{Elsa Schiaparelli’s Genius}

Don’t know if I mentioned this, but I’m a fashion student now. 🙂 I decided I’d bring you all along with me in my journey…

Here’s my first assignment: A report on the FABULOUS Elsa Schiaparelli (SCAP-a-RELL-ee). (BEAR WITH ME, I HAVEN’T DONE A FORMAL REPORT IN… OH, ABOUT 13 YEARS! There’s SO much more about this designer I could’ve included, but it’s a short report.)


Elsa Schiaparelli is a fashion design legend in the early twentieth century, a woman who forged a respectable reputation by combining precise elegance with eccentricity and fearless character.

Born in 1890 to affluent and aristocratic parents in Rome, Elsa was raised with conservative ideals that she did not easily adapt to. She was inspired early on by a class she took on philosophy, following that by publishing a collection of poetry that would shock her conservative family. Her father chose to bring her to a convent, which she got out of after going on a hunger strike.

Soon after, Schiaparelli went to London to be a nanny; en route, she visited Paris for 10 days. She was invited to a ball there, but did not own a formal dress, so she fashioned one out of loose fabric pinned to her body. The beauty and delights of that city enchanted her, so much so that she could not forget it after leaving. London offered many new sights and sounds, including inspiring operas, art museums and fascinating lectures. One specific lecturer who caught her eye quickly became her husband, and the two moved to New York to start a new life together. This did not last, however; for while Elsa grew more excited at the strange new city and its many freedoms, her husband grew disenchanted and distant to the place, and eventually to her. By the time her daughter was born, they had separated; Elsa was left living in a dirty hotel with a newborn.

Elsa had already established a circle of friends including influential artists such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, though, and found an opportunity to share her contacts with a struggling clothing saleswoman named Gaby Picabia. This friendship blossomed, and they went to Paris together, along with Man Ray. Gaby invited Elsa to design a dress for an upcoming event. The designer Poiret was there, who immediately zeroed in on the obvious talent needed to create it. He praised the design and designer, and this inspired Elsa so much that she immediately began designing clothing for herself and her friends. This blossomed into a passion, and Schiaparelli clearly had a knack for the art. Following a small stint designing in a dress house that went under, she began creating whole ensembles in her attic.

The first item that brought her to the public eye was her sweater utilizing two unheard of techniques: a double stitch technique from Armenia which allowed the sweater to remain in its original shape, and a trompe l’oeil neck bow pattern woven into the fabric with contrasting colors. It was hailed as an “artistic masterpiece” by Vogue in 1927. She began to design sport clothing, utilizing zippers and other innovations to add to the ease and versatility of the clothing.

She was so successful that expansion into a salon, showroom, multiple locales and the addition of many employees was natural. She quickly moved on to design novel swimwear, reversible evening gowns and even designed for motion pictures. Coco Chanel refused to call her by her name, calling her “that Italian artist who makes clothes”. Elsa was famous.

Schiaparelli was influenced by astrology, unexpected color combinations, creatures, historical theatre characters (namely, harlequins), and scads of other sources. She even created her own color called “shocking pink”, inspired the jewelry of a friend. These inspirations found their way into her designs, always keeping her audience on their toes in anticipation of her next collection. In the mid 30’s, Elsa famously collaborated with surrealist painter Salvador Dali, which resulted in quite a few scandalous designs. Some of these include a hat designed to look like an upturned ladies’ pump, a soft dress decorated with a hard edged lobster design, and a dress with an inlaid padding technique called “trapunto” to emulate the skeletal structure of the back. These designs would definitely “push the envelope”, as well as solidify her notoriety as a true artistic visionary.

The war brought a change of locale – she relocated to New York, volunteering to relieve some of the damage the war brought. Upon returning to France, she was dismayed to find the women were newly enamored by Christian Dior’s “new look”, a return to the corset and a bouffant-style skirt. It was exactly the kind of restrictive look she had rebelled against early in her career, and she was unable to follow suit. Her house closed up shop in 1954, but she remained a strong social presence until her death in 1973.

Elsa Luisa Maria Schiaparelli continues to hold the public’s eye when we think of innovative, imaginative fashion design. Her passionate, ground-breaking influence will continue to be seen for many years to come.


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