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Fashionable History: Elsa Schiaperelli

October 23, 2009

Elsa Schiaperelli was a brilliant and innovative designer that was making clothes in Paris in the 1930s and ’40s, yet while her contemporaries like Chanel, Dior and St. Laurent continue to be successful and celebrated today, Elsa is largely overlooked in the fashion history books. It’s a shame, really, because both Elsa and her creations are endlessly fascinating and entertaining.

Elsa was born in Rome into a family full of academics. Her father studied Arabic and Islam and her uncle was the famed astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli. She was, from birth, a curious and precocious girl. When she was little, she was inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machines and attempted to float out of her bedroom window using an umbrella. She rejected her Catholic school education and went on hunger strike in protest of being sent to a convent. Later, she studied philosophy at the University of Rome. During her years at school she published a book of raunchy poetry that shocked the conservative Italian society. After school she ran away to New York with her husband (who would later abandon her shortly after their first child was born) and was immediately revitalized by the city’s modernity. She quickly took up with the artistic crowd and befriended the photographer, Man Ray. When he decided to move to Paris in the early twenties, Elsa went with him.

It was then that she started making clothes. Her first foray into design quickly failed in 1926, but by the next year she was up and running again. This time, it was with a line of knitwear using a special double layered stitch created by Armenian refugees that featured sweaters with surrealist trompe l’oeil images. Her popularity soared. This first collection epitomized what Elsa would become best known for: her experimentation with new materials and technologies, and her collaboration with artists, mostly of the Surrealist and Dada movements.

While the coutouriers of her time were solely using natural fabrics, Elsa was the first to use synthetic materials like acryllic and rayon. She even made a cape out of a material closely related to cellophane. But she is also credited with first designing some of the most recognizable fashions today, like the wrap dress (decades before Diane Von Furstenburg came about) and pairing an evening gown with a jacket. She also created one of my favorite trends: the visible zipper. In fact, she often experimented with bringing her signature playfulness to fastenings, from a jacket that buttoned with silver tambourines, to one that fastened with silk-covered carrots and cauliflowers.

But her most iconic creations were those that resulted from her collaborations with artists like Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and Alberto Giacometti. It was her professional relationship with Dali that was most successful. Together they created such infamous pieces as “the lobster dress,” “the skeleton dress” and “the shoe hat.”

In the thirties, Elsa’s designs were celebrated for bringing a cheerfulness to fashion that had been missing until then. Her juxtapositions of colors, shapes and texture injected the world of fashion with a breath of fresh air. She cemented her popularity by expanding also to commercial work. She was the first designer to open a pret-a-porter boutique and to create press releases. She was also the first designer to dress movie stars, costuming actresses from the hyper-masculine Marlene Dietrich to the hyper-feminine Mae West in their films.

Elsa embarked on a perfume detour in 1937 and whipped up an earthy, floral scent she calledShocking, (a word apt for her entire career, really). When collaborating on the packaging design, she was inspired by her friend’s 17.27 carat pink diamond. From then on, the color she created for the box would be known as hot pink (or shocking pink, if you’re across the pond). The bottle also caused quite a stir as it was in the form off a shapely woman’s torso, rumored to be modeled after Mae West’s fit dummy from when Elsa costumed her in Everyday’s a Holiday.

Unfortunately, Elsa’s success was soon to be cut short. War had overcome Europe and she fled to New York again, shortly after the fall of Paris in 1940. When she returned to Paris after the war she found that fashion had moved in a direction that would leave her in the dust. Dior’s New Look was all the rage and her tongue-in-cheek, eccentric designs had no place in this new era of austerity. Her business struggled and eventually, Elsa retired from designing in 1954. Somehow, despite spearheading some of the most crucial aspects of fashion design and the industry itself, Elsa’s name soon faded into obscurity, usually only popping up here and there as That Lady Who Designed That Shoe Hat With Dali. But, as you can see, she is an extremely important woman who must always be remembered in her own right. With that, I’ll leave you with her lessons on life, for women:

  • Since most women do not know themselves they should try to do so
  • A woman who buys an expensive dress and changes it, often with disastrous result, is extravagant and foolish.
  • Most women (and men) are color-blind. They should ask for suggestions.
  • Remember-twenty percent of women have inferiority complexes. Seventy percent have illusions.
  • Ninety percent are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say. So they buy a gray suit. They should dare to be different.
  • Women should listen and ask for competent criticism and advice.
  • They should choose their clothes alone or in the company of a man.
  • They should never shop with another woman, who sometimes consciously or unconsciously, is apt to be jealous
  • She should buy little and only of the best or cheapest.
  • Never fit a dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress.
  • A woman should buy mostly in one place where she is known and respected, and not rush around trying every new fad.
  • And she should pay her bills.

Originally written October 20, 2009

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