Style The “shocking life” of Elsa Schiaparelli

The “shocking life” of Elsa Schiaparelli

Andrea Tuzio

It is news of a couple of days ago that, starting from July 6, 2022, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris will open its doors a brand new exhibition dedicated to Elsa Schiaparelli who, along with Coco Chanel, is considered as one of the most important and decisive figures of fashion in the period between the two world wars. 
Shocking Chic: Les mondes surréalistes d’Elsa Schiaparelli, this is the title of this retrospective on the designer – of which you can buy tickets here – costume designer and dressmaker Italian naturalized French, which will be open until January 22 next year.

I take advantage of this interesting and wonderful initiative to tell the life, history and career of one of the most influential women in fashion history.

“Designing clothes, let it be said in passing, is not a profession but an art. It is one of the most difficult and disappointing arts because as soon as the dress is born, it already belongs to the past. A dress does not remain attached to the wall like a painting, nor does it lead the long intact and preserved existence of a book”. 
The words pronounced by Elsa Schiaparelli to define her work is a perfect summation of her way of seeing fashion and the world. Art first of all, codified through her non-conformist and very original style, which began to manifest itself right from the start, but let’s start from the beginning. 

Elsa Luisa Maria Schiparelli was born in Rome, in Palazzo Corsini, on September 10, 1890 in a family of Piedmontese intellectuals: her mother, Giuseppa Maria de Dominicis, was of Neapolitan origin while her father, Celestino Schiaparelli, from Piedmont, was the first librarian of the Accademia dei Lince, one of the oldest scientific institutions in Europe. Not to consider his uncle Giovanni Schiaparelli, famous astronomer and his cousin Egyptologist and senator, Ernesto Schiaparelli.

When she was 6 years old, in order to answer to her mother who constantly told her how ugly she was, Elsa decided to cover her face with flowers, or at least that was her intention. She managed to get the gardener to give her some seeds and she put them in her mouth, in her ears, in her throat because she thought they would grow with the heat. Obviously this was not the case, he risked only to suffocate. 

She studied philosophy and dreamed of becoming a poet – she also published a collection of poems – but her family was against it and she was sent to a Swiss convent. The passion for philosophy, however, allowed her to meet in London, during a conference of the Theosophical Society where she traveled in 1913, Wilhel de Wendt, a count now fallen into disgrace passionate about philosophy. 

Radha aka “Gogo” in 1920 and where Elsa met the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. The marriage ended in divorce in 1922, due to her husband’s constant cheating, and Elsa was left alone with Gogo. 

After returning to Europe and settling in Paris, she met stylist Paul Poiret by chance during a walk, and became his pupil almost immediately. It is the same Schiap, her nickname with which she was accustomed to refer to herself, to tell of the encounter that changed her life: “One day I accompanied a rich American friend to Paul Poiret’s small and colorful tailor shop. It was the first time I had ever entered a maison de couture. I wore a loose-fitting, soft-cut coat that could have been designed today. ‘Why don’t you take it Mademoiselle? It looks like it was made especially for you’. ‘I can’t afford it,’ I said, ‘it is certainly too expensive, and besides, when could I wear it?’ ‘Don’t worry about money,’ replied Poiret, ‘you can wear anything in any situation’”.

Her first works as a model designer were not very successful, the companies with which she worked did not want to deal with a beginner, but she decided that she would not give up and in 1927 she opened her studio in an apartment at 4 rue de la Paix in Paris.

His creations were incredible and crazy: His first sweater, completely black and with a large white trompe-l’oeil bow; the “chic melancholy of Italian softness” knit, so defined by Janet Flanner of the New Yorker; the themes of his garments such as pierced hearts, the typical tattoos of sailors were a first; the “X-ray pullovers”, so called because they traced the bones of the body; the “crazy hat”, a small knitted hat that could take any kind of shape; and his first iconic evening dresses.

Her popularity grew by leaps and bounds, so much so that on August 13, 1934, Time magazine put her on its cover – the first woman designer to receive this “honor”, describing her as “crazier and more original than most of her contemporaries, Schiaparelli is the one for whom the term ‘genius’ is most frequently used. Even to her closest friends, the lady remains an enigma”.

Come dicevo all’inizio l’arte ebbe sin da subito un ruolo fondamentale nell’atto creativo per Elsa As I said at the beginning, art had a fundamental role in the creative act for Elsa Schiaparelli from the very beginning and in fact, since 1935 she started to realize collaborations with Christian Bérard, Léonor Fini, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti, Mere Oppenheim and Pablo Picasso

His presentations were not mere parades, but performances in their own right as in a kind of new theatrical form. The theme of mask and play were very present in his work of the time, experimentation of all kinds dominated his provocations. 

The invention of shocking pink came precisely from his ability to experiment. It was launched in 1937 and was used in many collections. 
In ’35 came the first accessory made together with Dalí and designed by him: a compact compact in the shape of a telephone dial on which you could “write your name”, a true work of art.

Elsa Schiaparelli was also the first designer to come up with themed collections such as: Papillon of 1937, Cirque of ’38 and Fall Pagan of 1938, inspired by Botticelli’s paintings. 

World War II led Schiaparelli to move to the United States, where her daughter Gogo lived, but she continued to keep her Parisian atelier open, relocated to 21 Palace Vendôme. 

The great success of Christian Dior and his New Look and the end of the Second World War, began the twilight of Elsa Schiaparelli’s incredible career. Traveling began to be an inescapable part of Elsa’s life: Rome, Hammamet, New York were fixed stops.

Despite the fact that Hubert de Givenchy had started to work in his atelier, the fame of the brand slowly faded, also due to the distance of Elsa, who had decided to spend her life between Tunisia and Paris, farther and farther away from the world of fashion. 

Elsa Luisa Maria Schiparelli died on November 13, 1973, at the age of 83, leaving an indissoluble legacy that has decisively inspired geniuses of the caliber of Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Miuccia Prada, Rei Kawakubo and so on and so forth.

Extravagant, eccentric, dreamer, artist, Elsa Schiaparelli was an atypical visionary and tremendously forward so as to make her work untouchable even to the passage of time, making her creations immortal. 

Written by Andrea Tuzio
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