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Elsa Schiaparelli: Fashion Visionary

Published: 11/13/2013
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Elsa Schiaparelli
(Photo by John Phillips//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)


Long before Lady Gaga wore a dress made of meat or celebrities dressed in outrageous ensembles for the Met Ball, there was Elsa Schiaparelli.

The Italian-born designer, a fashion visionary who dazzled the couture-minded between the first and second world wars, found inspiration from the work of modern artists. Schiaparelli "stood out among her peers as a true nonconformist, using clothes as a medium to express her unique ideas," according to Vogue. "In the thirties, her peak creative period, her salon overflowed with the wild, the whimsical, and even the ridiculous."

Schiaparelli often collaborated with artists, including surrealist Salvador Dali, on designs that are still talked about today. In 1937 she and Dali created "The Lobster Dress," a white silk evening gown featuring a bright crimson waistband and a Dali-painted lobster on the skirt.

In 1938, they presented “The Skeleton Dress,” which was "inspired by the Surrealist fascination with the human body and … made to give the garment the anatomically appropriate effect of the ribcage, leg bones and spine," according to the blog FashionUnstitched.wordpress.com. "The Skeleton Dress captivated the ‘new woman’ of the Depression era."

Time magazine wrote in 1934, "Madder and more original than most of her contemporaries, Mme. Schiaparelli is the one to whom the word 'genius' is applied most often.”

Contemporary and rival Coco Chanel famously described Schiaparelli as "that Italian artist who makes clothes." Schiaparelli retaliated, referring to Chanel simply as "that milliner."

Perhaps Schiaparelli's need to express herself started early. She was “a difficult child who chafed against societal and parental controls," according to Jan Reeder of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. In her autobiography, Schiaparelli revealed she once opened a jar of fleas under the table at one of her parents' dinner parties because she wasn't allowed to attend.

The wild child didn't stop there. According to www.Schiaparelli.com, the young Elsa was sent to a Swiss convent as punishment after writing Arethusa, an outrageously sensual book of poetry. She returned after going on a hunger strike.

In 1927 Schiaparelli, who had long made clothes for herself and friends, presented her first collection of geometric-designed sweaters hand-knit by women in her Paris apartment. By year’s end the collection had been showcased in the French and American editions of Vogue.

Schiaparelli’s garments were worn by actresses like Joan Crawford and Mae West, society women, and even aviator Amy Mollison, who was dressed by Schiaparelli for her record-breaking solo flight from England to South Africa in 1936.

Schiaparelli was one of the first designers to present clothes with visible zippers. She patented a swimsuit with a built-in bra. Her line of colored hosiery was groundbreaking. In 1940, The New York Sun reported that the output from her workshop had grown to 10,000 garments per year.

Schiaparelli was constantly expanding her influence. Her perfumes, many with unusual packaging, were legendary. Her jewelry included a 1938 clear plastic necklace with metallic insects, "giving the illusion that the bugs were crawling directly on the wearer's skin," according to Wikipedia. In 1939, she even released a music collection.

The designer was also a gift to pop culture. In June 1936, Vogue ran an interview imagining a conversational face-off between Schiaparelli and Joseph Stalin, in which “Schiap taunts the dictator about the increasing influence of fashion on Soviet women." She earned a mention in Agatha Christi'e's 1940 One, Two, Buckle My Shoe. In the Auntie Mame books of the 1950s, she is mentioned as a favorite designer of Mame and Vera Charles.

But Schiaparelli did not adapt to the changes in fashion following World War II, according to Wikipedia. In 1954, the House of Schiaparelli declared bankruptcy and she retired, spending most of her time at her home in Tunisia. Schiaparelli died in Paris in 1973 at age 83. "Her looping signature is emblazoned in gold on her gravestone," according to Vogue.

Yet 40 years after Schiaparelli's death, her influences are still everywhere. She brought to fashion a sense of "anything goes" that is said to have inspired designers like Geoffrey Beene and Yves Saint Laurent, among others. In 2013, designer Christian Lacroix unveiled a tribute to Schiaparelli during Paris Haute Couture Week.

“Among her many contributions to the development of twentieth-century fashion," wrote the Metropolitan Museum’s Reeder, “Schiaparelli's fearless challenge to the status quo, incorporation of wit and humor into fashion designing, and melding of art with dressmaking rank among the highest.”

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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