We as ladies are all too familiar with the ongoing closet stare down. We wake up from our night of beauty rest, shower, then it is off to battle. For most of us, picking an outfit is quite a task. Staring blankly into the closet while mentally going over every piece of clothing we own is mandatory before choosing a worthy ensemble. Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli did not have this problem. The lady had style and what effortless style it was.
Elsa entered life in the lap of luxury. She was born September 10, 1890 at the Palazzo Corsini, a prestigious palace erected by the Corsini royal family between 1730 and 1740. Talk about a silver spoon! Her father Celestino was dean of the University of Rome and a scholar on the historical Indo-Aryan language of Sanskrit. Elsa’s uncle Giovanni Schiaparelli was the astronomer who discovered the canali of Mars. Fully loaded, borderline geniuses, and Italian accents = destined for greatness.
“Fashion is born by small facts, trends, or even politics, never by trying to make little pleats and furbelows, by trinkets, by clothes easy to copy, or by the shortening or lengthening of a skirt.”
Elsa’s intelligence via family genetics landed her a spot as a Philosophy student at the University of Rome. While enrolled she spent her free time writing and eventually published a book of sensual poems that shocked the family. Thanks to her ungodly actions she was sent to a convent. Her rebellion continued once at the convent and she protested by going on a hunger strike. At 22 Elsa left the convent and moved to London to work as a nanny.
Elsa hoped London would serve as the backdrop for the beginning of her new life. En route to London she was invited to a ball in Paris. Without a gown and time to go shopping, Elsa had to improvise. She bought dark blue fabric, wrapped it around her, and pinned it. The first Schiaparelli gown came to life! Instead of designing, Elsa spent her time in London at museums and lectures. She even married one of her lecturers. She became Mrs. Count William de Wendt de Kerlor. Try fitting that on a clothing label.
Elsa Schiaparelli’s fairy tale lifestyle continued. She and her husband moved to New York City in 1921. She became pregnant and her husband was long gone by the time their daughter was born. Loser. She named their daughter Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha de Wendt de Kerlor (nicknamed Gogo Schiaparelli) and little Maria would grow up to be a noted socialite with a social contact list as long as her legal name.
Elsa’s fashion career really kicked off when she later met Gaby Picabia who owned a boutique selling French fashion in New York City. Through Gaby, Elsa met other fashion royalty and artists. Elsa, Gaby and friends later moved to Paris.
In Paris, ‘Schiap’ began making her own clothes and started her own business. Unfortunately, in 1926 it flopped. She tried her hand at fashion again a year later. She released a line of knitted clothing that was made using a stitch used by Armenian refugees. The designs from the first shop gained recognition and ended up on the pages of Vogue. With such a boost, business began to boom. The “Pour le Sport” line expanded and eventually included sweaters, bathing suits, skiwear, and linen dresses. One of the skirts made it mainstream when it was worn by Lili de Alvarez at the 1931 Wimbledon.
Elsa Schiaparelli’s designs were intended for the modern woman. She had close relationships with people in other realms of the artistic community and these connections impacted her designs. Throughout her career she collaborated with Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacometti, and Marcel Vertes. Schiaparelli’s reach also extended to the film world. Her designed were featured in over thirty motion pictures. She designed Zsa Zsa Gabor’s outfits for the 1952 production of “Moulin Rouge” and Mae West’s outfits for 1937’s “Every Day’s A Holiday” for Pete’s sake!
While writing and researching I constantly asked myself why Elsa Schiparelli isn’t a household name. Well, she had a nice rival at the time. Does the name Chanel ring a bell? Yes, Schiaparelli and Chanel were both designing at the same time. Chanel wasn’t outshining Schiaparelli altogether. A 1934 issue of “Time” listed Elsa’s shop as “a handful of houses now at or near the peak of their power as arbiters of the ultra-modern haute couture….Madder and more original than most of her contemporaries, Mme Schiaparelli is the one to whom the word “genius” is applied most often.” Nice job Elsa! The thing that made her designs so amazing (outside of the design itself) is the fact that Elsa wasn’t afraid to take risks. She was the first to use shoulder pads, hot pink, animal prints, zippers dyed the same color as the fabrics, acrylic, cellophane, and rayon. She was the first to use synthetic materials in couture – and changed the game! She designed wrap around dresses decades before Diane von Furstenberg and crumpled rayon 50 years before Issey Miyake. The year of 1930 brought two of Elsa’s greatest “inventions”: an evening dress with a jacket and the invisible zipper.
Elsa Schiaparelli lived a long, comfortable, and productive life. She was a pioneer of high quality fashion and a true risk taker. Thankfully she was able to publish her autobiography “Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli” before she died at the age of 83.
All in all Elsa Schiaparelli was a dominating figure in all she decided to attempt. Did this lady have a glamorous magic wand or something? Her designs, family, and attitude are all well respected to this day and she has impacted us all in some way. Maybe it’s the DVF wrap around dress you own, the hot pink paint on you walls, or the invisible zipper on your jeans. Just know what we wear today is ultimately an Elsa Schiaparelli design and her 12 Commandments are words to live by!
Elsa’s 12 Commandments
1. Since most women do not know themselves they should try to do so.
2. A woman who buys an expensive dress and changes it, often with disastrous result, is extravagant and foolish.
3. Most women (and men) are color-blind. They should ask for suggestions.
4. Remember-twenty percent of women have inferiority complexes. Seventy percent have illusions.
5. Ninety percent are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say. So they buy a gray suit. They should dare to be different.
6. Women should listen and ask for competent criticism and advice.
7. They should choose their clothes alone or in the company of a man.
8. They should never shop with another woman, who sometimes consciously or unconsciously, is apt to be jealous.
9. She should buy little and only of the best or cheapest.
10. Never fit a dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress.
11. A woman should buy mostly in one place where she is known and respected, and not rush around trying every new fad.
12. And she should pay her bills.
- Art HERstory: Met Museum Presents Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada: On Fashion
- Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection Finds New Home at the Met
- Frida Kahlo’s Studio by Elsa Mora
- Art HERstory: The Year in Review ’09
- Hats: An Anthology by Stephen Jones at the Bard Graduate Center