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Inside the Life of Iconic Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli

Schiaparellis ultimate surrealistic joke: A shoe turned upside down makes a hat. This one is black felt. Salvador Dali designed textile prints for Schiaparelli.
The trompe loeil torn-cloth design is echoed in the cut, linked, and reverse-appliquéd veil.
Schiaparelli turned writer Jean Cocteaus 1937 drawing into a linen dinner jacket, which was embroidered by Maison Lesage in gilded metallic thread, beads, and paillettes.
Schiaparellis ultimate surrealistic joke: A shoe turned upside down makes a hat. This one is black felt. Salvador Dali designed textile prints for Schiaparelli.

Schiaparelli's ultimate surrealistic joke: A shoe turned upside down makes a hat. This one is black felt. Salvador Dali designed textile prints for Schiaparelli.

Photo: Michele Russell Slavinsky

This detailed and fascinating account of Elsa Schiaparelli's life first appeared in "Born to Shock," by Ilya Sandra Perlingieri, Designer Techniques Vol. 1. Designer Techniques Vol. 2 is now available for purchase.

In the 1920s and '30s, Elsa Schiaparelli blazed a new trail in fashion. She was an iconoclast, spirited and innovative. Despite her lack of training in sewing or design, Schiaparelli set off shock waves that are still being felt more than 100 years after her birth. Elsa Schiaparelli (skap-a-rell-ee) entered the fashion world in the '20s through a chance shipboard meeting with Gaby Picabia, who knew the great French designer Paul Poiret. Poiret's luxurious designs (many lavishly embroidered) were the epitome of what the "new woman" of the early 20th century wore. Inspired by Oriental opulence and his passion for the theater and ballet, Poiret designed loose and flowing styles: swirling turbans with sprays of feathers, high waistlines, kimono tunics, harem pants, and hobble skirts. He created a look that was the complete opposite of the tightly corseted hourglass figure of 1900.

The Right Place, the Right Time
Schiaparelli's combination of luck and talent was enhanced by the cultural and economic climate of Paris in the '20s. She was at the center of the artistic explosion that had started at the turn of the century; she could tap the imagination and skill of many Parisian avantgarde artists.

Where art had been staid and artists complacent, now there was an electricity in the air. Dada and surrealist artists were challenging the status quo. Often, they were out to shock-a word that became synonymous with Schiaparelli. The Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925 in Paris gave the name Art Deco to a design style characterized by bold, streamlined, rectilinear forms and the extensive use of plastic. Surrealism, a juxtaposing of ordinary, everyday images in an unnatural way to create fantastic effects, began as a literary movement; then, through painters and other artists, it gradually became part of the new direction in fashion.

Schiaparelli's ties to the surrealists opened haute couture to enormous possibilities. Surrealist painter and Dada exponent Man Ray, who did much of Schiaparelli's photography, got his start in fashion photography with Paul Poiret. A 1927 bra advertisement sums up his surreal approach: The classical Greek statue of Venus de Milo is juxtaposed with the half torso of a mannequin displaying the commercial product. Fashion photographer Horst P. Horst, with whom Schiaparelli also worked (photo on facing page), often included trompe l'oeil effects (optical illusions on flat, painted surfaces that fool the eye into seeing great depth) in his photos and considered his work "done in the spirit of fun." Eventually Schiaparelli would commission Raoul Dufy, Salvador Dali, artist-writer Jean Cocteau, and Marcel Vertès to design prints for her well before designer prints were common.

By surrounding herself with the best artists, Schiaparelli was able to combine their talents with her own innovative fashion ideas. Even the great Balenciaga said "Schiaparelli was the only true artist in Fashion." She was also in the right place at the right time.

First Designs
Women of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties were looking at new directions for their careers and clothing as more options opened to them. They were tired of the simple, boyish look of the early '20s. And, despite (or because of) the stock-market crash of 1929 and the subsequent gathering war clouds in the early '30s, women were abandoning themselves to frivolity in fashion. Two fashion designers led the way: Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel.

  Schiaparelli had a real sense of  fun and an unconventional approach to embroidery. Artist Jean Cocteau designed this visual pun profiles-and-urn motif for her 1937 blue rayon and silk-jersey coat. The embroidery, by Maison Lesage, is in couched metallic gold threads, satin-stitched details, and appliquéd pink silk roses, which are folded and taked.


Chanel's styles were simple and elegant, yet they were practical with a masculine cut. She did much to promote the New Sportswear look that she'd helped create.

Schiaparelli, on the other hand, approached fashion playfully. In 1927, she showed her first handmade sweaters. They had Art Deco designs with matching jewelry and accessories. These custom-made knits used a new stretch-wool fiber, which, when knit, hugged the figure. Some of the sweaters had metallic threads worked into the designs for a sparkly effect.

Essential to the success of these sweaters was Schiaparelli's discovery of Aroosiag Mikaëlian, an Armenian refugee, who did spectacular knitting. Schiaparelli hired her "temporarily," and together they devised a technique of knitting with two colors to give a trompe l'oeil effect. The first design "Mike" did for Schiaparelli was a black sweater with a large white scarf worked around the neck and bow-knotted in front. She followed these with sweaters with knit-in images of handkerchiefs, ties, buckles, and belts. Next, Schiaparelli ventured to shock her customers by knitting a skeleton into a sweater design. It did shock, but it sold- and was a precursor of today's punk.

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