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Elsa Schiaparelli

The fashion world is abuzz over the news that a important collection of garments will go under the hammer on July the 3rd at the Drouot-Richelieu auction house in Paris. The auction will include forty Schiaparelli pieces.

This 1938 gown is one of the pieces that will be in the auction

It will also include a particularly important piece - a 1937 Schiaparelli collaboration with Jean Cocteau. The jacket that will be auctioned was embroidered with a female figure with one hand caressing the waist of the wearer, and long blonde hair cascading down one sleeve. Typical Elsa wit. The embroidering of both garments was executed by the couture embroidery house of Lesage and it is this jacket that will perhaps be the crown jewel of this auction

Elsa Schiaparelli

It seems that Elsa was a bit of a rebellious wild child and in her early twenties she published a book of poems that were rather risque and her shocked family packed her off to a convent. She promptly went on hunger strike in protest and even worse, eventually accepted a job as nanny in the wicked, big city of London. Legend has it that one the way there she was invited to a ball in Paris and having no gown, she bought some blue fabric and pinned it into place! She met her first husband in London who eventually took her to New York where he abandoned her after the birth of their first child.

It was not all bad in the Big Apple though, it was there that she met many of the great artists of the time - Man Ray and Marcel Duchamps were said to be great friends of Elsa - and when they eventually left New York for Paris she went with them.

I love the snake bracelet she wears here -
it was a signature piece and can be seen on her arm in most photographs of her

It was when she went to Paris that her true career as a designer began. It is said she was encouraged by Paul Poiret but despite good reviews her first endeavor into the world of fashion failed miserably and foray number one shut its doors in 1926.

However, in 1927 she started a fashion house yet again, but this time designing knitwear. The sweater above is one of the most famous pieces from those early years. She used a special double layered stitch created by Armenian refugees in these early pieces and this tendency to embrace new technologies and materials of the time stayed with Elsa throughout her entire career, long after she had left knitwear and designed a full collection.

She was the first to incorporate many of the "new" technologies of her time and experimented with acrylic, cellophane, a rayon jersey called "Jersela" and a rayon with metal threads called "Fildifer". It was her quest to find new and different fabrics that led to synthetic materials being used for the first time in couture garments.

Some where not as successful as others, like her 1934 "glass" cape made from Rhodophane, a transparent plastic related to cellophane. But she is credited with being the first to create many of the ideals that are not fashion standards - she created wraparound dresses decades before Furstenberg made them her standard, and it was Elsa that crumpled up rayon and provided the inspiration for Issey Miyakes famous pleats.

Dress & Jacket 1938

She created the first evening-dress with a jacket - women did not wear this combination before her introduction of the idea and she made the first clothes that made the zipper a feature rather then a hidden element of necessity. She is actually known for her whimsical use of fastenings, making jackets buttoned with silver tambourines to fabric carrots buttons.

Her wild child beginnings were a trait she kept for her entire career and beyond, bringing new textiles and techniques to the forefronts of designs, and it was Schiaparelli who predominately brought to fashion a sense of fantasy and wonder. Wit, art and modernity, all juxtaposition alongside unusual color-plays, shapes and textures. Elsa was always surrounded by artists, and her collaborations with Salvador Dali are legendary, resulting in some astounding pieces, made even more so when you really think of the era that these where being produced in and the state of being that most woman lived their lives under. She was operating completely outside of the realm of anyone else.

Here are some of the most famous pieces
Lobster Dress
The 1937 Lobster Dress featured a large lobster painted by Dali onto the skirt.

Tears Dress

The Tears Dress was part of the February 1938 Circus Collection. It is printed with a Dali design of rips and tears, worn with a thigh-length veil with "real" tears, carefully cut out and lined in pink and magenta.

Skeleton Dress

Dali also helped Schiaparelli design the Skeleton Dress for the Circus Collection. A stark black crepe dress used trapunto quilting to create the idea of bones

The Shoe Hat

Schiaparelli's Fall-Winter 1937-38 collection featured a hat shaped like a woman's high heeled shoe, with the heel standing straight up and the toe tilted over the wearer's forehead

In 1939, France declared war on Germany and Schiaparelli's Spring 1940 collection responded to the times by featuring "trench" brown and camouflage print taffetas and she continued her reign as a fashion darling that season. However, after the Fall of Paris on 14 June 1940, Schiaparelli sailed to New York for a lecture tour and she stayed there for the most part right up until the end of the war. When she finally did return to Paris to once again take up the reins of her fashion house, she returned to find that Christian Dior's New Look was all the rage in Paris and her pre-war silhouettes where rejected as no longer being a relevant silhouette.

Christian Dior New look Suit

The house of Schiaparelli struggled to keep afloat, but finally it declared bankruptcy and closed in December of 1954, the same year that her great rival Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel returned to the business. Aged 64, she wrote her autobiography and then lived out a comfortable retirement between her apartment in Paris and house in Tunisia.

Her biography is a must read for vintage lovers

Elsa died on 13 November 1973.

The pink on the cover of her autobiography is the pink that is instantly attached to her name. The hot, bright pink, dubbed "Shocking Pink", was a departure from the more somber tones of the day to say the least! She also launched a perfume the first and most famous of which, named Shocking, was created in 1936. Many of her designs incorporate this color, as do her logo and packaging.

A Schiaparelli hat box in the infamous pink hue

Listed at Shrimpton Couture right now is a 1940s ensemble that uses a variation of this infamous color and has been attributed to be a possible Schiaparelli, but without a label I have no way of knowing so is not listed as such.

It certainly looks the part!

It will be interesting to see where her pieces end up after this auction and if the current owner of the Schiaparelli name, Diego Della Valle, snatches up the more relevant pieces for the archives or if they will end up in the hands of museums or private collectors. Either way it will be an interesting auction to watch!


WendyB said...

The shoe hat is brilliant.

the paris apartment said...

Wonderful post! I'm a big fan and hadn't seen these.

Sandra @ Debutanteclothing.com said...

I am such a huge fan of Schiaparelli. She was such a dynamic designer and years ahead of her time. She was punk rock before punk rock was ever invented. I also would add that she was the first couture designer to use the zipper!!

a. said...

Great post - I am a big fan of Schiaparelli and now your blog!

Emilia Cross said...

WOW - what a wonderful, informative post!! i have recently discovered the incredible elsa schiaparelli and was delighted by your comprehensive bio & lovely garment pics. what an incredible lady - will definitely check out her autobiography.. thanks! xoxo

Emilia Cross said...


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