Elsa Schiaparelli, Vintage Designer History

This is the first, of what I would like to turn into a series of posts, all about the influential designers of the past. Elsa Schiaparelli has been credited with influencing designers such as Gaultier, Galliano, Kenzo, and Issey Miyake just to name a few. I decided to start with Elsa because, although I have often heard her name mentioned, I never really knew that much about her and I decided to do a bit of research to discover who this woman was and why she was once considered to be Coco Chanel’s greatest rival.

Born in Rome in 1890, Elsa Schiaparelli did not get started in the fashion world until she was in her late 20′s when she was living in Paris. A simple sweater with a bow detail knitted onto the neckline was her first design and it proved to be so popular, she followed it up with a knitwear collection that was featured in Vouge in 1927. The following year she designed a line of sport- wear that was aimed at the kind of women she had seen in america. It was a huge hit, solidifying when her divided skirt was worn by the tennis champion Lili De Alvarez at Wimbledon in 1931. In 1933, Elsa designed her first long evening gown, again it was a massive success and the design itself was copied worldwide. This ultimately was not a good thing, as her dresses were too easily copied and it was then she decided to combine her love of art with her fashion designs to create more daring and complex designs.

She collaborated with her artist friends such as Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali. She her gave her collections wild names like Stop,Look and Listen, Music, Circus, Butterflies, Commedia del l’Arte, Astrology and Cash and Carry. She turned each show into a walking art exhibit, the press called her a genius and everyone loved her for her creativity, courage, and uniqueness.

Some of her most wild designs were a result of her collaborations with Dali, the shoe hat, the telephone bag, the skeleton dress, the lobster dress and the tear dress,which was an evening gown 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. The print was intended to give the illusion of torn animal flesh, the tears printed to represent fur on the reverse of the fabric and suggest that the dress was made of animal pelts turned inside out. If I didn’t know any better I would say Lady Gaga could indeed have been looking to her for inspiration on some of her latest ensembles.

She also had her trademark color, which was called shocking pink, and used it in absolutely everything, lipsticks, wrappings and all her clothing lines . In 1938 she launched her own perfume called shocking. The bottle was modeled on a tailors dummy, that had actually been modeled on the measurements of Mae West and it was this design that Jean Paul Gaultier used for his own fragrance debut in 1993.

Elsa designed costumes for much of Hollywood including actresses such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mae West, Katherine Hepburn, the duchess of Windsor was also a huge fan. Elsa was one of, if not the actual first, to use shoulder pads, colored zippers, back-less swim suits, turbans, the wedge shoe and buttons that looked like anything but a button. Aspirins were strung together as necklaces and plastic beetles, bees and crickets were used as costume jewelry.

In 1941 Elsa went to the United States to escape the war and when she returned to France in 1945 her popularity had seriously waned. Unwilling to curb her imagination for economical reasons she continued to design with all her usual flair and frivolities, but her post war designs didnt suit the times and by 1954 she had retired from being a fashion designer. Ironically this was the very same year that Coco Chanel returned to Paris after being away for 15 years. They were rumored to be great enemies and it was said that Coco would not speak Elsa’s name and would only refer to her as “that Italian that made clothes” Elsa Schiaparelli passed away in 1973 but her influences in fashion are still very obvious today, even if you didnt know it until now.


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