Elsa Schiaparelli, “Shocking” Influencer of Her Time

I’m such a 20th century fashion history nerd. There, it’s said……

Elsa Schiaparelli was a fashion designer of the 1930s and 40s, and I am fascinated by her as an “influencer” of her time.  Listed below is some information about her career in fashion which you may enjoy reading, I hope.  Couture week in Paris this past week highlighted the collection designed by Christian Lacroix for the House of Schiaparelli as a one-time only tribute exhibit. This news was good reason for me to follow up on the history of the fashion house and it’s originator.

  1. Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome, into a privileged Italian family, which boasted aristocratic lineage and intellectual leanings. Maybe the combination of wealth and intellectually oriented breeding ingrained a fearlessness in Elsa.
  2. She was a contemporary of Coco Chanel, also an “influencer”.
  3. Elsa was pals with the glitterati of the art world of that era, such as Salvador Dali, whose influence and collaboration resulted in some iconic Schiaparelli fashions. Case in point: the lobster dress. Would you wear this today?
  4. A bold accessory designed by Elsa and Salvador Dali is the hat shaped like an upside down shoe, and fashion lovers of the day actually wore it. Behold, the sole of the shoe is shocking pink. Did Christian Louboutin get his idea of red soled shoes from there?   Um, I can see Lady Gaga wear the shoe hat……
  5. She was said to have invented the bright pink color and named it “shocking” pink. (There’s gotta be more of a story behind it. Anyone know?) It became her signature color. Hence the title of this blog post!
  6. Her fashion career started with trompe l’oeil sweaters which became an instant hit in the 1920s Europe and then America.
  7. In spite of what we would today call “in your face” design, her fashions were so wearable that the fashionistas of the day coveted her pieces. Among well known Americans who were Schiaparelli fans was Katherine Hepburn.
  8. She used the house of Lesage for her embroidered creations. The family still operates the embroidery business today in Paris.
  9. She was a pioneer in using new and modern materials in her fashion line; for example, crinkled & puckered rayon fabric in the 30s.

    Image from the book “Shocking” by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Go to their website for more details on the dress
  10. Elsa’s (or Schiap, as she was called fondly) designs were a perfect blend of modernism, art and traditional tailoring of her day. Example: This jacket with traditional shape but whimsical cicada shaped buttons, an amoeba shaped pocket and beautiful embroidery on the sleeve. The jacket is pictured on the cover of “Couture Sewing” by Claire Shaeffer, one of my favorite books of all time, published by the Taunton Press.
  11. A zipper company paid her $10,000 to include zippers in her high fashion line in the 1930s.  And, use them she did, in terrific innovative ways, not just a zipper down the back or the side.
  12. She is said to be one of the first designers to establish a boutique on the premises of her atelier, so clients could get some immediate shopping gratification.
  13. The American connection: She spent time in the US with her then husband, in the 1920s; she had a child named Yvonne, but was left alone to raise the child in NY. Mother and child returned to Europe, but came to the US again after WW2 broke out in Europe.
  14. Elsa’s two granddaughters were Berry Berenson and super model of the 60s and 70s, actress Marisa Berenson .
  15. After 73 years, I think most Schiaparelli garments and accessories will totally work in the 2013 fashion aesthetic. Take a look at her animal print booties!!

    These were Elsa’s own personal pair of booties. Go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art website for more information about them!
  16. One popular Schiaparelli design in the US was this butterfly print organza dress. I own a little piece (1.5 yards) of a butterfly print silk chiffon eerily similar to the dress.  I’m still trying to decide what to make with it. Suggestions?

    Butterfly print chiffon from my stash!
  17.  The Philadelphia Museum of Art happens to own an extensive collection of original Schiaparelli fashion, much of it donated by the designer herself. All the links of the dresses in this post are linked to their website. I own the book “Shocking” which was published by the museum in 2003. It has detailed information about Schiap’s work. (I know, bad cropping job on the image of the book).IMG_1172

Do add some thoughts on Elsa Schiaparelli’s easthetic in the comments section. If you lived in her time, would you wear her designs? Would you wear them today??


4 thoughts on “Elsa Schiaparelli, “Shocking” Influencer of Her Time

  1. I loved studying about the different designers aesthetics when I was in college.
    You didn’t say how wide the silk was. If it’s narrow a lovely scarf comes to mind.
    If it’s wide enough how about a classic shirt. It would work well in your wardrobe dressed up or down (like under a nice suit or paired with jeans).


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