The Nearly Forgotten Fashion Pioneer Who Changed the Way Women Dressed

Mention the name Chanel and virtually every woman, and most men immediately have a mental picture of the famous logo, eponymous boutiques, couture fashion and famous Fragrances created several generations ago by the fashion doyen Coco Chanel. Ms. Chanel’s professional and personal life has been well-documented in books and movies. Though she has been deceased for many years the Chanel Brand has been protected, nurtured and managed to ever greater heights and is considered one of the most successful luxury goods franchises in history.

Christian Dior and Coco Chanel alone among their contemporaries from the first half of the 20th century remain household names. There was another creative fashion artist however who was considered by the connoisseurs of that time to have been their superior in talent, vision and success. Her name was Elsa Schiaparelli and for all of her fame and accolades she is largely forgotten today.

Elsa Schiaparelli was born to an aristocratic Roman family in 1890. Her world as a child was full of books, music, the arts and rich, successful people. As a young Philosophy student at the University of Rome she wrote a fairly scandalous book of erotic poems that enraged her conservative family and they shipped her off to a convent where she promptly went on a hunger strike. She left the convent and undertook a lifestyle change by attempting to leave behind the luxury she had always enjoyed and becoming a Bohemian. Her goal was to be an artist and she delved deeply into Surrealism.

After living a simple life devoted to art and study in New York City and London, young Elsa finally moved to Paris. There she was invited to attend a ball but had nothing to wear. She simply bought some fabric and made a type of wrap dress for herself. She became close to Modernist artists Man Roy and Marcel Duchamp. They, along with the most famous French Couturier of the early 20th century, Paul Poiret, encouraged her to start to design clothes.

Ms. Schiaparelli started her first couture house but it quickly failed by 1926. In 1927 she tried again and launched a collection featuring trompe l’oeil images on sweaters that became the rage. She was featured in Vogue. Her business exploded with the introduction of “pour le sport” line including spectacular linen dresses, bathing suits and ski wear. In 1931 she opened the Schiap Shop on the Place Vendome. The same year the tennis player Lili de Alvarez created a sensation when she played Wimbledon wearing Elsa Schiaparelli’s “divided skirt, the forerunner of shorts. The new shop included an Evening Wear department that became famous and added greatly the House success.

Elsa Schiaparelli is credited with many firsts in the fashion world. These include:

Graphic Knitwear
Color Coordinated Zippers
Whimsical Brooch-like Buttons
Culottes
Arab Breeches
Embroidered Shirts
Wrapped Turbans
PomPom Ribbed Hats
Barbaric Belts
Wedge Espadrille Shoes
Mix-and-Match Sportswear
The Runway Show
Androgynous Fashion Models

Her work was heavily influenced by the famous Modernist artists of the day including Dada, Fini, Cocteau, Oppenheim and Giacometti. It was the wild Catalan Surrealist sensation Salvador Dali that would exert the most vivid effects on Elsa Schiaparelli’s work. This effect can be easily seen in her Lamb Cutlet hat and the 1936 suit with pockets simulating a chest of drawers. The famous Lobster Dress, Tear Dress, Shoe Hat and Skeleton Dress were classic pieces that included trend setting fabric, tailoring cues, effects and surrealistic images that made the wearer appear to be dressed in artwork.

The House of Schiaparelli produced garments and accessories that were considered more than Couture Fashion, but unique pieces of wearable art. The House was retained to design costumes for movie productions including Topaze (1933), Moulin Rouge (1952) and for Mae West in Every Day Is a Holiday (1937).

The bodice figure of Mae West is the silhouette that Schiaparelli used to create the flacon for her signature Perfume Shocking. The “Shocking Pink” used to dress the Fragrances unit carton became so famous and distinctive that it is known to this day as “shocking pink” in pantone books. Through the 1930’s and 1940’s the House of Schiaparelli introduced a number of successful Fragrance Collections for men and women.

In 1934 Time Magazine placed Madame Schiaparelli at the top of the fashion world. Of her great rival Coco Chanel Time stated, “Chanel has assembled a fortune estimated at $15 million in the United States while being not at present in the most dominant influence in fashion”. Time went on to note that every little garment house on 7th Avenue was making replica versions of every collection that Elsa Schiaparelli produced.

Chanel was a traditionalist. Owing to the influences of Modern and Surreal art Schiaparelli was an experimentalist. She was the first to experiment with acrylic, rayon jersey, cellophane and a new fiber called Fildifer. This was the first use of synthetics in Couture.

In the 1970’s Diane von Furstenburg burst onto the fashion scene with her iconic wrap dress. Schiaparelli had created the wrap dress 50 years earlier, the same for Issey Miyake’s pleats and wrinkles skirts which she had first designed in the 1930’s.

The introduction of the Runway Fashion Show alone would have cemented Elsa Schiaparelli’s place at the pinnacle of Haute Couture history. The Branding and Marketing Strategies that this pioneer created are still used by leading Fashion Houses to this day. The inclusion of whimsy, anything goes and the co-mingling of a variety of colors, shapes and fabrics in her stunning pieces were revolutionary and have never been matched.

By the end of World War II the fashion scene had changed significantly. The clientele that had made Elsa Schiaparelli rich, famous and a trend setter had changed as well. The world had experienced a terrible trauma. The sort of energy and imagination that was inspired by Modernism and Surrealism was not highly valued. Practical became a cornerstone of Fashion in the 1950’s. The House of Schiaparelli closed in 1954 and Ms. Schiaparelli spent the last 20 years of her life in Paris and her seaside mansion in Tunisia.

Coco Chanel famously despised Elsa Schiaparelli. Ms. Chanel once said that Schiaparelli made art, not clothes. She disparagingly referred to her as that “Italian Artiste”. Elsa Schiaparelli, born to aristocracy and luxury, never took the bait. If she had negative thoughts about her rival they were well hidden.

Any student researching the history of the development of Couture Fashion in the 20th century will recognize the design breakthroughs that were created by Elsa Schiaparelli and are present everywhere in today’s female clothing scene. This creative body of work changed the world of fashion forever. Though largely forgotten today, this pioneer has left an amazing artistic and inventive legacy.

by: Geoff Ficke