L’union centrale des arts décoratifs (l’ucad), le musée de la Mode et du Textile, Paris
17 March - 29 August 2004
by Christiana Spens
Her legacy of spectacular designs and an entirely innovative approach to fashion design has moulded contemporary fashion and inspired countless fashion designers, including Galliano, McQueen, Gaultier and Yves Saint Laurent. In short, Elsa Schiaparelli was the woman who shaped fashion as we know it today - creating the pattern for all dresses to come.
The lady who defined 20th century fashion was born in 1890 into a wealthy and distinguished family in Rome, where she spent her childhood. She was outrageous from a young age, offending the nuns who taught her in her strict Roman Catholic school and disgracing her family when she attended a ball in Paris wearing only a length of fabric wrapped around her body, which promptly unravelled. When she was 23, she first travelled to Paris, and then to London, where she met William de Wendt, whom she married the following year. In 1919, Elsa Schiaparelli gave birth to a daughter whom she named Gogo. The marriage, however, did not last - due to financial difficulties and William's unfaithfulness - and the couple divorced in 1920. This left Schiaparelli a single mother, and fuelled her determination to succeed independently in the fashion world. She moved to Paris and met the celebrated designer, Paul Poiret, who introduced her to the art of couture.
Elsa Schiaparelli never learnt to sew, but relied on couturiers and seamstresses to materialise her designs - a method of couture production that has been widely adopted by contemporary designers. She sketched designs on paper and directed her assistants in the construction of the dresses - instructing alterations until the final design matched her vision. Schiaparelli first became successful as a designer with the creation of a line of innovative sweaters. An American friend who was visiting her in Paris wore a simple yet stylish top that inspired Schiaparelli to design a sweater that was tight fitting and elegant. She made contact with an Armenian seamstress, and the two agreed to go into business together. The new business acquaintance agreed to reproduce a simple design of a big white bow outstretched like a butterfly on a black woollen top. The American shop Strauss saw the potential in this innovative sweater and ordered 40 to be made in a fortnight - they sold out. This initial success was only the beginning of Schiaparelli’s fantastic career.
Schiaparelli became famous for being superbly original in her fashion design and in her marketing. She printed press releases on fabric, for example, and produced fashion shows that were uniquely spectacular. These days such performance in relation to fashion is commonplace; in Schiaparelli’s time it was unheard of.
Her collections and shows most often had themes. One collection was inspired by African iconography; another drew inspiration from sailors’ tattoos, and dresses bore snakes and anchors. Other collections included 'Musical Instruments', 'Butterflies', 'The Pagan Collection', 'The Astrological Collection' and 'The Circus Collection'. Each collection of highly original and often eccentric clothes caused scandal and success - and Schiaparelli became famous.
Schiaparelli’s success caused intense envy on the part of Coco Chanel, her greatest rival. The two were continuously compared and constantly competed with one another. While Chanel was minimalist and conservative, Schiaparelli was outrageous and flamboyant and the pair fought to achieve popularity with the Parisian fashionistas. The rivalry was also heightened by the fact that the two designers moved frequently in the same social circles, with similar ambitions and aspirations.
As well as envious acquaintances, Schiaparelli had a wide circle of friends, with whom she often collaborated. She was good friends with the writer, filmmaker and artist Jean Cocteau; Schiaparelli once reproduced a drawing by Cocteau on an evening cape in embroidery. She was recognised as an artist by such people as Marcel Duchamp, Picasso and Stravinsky, and closely connected to the Surrealist movement - for example, Schiaparelli’s 'Lobster Dress' was a collaboration with Salvador Dali. This connection with the wider art world set Elsa Schiaparelli apart from most other fashion designers - she was not merely interested in beauty or fleeting fashion trends, but in art, culture, ideas and innovation. Essentially, Schiaparelli was distinctive in her involvement with the wider intellectual and creative world.
Schiaparelli was a true innovator, and the first person to make fashion available to the masses. She opened a clothes shop - the House of Schiaparelli - in Paris in 1927, where she sold designer clothes off the rail. Before this, all haute couture was 'made to measure', and customers had to be fitted before tailored clothes were made for them. This meant that only a very few elite members of high society could wear fashionable clothes. Schiaparelli's shop was the first step in changing all of this: the clothes chains and availability of fashionable clothes all started with Schiaparelli. She also started, parallel to Chanel, the trend towards comfortable sports clothing, rather than restrictive couture, as acceptable daywear.
When the Second World War started, Schiaparelli moved to America, where she continued to be a successful designer and entrepreneur. However, when she returned to Paris after the War, she found it to have changed profoundly. There was no longer the demand for scandal and flamboyance that there had been before, and her designs no longer captured the public mood. Meanwhile, a new generation of designers - particularly Christian Dior - were becoming the new stars of the Parisian couture scene. In 1954, Schiaparelli closed her clothes shop and ceased to work as a designer. Her perfumes ensured that she had a good income up until her death in 1973.
Schiaparelli is remembered as the woman who changed fashion profoundly, a lady who made scandal and flamboyance chic, and who has inspired countless fashion designers. She was a true innovator, artist, entrepreneur and style icon, whose legacy of fabulousness has never gone out of fashion.