“In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous” – Elsa Schiaparelli

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There is a female designer and entrepreneur from the 1920’s that many in the modern fashion world don’t know about, or have simply forgotten. She was a woman of grand talent, who thought outside the box and invented some fashion staples that we now take for granted. Sadly her most enduring legacy is that of a perfume bottle shaped like a woman’s body, and the glorious colour known as “shocking pink”. This woman is someone I have heard mention a few times before along my own fashion journey, but whom I knew little about. Since reading a biography penned by Meryle Secrest, I have since discovered the amazing woman who was Elsa Schiaparelli. If this woman had not contributed to the fashion world as much as she did, we may not have evolved from the constraints of female clothing in the early 20th century.

When you read the story of Schiaparelli’s early life, it differs greatly from her rival Gabriele Chanel. Schiaparelli was Italian, born in Rome, her mother a Neapolitan aristocrat and her father an academic scholar. Many of her extended family members were also credited as highly intelligent and contributed to such things as astronomy and philosophy. A young Schiaparelli was largely influenced by those around her, and read often to further her knowledge. With a vivid imagination, Schiaparelli penned a volume of poetry which alarmed her mostly conservative family. They chose to ship her off to a convent boarding school in Switzerland to try and tame her fantasies. Schiaparelli did not like her new surroundings, and went on a hunger strike in protest. Her parents had no choice but to bring her home. Even though she lived a very comfortable and refined life, Schiaparelli was somewhat dissatisfied, and went abroad to England and then France to explore and satisfy her cravings.

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It was whilst in London that Schiaparelli met her husband and became engaged after only one day. The couple wed in July 1914, and spent their early years together moving around. He husband, William de Kerlor, became known as a fraud and rip off merchant. Five years after their marriage, they had their only child together, a daughter know as Gogo, in 1920. It was after her birth that Schiaparelli found herself abandoned, raising their daughter on her own. The two women lived in New York for a couple of years, and were financially supported by Schiaparelli’s parents, before Elsa and Gogo moved to France in 1922. Upon their arrival in Paris, Schiaparelli moved into an expansive apartment, and was greatly accepted in the French aristocracy due to her family heritage. Even though she was financially stable, Schiaparelli decided she must make her own income and achieve something with her life. This was when her association with artists such as Man Ray and Dali came to life, and the great surrealists continued to influence her work for decades to come.

With no formal training, Schiaparelli turned her hand to fashion, and thankful we shall ever be!

Her early inspiration came from Paul Poiret, whose designs had begun to give women freedom of movement. Without the knowledge of patternmaking, Schiaparelli created her designs directly on the body, using draping techniques on mannequins and sometimes herself. She was assertive and eclectic and wasn’t afraid to try things never before seen. Even though her initial trial in fashion was favourably viewed, she decided to close her then small business in 1926. A year later, Schiaparelli shot to stardom when she returned to the fashion scene with never before seen knitwear designs. This knitwear showcased what’s know as a trompe l’oeil motif, an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create an optical illusion. The sweater that became famous, gave the view of a scarf draped around the models neck, however it was all knitted into the one piece. This sweater was predominately made in black and white, but later reproduced in an array of colours. It was adopted by female sporting stars of the time as their uniform because it was easy to move in. Following on from this initial success, Schiaparelli in 1928, designed a range of sports ensembles, as well as swimsuits and beach attire. Ski suits and evening dresses were also seen in her collections of the time. This designer was somewhat versatile! In 1929, Schiaparelli first shocked the world of couture by using zippers as visible notions, sewing them into sleeves, necklines and front openings.

Moving into the early thirties, Schiaparelli continued to achieve gold in the fashion innovation stakes. She widened women’s shoulders on suits and coats, and decided it was time that we no longer had to pull a dress on over our heads. The wrap dress first appeared in 1930, and has played a huge part in fashion history ever since. It was also this same years that Schiaparelli showcased evening dresses with matching jackets, so simply but never before seen. She also developed a one piece bathing suit for women that had a built in bra. By 1932, the House of Schiaparelli employed 400 staff across 8 ateliers, including a ready-to-wear boutique. In 1934, Time magazine put Schiaparelli on the cover, and it was the same year that a full perfume collection was released. With the continued growth of her business, Schiaparelli moved addresses to the famous 21 Place Vendôme, and turned the newspaper articles raving of her triumph, into a print for her latest collection. It was also in 1935, that her first collaboration with surrealist Salvador Dali was exhibited. The remainder of this decade saw Schiaparelli’s line of jewelry take off, and the first short evening dress was seen on the runway. 1937 was certainly a year of statement for the Italian born designer, as she released her most famous perfume, “Shocking”, as well as patented the vibrant hue known as “Shocking Pink”.

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Moving into the 1940’s, many in the world of couture were suffering hardship due to the Second World War. Schiaparelli however soldiered on, producing more innovative designs such as military jackets and mermaid silhouettes. It was also around the same time that the famous ‘Siren Suit’ was born. This was Schiaparelli’s answer to war time fashion. It was a suit that had many uses, and exhibited large and hidden pockets, so that the wearer could easily deposit items usually carried in a purse, into the ensemble to make it easier to move when those horrible sirens sounded indicating an attack from the air was on its way. At the beginning of the war, Schiaparelli spent some time in America, going on a lecture tour to discuss with followers her love and passion for fashion. It’s also believed by some that during the war years, Schiaparelli was working as a spy for the German Army, which is why she was allowed to move around so freely from one country to the next when everyone else was forced to stay put.

Finally after the war ended, Schiaparelli returned to Paris in 1945 to once again take the reins of her business and continue to triumph. In 1946, she released one of the first travel wardrobes for women, consisting of items that were easily packed and worn. The perfume business had continued to flourish during the wartime, and in 1947, an entire factory was opened and dedicated to the sideline. It was the same year that emerging designer Hubert de Givenchy joined the House and remained for the next four years. In 1949, many workers in the rag trade went on strike over a protest of wages and conditions. This impacted Schiaparelli’s business, but she did not let it stop her. When releasing her collection, she had no shame in parading it on the models whilst still full of pins, fabric swatches and no buttonholes. It was genius, and the fashion world lapped it up!

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The House of Schiaparelli continued to make headlines into the 1950’s, with new designs of tuxedo dresses, diagonal buttoning and lingerie all taking center stage. Schiaparelli was also a woman who saw the endless possibilities in what she could put her brand name to, and in 1952 released a range of glasses with her name on them. This venture into other forms of fashion items other than couture was significant in the success of Schiaparelli, and in 1953 alone, 18 million items were sold with the shocking pink logo on them! Hollywood also came calling on Schiaparelli during the early 1950’s, and she designed costumes for a few motion pictures, including Zsa Zsa Gabor’s wardrobe in Moulin Rouge. By 1954, Schiaparelli decided it was time to wind down, and sadly closed her fashion house. The perfume line continued however, and Schiaparelli retired to write her autobiography, Shocking Life. It was the same year her rival Chanel returned to the business.

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Elsa Schiaparelli lived out the remained of her live in very comfortable fashion. She moved freely between her homes in Paris and Tunisia. She passed away on the 13th November 1973, aged 83. The legacy that this extraordinary woman left behind is somewhat magical. Had she not been so innovative and daring, many discoveries in fashion may not have taken place. In the decades since her passing, Schiaparelli continued to be a giant of the fashion empire, and in 2012, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art featured her work in a major exhibition. It was after this, in 2013, that details of the brands revival became public. The House has been nominated for a return to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture list of members, and presented its first show in January 2014.

Love Always, Anastacia Rose xx

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