Featured Article: A Shock of Schiaparelli: The Surreal Provocateur Who Forever Altered Fashion

“A frock from Schiaparelli ranks like a modern canvas.”


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.
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…..

The 1938 Dali and Schiaparelli ensemble featuring an illusionistic print resembling tears in the fabric. The light-colored material has since faded from its original shade of blue. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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 ruga few decades later.

Left, “TIME” magazine featured Schiaparelli on its cover in 1934. Right, an evening jacket from 1938 embroidered with signs of the Zodiac and images of space. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.”
To learn more about her life and to see more of Shiaparelli’s amazing fashions from the 1920s and the 1930s, check out Collectors Weekly original article! 


Do not forget to buy tickets for our Love, Love me do: “A Story of Romance in Fashion” where you can join costume historian Ivan Sayers for a magical Valentine’s Day fashion spectacle! Decades of historic and vintage costumes come to life in a glamorous review of retro romantic clothing – and the stories behind them. From Subtle Edwardian lace to cherry red fifties crinolines, there’s something for all connoisseurs of fashion.

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