As of July 6, 2022, al Musée des Arts Décoratifs of Paris will open its doors a brand new exhibition dedicated to Elsa Schiaparelli who, together with Coco Chanel, is reputed as one of the most important and decisive figures in 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 – tickets for which you can buy here – Italian naturalized French costume designer and seamstress, who can be visited until 22 January.
I take advantage of this interesting and wonderful initiative to tell the life, history and career of one of the most influential women in the history of fashion.
“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 picture, nor does it lead the long intact and preserved existence of a book”.
The words spoken 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 nonconformist and highly original style, which began to manifest itself right away, but let’s start from the beginning.
Elsa Luisa Maria Schiparelli was born in Rome, in Palazzo Corsini, on 10 September 1890 into a family of Piedmontese intellectuals: his mother, Giuseppa Maria de Dominicis, was of Neapolitan origins while his father, Celestino Schiaparelli, from Piedmont, was the first librarian of the Accademia dei Lince , one of the oldest scientific institutions in Europe. Not to mention his uncle Giovanni Schiaparelli, famous astronomer and his cousin Egyptologist and senator, Ernesto Schiaparelli.
At the age of 6, to respond to her mother who continually told her how ugly she was, Elsa thought it best to cover her face with flowers, or at least that was her intention. She managed to get some seeds from the gardener and put them in her mouth, ears, throat because she thought they would grow with the heat. Obviously her so she didn’t go, she just risked suffocating.
She studied philosophy and dreamed of becoming a poet – she also published a collection of poems – but the 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 disgraced count passionate about philosophy.
The two married a year later and moved to New York in 1916 where Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha was born. “gogo” in 1920 and where Elsa met personalities of the caliber 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.
Back in Europe and settled in Paris she met the designer Paul Poiret by pure chance during a walk, of which she became a student practically immediately. She is the same Schiap of hers, her nickname of hers with which she used to refer to herself, to tell of her meeting that changed her life: “One day I accompanied a rich American friend to Paul Poiret’s small and very colorful tailor shop. It was the first time I entered a maison de couture. I put on a loose-fitting, loose-fitting coat that could have been designed today. ‘Why don’t you take Mademoiselle? She seems made for you.’ ‘I can’t afford it,’ I said, ‘it’s definitely too expensive, and besides, when could I wear it?’ ‘Don’t worry about the money’, replied Poiret, ‘you can wear anything in any situation’”.
Her first jobs as a model designer weren’t very successful, the companies she worked with didn’t want to deal with a beginner, but she decided she wouldn’t give up and in 1927 she opened her atelier 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 big white bow trompe l’oeil; the Jersey “chic melancholy of italian softness”as defined by Janet Flanner del New Yorker; the themes of his garments such as pierced hearts, the typical tattoos of sailors were an absolute novelty; the “x-ray pullover”, so called because they retraced the bones of the body; the “crazy hat”, a small knit hat that could take any kind of shape; and her first iconic evening gowns.
His popularity grew dramatically so much that on August 13, 1934 the Time featured her on the cover – the first female designer to receive this “honour,” describing her as “crazier and more original than most of her contemporaries, Schiaparelli is the one for whom the term ‘genius’ is used most frequently. Even for her closest friends, the lady remains an enigma ”.
As I said at the beginning, art immediately had a fundamental role in the creative act for Elsa Schiaparelli and in fact, from 1935 she began to create collaborations with Christian Berard, Leonor Fini, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, Alberto Giacometti, Mere Oppenheim and Pablo Picasso.
His presentations were not simple fashion shows, but full-fledged performances as in a sort of new theatrical form. The theme of the mask and the game were very present in his work of the time, experiments of all kinds dominated his provocations.
The invention of shocking pink it came precisely from his ability to experiment. It was launched in 1937 and was used in many collections.
In 1935 the first accessory created together with Dalí and designed by him arrived: a compact in the shape of a telephone dial on which one could “write one’s name”, a real work of art.
Elsa Schiaparelli was also the first stylist to design themed collections such as: bow tie from 1937, Cirque of ’38 e Pagan of the Fall of 1938, inspired by Botticelli’s paintings.
The Second World War led Schiaparelli to move to the United States, where her daughter Gogo lived, while continuing to keep her Parisian atelier open, moved to number 21 of Palace Vendôme.
The great success of Christian Dior and his New Look and the end of World War II, the twilight of Elsa Schiaparelli’s incredible career began. Traveling began to be an essential part of Elsa’s life: Rome, Hammamet, New York were fixed stops.
Although Hubert de Givenchy had started working in his atelier, the brand’s fame gradually faded also due to the distance of Elsa, who by now had decided to spend her life between Tunisia and Paris ever more distant from the things of fashion.
Elsa Luisa Maria Schiparelli died on November 13, 1973at 83, leaving an indissoluble legacy that 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 ahead so as to make her work untouchable even over time, making her creations immortal.