Tuesday, March 23, 2010

All About Elsa

Elsa Schiaparelli was one of the most original fashion designers of the 20th century. The other day whilst lunching with my best girlfriend, we got onto the subject of fashion. As two twenty somethings, we were reflecting at how our style had evolved over the years. I have long been a believer in the power of fashion. I think what you choose to wear, or not to wear makes a powerful statement about your identity. I think Elsa Schiaparelli believed this too. She created some of the most interesting and imaginative fashion pieces that I have ever seen! And in the era of the streamlined Chanel suit.

Elsa Schiaparelli. Evening coat (collaboration with Jean Cocteau), fall 1937. Blue (now faded) silk jersey with gold metal and red silk embroidery and pink silk appliqued flowers Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Italian born French couturier saw clothing as objects of art, using the body as a canvas to project her ideas. She tapped into the long association between disguise and fashion, drawing on the principles of Surrealism to explore this idea in her collections between 1936 and 1939. Schiaparelli worked alongside several of the movement’s leading artists. Surrealist artists inspired and collaborated with her in her designs, resulting in the shocking juxtaposition of artefacts, patterns and colours she became famed for. Making them just the style that I love, though am probably not brave enough to wear.

Elsa Schiaparelli, Bootees, winter 1939-40. Pink, green, and white silk satin and leather with mother-of-pearl buttons, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Elsa Schiaparelli, Monkey Fur Shoes, black suede and monkey fur, 1938.

Schiaparelli's couture designs drew on the advancements of the modern world, seeking to bring a sense of escapism, humour and bohemian liberty to the uncertain world of Parisian high society of the late 1930’s. She was not a trained couturier, instead relying on aesthetic instincts and originality to challenge the norms of the fashion industry. The freedom of Surrealism was Schiaparelli’s rationale to let her imagination run wild in her designs, designs that she envisaged to go “beyond the crude and boring reality of merely making a dress to sell.” The boutique featured interior decorations by many in the group, including the quirky Spanish artist Salvador Dali. One can only imagine what a room designed by Dali would look like!

Elsa Schiaparelli, Evening dress and head scarf with tear design (collaboration with Salvador Dalí), summer/fall 1938. Light blue, magenta, and black silk crepe.
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Dali worked with Schiaparelli on her Autumn/Winter 1937 collection, producing several bizarre and intriguing couture pieces. One of these is the famous Tear-Illusion Dress of 1937. The deceptive design reflects the concerns of the Surrealist movement, in attempting to provide a new perception on traditional forms, such as the evening dress. The piece is created from the luxurious fabric of silk crêpe, complimented with an appliqué voile headscarf. While appearing simply a beautiful ladies gown, in true Schiaparelli style, closer examination reveals a much more unsettling undertone. The flowing cream voile is interspersed by a printed purple pattern, appearing as ‘rips’ in the fabric, representing bruised flesh. Now that would make for some interesting conversation at a cocktail party!

Elsa Schiaparelli, Shoe Hat, (collaboration with Salvador Dalí), winter 1937-38. Black wool felt. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Rose Messing, 1974 (1974.139).
Photograph copyright 2002 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elsa Schiaparelli, Evening dress with lobster print (collaboration with Salvador Dalí), summer/fall 1937. White and red silk organza. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Schiaparelli’s collaborations with the Surrealists aimed to encourage new interpretations for familiar objects and clothing. This ambiguity is seen throughout the Dali/Schiaparelli creations, such as their
Lobster Dress and Shoe Hat. Each of these again combined the conventions of dress with the peculiar. What could be more appropriate on a luxury evening gown than the image of a lobster? I can't help but think of Lady Ga Ga's outrageous and wonderful ensembles when I see Schiaparelli's Monkey Fur Shoes and Shoe Hat. Divine!

Elsa Schiaparelli, Harlequin Evening Coat, spring 1939. Blue, black, red, yellow, and white wool felt with silk embroidery. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Schiaparelli’s spectacular floor-length Harlequin Evening Coat of the 1939 Commedia dell’Arte collection, produced in collaboration with Man Ray and his painting Beau Temps shows a more theatrical and playful interpretation of Surrealist movement. The garish, cubist-style patchwork envelops the wearer, marking a strong contrast to the subdued qualities of the standard 1930’s women’s coat. The piece is bold and provoking, in the same manner of her Dali works. These designs tap into the Surrealist philosophy of art with no logical conception, making for some very creative and fun fashion pieces! I don't think winter could be called the dull season if you sported a coat like this.

Elsa Schiaparelli, Dinner Jacket, spring 1947. Black crepe and 'shocking' pink silk taffeta with paillette and seed-pearl embroidery and jet buttons.
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Elsa Schiaparelli, Blouse, ca. 1937, rayon, length at CB: 21 1/2 in. (54.6 cm), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Schaparelli continued this contemporary, playful approach to the fashion industry in her invention of garment titles and fabric names, still used today. These include royal and ice blue, wheat yellow, and most famously, shocking pink. I wouldn't mind a bit of shocking pink in my wardrobe.

Elsa Schiaparelli, Trompe l'Oeil Jumper, November 1927, Black and white wool.
Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Surrealist emphasis on distortion and masquerade can be seen in many of Schiaparelli’s designs. This interest is evident from her early design years, with her famous Trompe l’Oeil jumper of 1927. The piece, as the name suggests, fools the viewer into believing it features an attached bow beneath it’s characteristic 1920’s jabot collar, when in fact the bow design is knitted into the fabric. Deceptive or not, this is one cute jumper and certainly more interesting than your average knit. You don't even have to worry about the bow getting crushed out of shape.

Elsa Schiaparelli, Evening Dresses, 1951, silk, Length at CB: 51 in. (129.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Just as the Surrealists questioned established concepts on art, Schiaparelli did so with dress. Women of the 1930’s were living increasingly active and independent lives. These circumstances lead Schiaparelli to create multi-purpose garments. This is seen in her bustle dresses, which included a pleated 19th century-style bustle at the back where the young woman could conceal a flask. Now that is some clever design work! Garments like these used Surrealist principles of disguise to encourage women to move away from conservatism, while still retaining their femininity, as the designer said of her aims; “Ninety percent [of women] are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say. So they buy the grey suit.”

Schiaparelli's collections demonstrated that fashion need not adhere to convention. Her fabulous designs incorporated bright colours, unusual embellishments and patterns to otherwise standard items of clothing. Despite ending her career in bankruptcy in the 1950’s and being largely forgotten by the art world, one can see in her creations a vision of the Surrealist psyche. Fashion for Schiaparellis was a means of escaping, if only temporarily, from the boring and the everyday. One only has to look at designers like Alannah Hill to see how fashion designers continue to use fashion as a means of visual experimentation. Very fun and quirky experimentation at that!

The message from Ms Schiaparelli, when in doubt, never, never buy the grey suit!

Now to track down one of those shoe hats...




  1. Hello,

    I really like your blog. Elsa is a huge inspiration to me and it is wonderful to see her being celebrated here so thoughtfully and artistically.

  2. Sciaparelli is a wonderful designer. I understand that the lobster dress was inspired by Dali's lobster photogrpah series: