Elsa Schiaparelli: A Visionary Designer with ‘Shocking’ Style

“I remember, when I was so small I could hardly read, seeing a cartoon of two men bathing on a solitary beach. The started to talk, got along splendidly, and after sunning themselves for a long time went behind different rocks to dress. One came out all smartness with a dangling lorgnette and a silver stick; the other in rags. Stupefied, they looked at each other, and with a cold nod each turned and went his separate way. They had nothing more to say to one another.” Elsa Schiaparelli

Imagine the Paris fashion scene in the 1930s with dreamy surrealism and elegant masquerade balls. It was the era of avant-garde artists, writers and actors mingling in Parisian cafes. Women dressed in Schiaparelli duds walked the streets in styles that turned heads – grand capes embroidered with golden rays of light, bows stitched into woolen sweaters, buttons molded into tiny circus horses, black velvet telephone handbags, hats fashioned from a shoe, black gloves with golden nails, and necklaces in the shape of a terrifying serpent, yet lined in red rubies.

Couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, at the forefront of fashion, pushed the limits of the avant-garde style. As an artist and inventor, she directed her seamstresses to create outrageous collections such as ‘Musical Instruments’, ‘Butterflies’, ‘Pagan Collection’, ‘Astrological Collection’, and the ‘Circus’. Clowns, elephants and trapeze artists graced her garments with sayings such as ‘Attention à la peinture’ (wet paint). There was no limit to her imagination, humor and innovative mind. It was Schiaparelli who developed the idea of ‘ready-to-wear’ clothing and created a range of ‘boutique’ clothing and accessories.

Schiaparelli drew ideas from art, culture, and innovation bucking the trends of the Art Deco fashion scene. In the 1920s, her first foray into fashion was in directing the styles of sportswear for women and then moved into grand day and evening wear. The height of her success was between the two World Wars and her empire also included lines of jewelry, belts, buttons, scarves, purses, hats, shoes and perfume.

Her talent and original ideas attracted collaborators such as artists Jean Cocteau, Bébé Bérard, Salvador Dali (see photo), Vertès and Van Dongen. Movie stars clamored to appear in her glamorous creations; Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich (see photo) and Lauren Bacall to name a few. Mae West posed for a plaster statue in which Schiaparelli used as a model to create perfectly fitting costumes for the actress. The statue was the inspiration for the design of the bottle of her perfume ‘Shocking’ (see photo). Schiaparelli loved not only shocking in her designs but also with the creation of her signature color ‘shocking pink’ on the runways and in her autobiography, Shocking Life. Of the pink color, she wrote, ‘bright, impossible, impudent, becoming, life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world but together, a color of China and Peru but not of the West – a shocking colour, pure and undiluted’.

After picking up stunning Pink and Purple Parfait Earrings (sold) and Rhinestone and Pearl Earrings (sold) at estate sales, I decided research Schiaparelli. The name didn’t ring a bell, but I was attracted to the colors and textures of the jewelry.

In the early 1920s, jewelry design radically changed from creating pieces with precious stones to using crystals and enamel. Costume jewelry became popular and Schiaparelli, doing what she did best, raised the bar. She believed that using fake or as she coined, ‘junk jewelry’, let her become more creative in her designs. The natural beauty of jewelry with precious stones required skill in combination unlike costume jewelry. ‘Junk jewelry’ permitted women to reveal their daring and outrageous personalities. Her jewelry line ran the gamut from precious to crystals and rhinestones. She played with untraditional materials such as china, porcelain, glass, crystal, aluminum and plastics.

One of her chic ideas was to pin a little diamond to the center of a fresh rose. Schiaparelli’s friend and client Daisy Fellowes was spotted wearing a cluster of emeralds at the top of her ear and another cluster on her lobe. Ears dripping in glamour! A finger amour design she dreamed up was a three-jointed diamond ring; one piece was worn at the base of the finger, the next one above the middle joint and the third cupping the tip of the finger. En garde!

Fastenings on French mechanics’ overalls inspired her first famous clip. Other clip designs included shell, fir cones, mushrooms, caterpillars, mermaids and musical boxes. Women walking the darkened streets of Paris could be seen wearing battery-operated, illuminated pieces on their suit lapels; some examples include a phosphorescent flower, a luminous torch, a small lamppost and a candlestick with a cherub holding a tiny light bulb.

A necklace with what looked like were aspirins was born out of her collaboration with Elsa Triolet and her husband, Surrealist poet, Louis Aragon. From afar, the Insect necklace (see photo) gave the appearance of insects scrambling around the wearer’s neck. It gives me the chills! Schiaparelli used gold and enamel coins and vegetable shapes to jangle off necklaces, bracelets and dog collars. Of her bracelets with factory cogs, saw-toothed tools, featherweight discs and flattened metal balls, Harper’s Bazaar for May 1935 exclaimed, ‘mechanical splendor, the bolder the better, the crueler the more chic.’

In the late 1930s, Schiaparelli teamed up with jewelry artisan Jean Schlumberger. Clever creations included pieces such as a pin of an ear of corn with a few missing kernels replaced with rhinestones; cupid clips and earrings; a brooch of two roller skating feet; a metal choker with water-lilies and gold frogs; a necklace strung with Victorian hands and wrists; a gold cigarette lighter shaped like a fish with ruby eyes and a flexible tail decorated in rubies. Too many gorgeous and unique designs to mention! The collaboration was a huge success but came to an end because of WWII.

Schiaparelli returned to France after WWII and continued working until 1954, when she closed her fashion house and retired. I just barely scratched the surface of one fascinating personality. The Philadelphia Museum of Art showcased some of Elsa Schiaparelli’s collections. For a glimpse of this classy lady in action, here’s a clip of her on “What’s My Line?”. I gleaned some of this information from two great books: Elsa Schiaparelli (Universe of Fashion) and Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli. What an inspiration!

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