Elsa Schiaparelli


Portrait of Elsa Schiaparelli 1932

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) was an Italian fashion designer. Along with Coco Chanel, her greatest rival, she is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in fashion between the two World Wars. Starting with knitwear, Schiaparelli’s designs were heavily influenced by Surrealists like her collaborators Salvador Dalí and Alberto Giacometti. Her clients included the heiress Daisy Fellowes and actress Mae West.
With a pronounced taste for happenstance, a sense of humor that morphs into a style, culture presented as luxury, Elsa Schiaparelli draws her inspiration from art for her clothing, working with many talented artists of her era.


Photograph by Irving Penn. Published in Vogue, October 2003.

Referred by Coco Chanel as “that Italian artist that makes clothes,” Elsa Schiaparelli’s clothing and accessories were greatly inspired by surrealist artists such as Salvador Dali, whom she collaborated with. Lobster print dresses and a giant shoe hat were among some of her creations, and her designs were worn from everyone from heiress Daisy Fellowes to Zsa Zsa Gabor. In 1934, Time magazine said, “…madder and more original than most of her contemporaries, …Schiaparelli is the one to whom the word ‘genius’ is applied most often.”



An exorbitant cream ruffled evening gown by Elsa Schiaparelli

Unlike Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli lived in luxury since her childhood. She was born in 1890 in Rome and passed away in 1973 in Paris. Her formation and development as one of the geniuses in the world of fashion is due to her artistic education (in her teen years she studied paintings, sculpture, fine arts, literature), as well as to the environment she lived in. Married to a lecturer-theosophist (for a very short period of time) she herself got engaged in public events and read her interesting and original lectures. Living in Boston and New York and later in Paris, of English education, she has her place in fashion due to her numerous fashion inventions and is recognized as one of the greatest innovators of clothes’ design.

Since 1920 she meets and spends time in  New York with the protagonists of the Dadaist avant-garde movement who have crossed the Atlantic, Man Ray, Baron de Meyer, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and Marcel Duchamp.  Artists having all participated in the creation of her collections.

From 1922 she lived in Paris, and modern art, particularly Dada and Surrealism, provided a significant source of inspiration for Schiaparelli. She worked with a number of contemporary artists to develop her imaginative designs, most famously with Salvador Dalí. From these artistic collaborations, Schiaparelli’s most notable designs were born. In addition to well-documented collaborations such as the shoe hat and the Tears dress, Dalí’s influence has been identified in designs such as the lamb-cutlet hat and a 1936 day suit with pockets simulating a chest of drawers. Schiaparelli also had a good relationship with other artists including Leonor Fini, Jean Cocteau, Meret Oppenheim, and Alberto Giacometti.

The Italian designer was born in Rome into a wealthy family, which was however restricted in terms of its strictly Catholic beliefs. Eager to burst out of this, and explore a more earthy, artsy form of entertainment, Schiaparelli turned her hand to fashion design after a visit to Paris. In the early 1930s, Schiaparelli set up a boutique ‘fashion house’ in Paris, and began to design her own clothes.


Elsa Schiaparelli’s famous ‘shoe-hat (1933) demonstrates her extravagance as an artist

Indeed, Schiaparelli—“Schiap” to friends—stood out among her peers as a true nonconformist, using clothing as a medium to express her unique ideas. In the thirties, her peak creative period, her salon overflowed with the wild, the whimsical, and even the ridiculous. Many of her madcap designs could be pulled off only by a woman of great substance and style.  In 1933, Dalí was photographed by his wife Gala Dalí with one of her slippers balanced on his head.

In 1937 he sketched designs for a shoe hat for Schiaparelli, which she featured in her Fall-Winter 1937-38 collection. The hat, shaped like a woman’s high heeled shoe, had the heel standing straight up and the toe tilted over the wearer’s forehead. This hat was worn by Gala Dalí, Schiaparelli herself, and by the Franco-American editor of the French Harper’s Bazaar, heiress Daisy Fellowes, who was one of Schiaparelli’s best clients.


Evening coat designed by Elsa Schiaparelli in collaboration with Jean Cocteau, London, 1937.

Authors and analysts have tried to summarize the aspects, in which she is an innovator. Here are some assertions: Schiaparelli was the first to use surrealistic elements in her works, she was the first to name her collections; she used zips instead of buttons, she promoted the phosphorescent clasps. The designer was a true pioneer in the use of tweed as basic material parallel to the use of unusual materials like oilskin and sackcloth. She launched the moments of play in fashion, borrowing techniques and manners, effects and tricks from the circus, theater and ballet.


She worked with weird and strange colors, she imposed herself as the first designer of the so-called “fantasy fashion” and of clothing with an accent on the “shocking pink color”.


Regi Relang “Finely Plisséd Dress opened into a Cocoon, by Elsa Schiaparelli”, Paris 1951 Fiber-based print from an original negative 35.4 x 24.4 cm


Jacqueline Marsel in a dress by Elsa Schiaparelli, photo by Regina Relang, 1951


The shocking, rib-bearing skull dress made by Dali & Schiaparelli, 1938

Cooperating with this worldwide emotion, in the 1940s Schiaparelli began to hunt down obscure, dusky toned materials for her work. Schiaparelli’s Spring 1940 Collection featured ‘trench’, and ‘camouflage’, rather than ‘dazzle’ and ‘sparkle’ visible in her earlier collections. Inevitably, when Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ emerged from the dust of World War II in 1954, Schiaparelli’s work crashed, burned, and its electric ingenuity fizzled out from the world.

The art of Elsa Schiaparelli should be studied even more thoroughly as she is among the few world designers of the 20th century who ardently interpret fashion as style, aesthetics and culture of equal standing with the other arts activities. Her brilliant spirit of innovation and experiment result in many novelties in the fashion design that are widely in use even at present. Her perfume Shocking is currently an object of inspiration and a stimulus for the modern art of fragrances and bottle design. During this period of time between the end of the 1920s when she opened her first boutique in Vandom square in Paris and the last presentation of a collection of hers in 1954, she worked energetically and with inspiration, emancipating fashion as art that is worth respect in the direction of her creative apotheosis.


Elsa Schiaparelli, 1937, wearing her own designs

The philosophy of the designer supposed a large-scale synthesis between fashion and the rest of the arts and nature as a whole. It is sufficient to become acquainted with the thematic variety of her collections in the second half of the 1930s in order to understand the intellectual and cultural implied meaning in the works of Schiaparelli. In a respecting work about evening gowns we read the following about the jackets made by her: “The jacket and the embroidered bolero as part of the dinner suit attract the curiosity of the public with any collection as they subject particular themes: The Butterflies (the summer of 1937), The Circus (the summer of 1938), The Spring of Botticelli (the autumn of 1939), Space (winter 1938-1939), Commedia dell’arte (the spring of 1939) and others. These different themes provoke the fantasy of designers in the field of embroidery, in the work of the designers and the producers of accessories.”

In her auto-biography, ‘A Shocking Life’, Leo Larman spoke of her astounding art: “Elsa Schiaparelli was a headline attraction in the international glitter-glamour freak show of the late twenties and pre-war thirties”; thus finalizing her career.


Mrs. Reginald Fellowes (left) in Elsa Schiaparelli, 1933; Sienna Miller in Prada, photographed by Mario Testino for Vogue, 2007. Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Schiaparelli’s designs, it seems, are timeless, whimsical and sometimes ridiculous – yet almost always elaborate, stunning, and wonderful. A quote from Schiaparelli has quickly become the motto of contemporary artists and designers: “Dare to be different”. This is, climatically, what she did best.


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