Schiaparelli & Surrealism

Elsa Schiaparelli, 1936

Just because I love Elsa Schiaparelli’s work so much, and because she’s recently been in the news I feel the need to do a small capsule overview of her work. New York Magaine’s Style blog recently repeated a rumor that Oliver Theyskens may be poised to revive the Schiaparelli label – possibly as soon as 2010. While the blogger for New York Magazine barely touched on the designers historical relevance and innovation, I feel it deserves much more attention. While the majority of WT readers will be familiar with the highlights of her career, I can’t help but take the opportunity to discuss this lifelong rival of Coco Chanel.

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973, Italian) was the most significant proponent of surrealism in fashion. She was well-known for her whimsical and surrealist designs especially for evening wear, dinner jackets, jewelry, millinery, shoes and accessories. Schiaparelli began her career designing modernist sportswear, most notably a knitted tromp l ‘oeil bowknot sweater in 1927.

1927 Sweater by Schiaparelli, Philadelphia Museum of Art

1927 Sweater by Schiaparelli, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Her signature color was ‘shocking pink’, and she was one of the first to use zippers in couture. From the very beginning Schiaparelli used surrealism in her surface design and notions, rather than in the cut of the garment. She also utilized gold and brightly colored cording, applique, beading and unusal buttons for her surrealist designs.

Dinner Jacket with insect buttons, 1938 (MET, CI)

Dinner Jacket with insect buttons, 1938 (MET, CI)

a Moire evening gown in Shocking Pink (Currently at Live Auction)

a Moire evening gown in Shocking Pink (Currently at Live Auction)

She collaborated with many surrealist artists, but especially with Salvador Dali. The tear dress below is inspired directly from a Dali painting and is a mourning gown which she designed just prior to WWII.

Tear Fabric dress Elsa Schiaparelli/ Salvador Dali Fabric, 1938 (V & A)

Tear Fabric dress Elsa Schiaparelli/ Salvador Dali Fabric, 1938 (V&A)

Detail from Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra, Salvador Dali, 1936

Detail from Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra, Salvador Dali, 1936

The lobster dress was also based on Dali’s work. For one of her highest profile clients, The Duchess of Windsor, Mrs. Wallis Simpson. Her other Clients included Elsie de Wolfe (also known as Lady Mendl).

Elsa Schiaparelli/Salvador Dali, 1936/7 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Elsa Schiaparelli/Salvador Dali, 1936/7 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Lobster Telephone, 1936 Salvador Dali (Tate Collection)

Lobster Telephone, 1936 Salvador Dali (Tate Collection)

In 1937, she also worked with Dali to design a hat in the shape of a high heel. This hat was based on a shoe that Perugia had previously designed for Schiaparelli’s collection. Perugia’s other designs for Schiaparelli included bizarre concoctions of leopard or monkey fur that made the shoes look as if they were wearing wigs. He also designed banded boots, and stretch shoes that eliminated the need for buckles or buttons.


Boots for Schiaparelli in Shocking Pink by Andre Perugia (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Boots for Schiaparelli in Shocking Pink by Andre Perugia (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

1937, Philadelphia Museum of Art

1937, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Monkey Fur Shoes, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Monkey Fur Shoes, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Though not limited to surrealist designs, it is often what she is most remembered for. She also designed using historical reference, such as bustles, puffled sleeves, and other Art Nouveau elements. Her Circus and Metamorphosis collections also expanded her repetoir to include fantastical and naturalistic elements. She also had a brief foray into theatrical design, creating costumes for Mae West in Every Day’s a Holiday and Zsa Zsa Gabor in Moulin Rouge.

February 15, 1934, Vogue, Cecil Beaton sketch of Schiaparelli (Blue) and Worth (Red) gowns.

February 15, 1934, Vogue, Cecil Beaton sketch of Schiaparelli (Blue) and Worth (Red) gowns.

Butterfly dress from Metamorphose collection (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Butterfly dress from Metamorphose collection (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Irving Penn photograph of a Schiaparelli bustled gown

Irving Penn photograph of a Schiaparelli bustled gown

Mae West in Every Day's a Holiday in a costume designed by Schiaparelli

Mae West in Every Day's a Holiday in a costume designed by Schiaparelli

Now, if you’re interested in the rest of the story, and want to see more of these beautiful designs, I highly suggest that you go out and get the best book available on the subject: Dilys Blum’s, Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli from 2003. Check Slate’s review here.

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10 Comments

  • shirley HAnick May 06, 2009 08.27 am

    If you are a lover of the Surrealist movement, Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) starting this week on Dali and the surrealists.. I too adore Schiap and have read extensively on her, visited her grave in Frucort France, have lectures about her and her perfume bottles and collect almost anythingabout her that I can get my hands on.

     
  • Heather Vaughan May 07, 2009 09.53 am

    Thanks for the heads up Shirley!

     
  • Beckie Pelkey May 12, 2009 03.16 pm

    One of my most prized possessions is a shocking pink hexagonal Schiaparelli hat box. I had the opportunity to purchase a full bottle of shocking perfume, too, but alas I was too broke. so sad.

     
  • Heather May 12, 2009 10.45 pm

    Thanks for the comment Beckie – let me know if you come across any other Schiap pieces!

     
  • Sandra May 17, 2009 12.08 am

    Heather,
    thank you for such a wonderful post. I love Schiaparelli. She is in the special, and very small, group of artists that was light years ahead of her time. Very few designers today have the artistic vision of Schiaparelli. I know they were rivals, but Chanel and Schiaparelli were really in completely different worlds. Thanks again.

     
  • Mona Chase May 19, 2009 02.27 pm

    This is the first time I’ve looked on any sights re: Schiap, but I was in San Francisco 23 years ago, and came across a hat that I had to have. Bought it on sight, it’s been tucked away in a box ever since. It’s a felt, leopard print DaDa hat. It’s fantastic.

     
  • Audrey September 12, 2009 06.41 am

    Shirley —
    you mentioned having been to Elsa’s grave – do you recall the name of the cemetery there in France?

     
  • Titina penzini January 05, 2011 08.31 pm

    I have a bottle of Sleeping and would love to know how much it is worth it was my grand mothers. Thank you!

     
  • Heather Vaughan January 07, 2011 06.27 pm

    Titina – I so wish I could help you with a value estimate. Unfortunately, that’s not something that members of Worn Through can do. I would encourage you to contact a nearby auction house for help (many have set aside days and times for the general public to bring in items for assessment). Best of luck and thank you for sharing with Worn Through!

     
  • Worn Through » Political Irony in Surrealist Fashion
    February 15, 2011 - 5:20 am

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