Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973), or Schiap, as she liked to be known, produced clothes that were not just beautiful, but whimsical and interesting. She believed that clothes should be architectural; “that the body must never be forgotten and it must be used as a frame is used in a building”. Construction was always of prime importance.
Schiaparelli loved unusual fabrics, often choosing textured weaves, cloth made from glass, specially commissioned prints or Highland tweeds. She would mix black boucle wool (more normally worn for day) with sequins for evening. Her clothes often had feature buttons made of precious metals, designed by her friend Jean Schlumberger, or of moulded leather, composition, celluloid or glass. Embroidery by Lesage, the specialist Paris couture house, provided the finishing touches to sumptuous evening capes, jackets and dresses.
High-collared evening jacket, circa 1930s.
This iconic designer loved to shock. Indeed, her first perfume was called ‘Shocking’, her favourite colour was shocking pink and she was one of the first exponents of culottes; trousers which caused a furore when she introduced them in 1935. “They were graceful and feminine and to my mind, much more modest than skirts” she said.
One of the first designers to present themed collections, Schiaparelli’s collections had strong inspirations; the stars in the night sky, a visit to a circus, or watching the Commedia del Arte harlequins perform. She was also the first to open a boutique alongside her couture salon, selling fashion separates, perfume, accessories and costume jewellery. Much to the disgust of her rival, Coco Chanel, Schiaparelli wrote that “Dress designing is to me not a profession, but an art”.
Embroidered by founders of Maison Lesage, Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage, the midnight-blue velvet ‘zodiac jacket’, originally produced as part of Schiaparelli’s fall 1938 collection, brings the charisma of the whole Universe right in to the closet. With embroidered stars, planets and all the 12 zodiac signs, this garment is embellished with gold thread and star-shaped beads. The jacket also glitters with glass shooting stars, complete with embroidered comet tails. Edged with rhinestones and crimped with metal strip, it is also sprinkled with minuscule glass bugle beaded stardust. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most beautiful of all Schiaparelli’s creations and is still highly sought after-today, having been sold by Kerry Taylor auctions, London in 2013 for £110,000.
Moving between Rome, New York and Paris in the 1920s, Schiaparelli was influenced by surrealism and collaborated on some of her major collections with Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. This resulted in hats shaped like telephones, organza dresses printed with lobsters and jackets and coats embroidered with tromp l’oeil faces and figures. These designs are now are among the most valuable and desirable pieces of 20th century haute couture. The clothes of Elsa Schiaparelli are magical, clever and beautiful and she is rightly regarded as one of the greatest designers of the 20th century.
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