no longer did.
The Schiaparelli label dropped out of the headlines for the last half century, but in 2014, the House of Schiaparelli reopened its doors at 21 Place Vendôme in Paris, launching new collections designed by Marco Zanini, formerly of the label Rochas, along with a one-off tribute couture collection by Christian Lacroix. Schiaparelli would likely be unsurprised by the revival of her own brand, for she recognized that a designer’s work had its own existence once out in the world. As she wrote in her 1954 autobiography: “A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens, another personality takes over from you and animates it, or tries to, glorifies it or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty.”
(For more on Schiaparelli, read Meryle Secrest’s biography of the designer, “Elsa Schiaparelli,” explore the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection online, or visit the upcoming exhibition “High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection” at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)