Today you can buy – or make if you’re feeling particularly creative – a new dress. The reason? We are honouring innovative fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, whose often outrageous garments were worn by the rich and famous, setting new trends in the 1920s and 30s. Many of her design ideas and working methods, including the way she staged showed her collections and her use of ‘ready to wear’ items, foreshadowed later themes and influenced generations of fashion designers over the years.
Her business closed in 1954, so when I grew up she wasn’t an instantly recognisable style celebrity like Dior or Chanel, although she conjured up an image of unattainable glamour and sophistication from a period that seemed as distant as the Stone Age. I must admit I knew very little about her, other than the fact that she invented the colour shocking pink – then I read Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, which features a coveted Schiaparelli dress, loaned out by its lucky owner to her fellow residents at the May of Teck Club in return for luxuries, like soap.
Curious, I tried to find out more about the designer, then forgot her until about a recent re-reading of the novel prompted me to look her up again. Anyway, Schiaparelli was born today in 1890, in Italy. She always seems to have been a rebel in her wealthy, high society family and left home at a young age, initially to become a nanny in London. She married and moved to New York with her husband and had a daughter but the marriage broke down. However, during her time in America Schiaparelli, who had always been artistic, met and began working for Gaby Picabia (the ex-wife of Dadaist painter Francis Picabia), who owned a fashion boutique. Gaby introduced her to other avant garde artists, and when Gaby and Many Ray travelled to Paris Schiaparelli went with them.
|Schiaparelli's first designer jumper|
There her initial venture into the world of fashion in 1926 failed but the following year she launched a new business which rapidly became hugely successful. The most popular of her early designs was a black and white jumper with a trompe l’oeil bow which looked like a scarf draped around the neck. Her first collections included bathing suits and ski-wear, as well as sweaters, but by 1931 she had expanded into evening wear, an area which gave full rein to her creativity. Not only was Schiaparelli influenced by the artists she met – Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Jean Cocteau – she also collaborated with many of them, especially Dali . With him she produced, among other things, the iconic ‘lobster dress’ where he painted a red lobster on a white silk evening gown. The design was printed onto fabric and Wallis Simpson was photographed (by Cecil Beaton) wearing a dress.
Schiaparelli and Dali also created the ‘Tears Dress’ in pale blue silk, featuring trompe l’oeil rips and tears printed with a fur design. The dress was worn with a matching veil, with ripped and torn holes lined with the same fur design. The aim was to give an illusion of torn animal flesh… and all this long before punk or Lady Gaga’s infamous ‘meat dress’.
|The famous 'lobster dress'|
Schiaparelli is reputed to have said ‘never fit a dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress’, and for many of her elite clientele appearance was all important. She dressed heiresses and film stars, people like Wallis Simpson, Daisy Fellowes, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo and Mae West, whose body inspired the shape of the bottle for Schiaparelli’s perfume, Shocking. She also designed costumes for films, such as the 1952 movie Moulin Rouge, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor and Mae West in Every Day’s a Holiday’.
And if that gives you the impression that Schiaparelli was only interested in designing for celebrities who wanted to be seen, then think again. Alongside the exotic and outré works of art and the fabulous, floaty, chiffon evening dresses, with their beads and embroidery, were classic clothes worn (and copied) by ordinary women the world over. Her elegant day dresses and tailored suits would look just as stylish today as they did when they were first shown.
Surprisingly Schiaparelli didn’t knit or sew herself, which was, I gather, quite unusual for the time. But perhaps it was this lack of formal dressmaking knowledge and skill which gave her an edge when it came to designing: she came up with ideas and saw no reason why they wouldn’t work. Not knowing the way things had always been done gave her the freedom to develop her own style and do exactly as she wanted.
She was a real trailblazer and even someone like me, who takes little notice of fashion,
|A shawl-collar coat|
designed by Schiaparelli
can pay tribute to her vision and ability. She mixed colours, shapes and textures in a way which had never been done before, embraced new technology and was the first to use man-made fibres in couture, experimenting with new materials like cellophane, jersey and rayon.
Coloured or visible zips, highly decorative buttons and material printed with body parts, food, and other unusual items may be commonplace now, but they were considered outrageous when in introduced by Schiaparelli, along with wrap around dresses, divided skirts (the predecessors of shorts and culottes), embroidered shirts, wrapped turbans, mix and match sportswear and wedge shoes.
In addition Schiaparelli changed the way fashion was presented, staging shows with music and art to accompany the tall, thin, androgynous-looking models as they sashayed along the catwalk.
Sadly, her position as a fashion leader didn’t last. She spent most of the war in America, and by the time she returned to Paris she found the world – and fashion – had changed, and she was unable to adapt. Manufacture of her perfumes continued, but the rest of the business closed in 1954 when she retired. She died in 1973.
|A 'cat woman' design from Schiaparellis's|