How Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli Changed the Face of Fashion
This article is a part of our Uncommon Creators series that highlights unique and exceptional artists, designers, and creators who are pushing boundaries and innovating their fields.
Born in 1890, Elsa Schiaparelli was one of the most original and eccentric fashion designers of the early 20th century. Her work finds the intersection of surrealism and fashion, evident in her iconic avant-garde designs that challenged the traditional notions of beauty and femininity.
A contemporary of Coco Chanel, Schiaparelli’s designs were a stark contrast to the fashion house. Where Chanel favored classic silhouettes that perfectly fit into the confines of traditional society, Schiaparelli’s pieces were manifestations of her wild imagination, bringing daring, dream-like designs into our waking lives.
While she was the first woman designer to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1934, her profound contribution to the evolution of fashion as we know it is often overlooked.
Surrealism in Fashion: Elsa Schiaparelli’s Iconic Designs
Schiaparelli’s most iconic design is undoubtedly the “lobster dress” inspired by surrealist painter Salvadore Dali and his art series of lobster telephones. Dali drew the initial lobster motif which was then printed onto the silk organza dress by master silk designer Sache. It was first worn by Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, who was known for her own eccentric sense of style. The dress was ahead of its time, blurring the lines between art and fashion in the midst of the Surrealist movement.
Iconic Shoe Hat, 1937 and Tears Dress, 1938
Schiaparelli is also known for her “shoe hat,” a hat in the shape of an upside down highheel. The piece was also designed in collaboration with Salvador Dali who was inspired by a photograph of himself wearing his wife’s slipper on his head. The collaboration between Schiaparelli and Dali brought to life other iconic pieces including the Tears Dress inspired by Dali’s paintings and the skeleton dress which explores the human skeletal form often depicted in Dali’s works around this time.
Skeleton Dress, 1938
Schiaparelli and “Shocking Pink”
Just as Schiaparelli pushed the boundaries of fashion, she was one of the first designers to embrace a signature color. Before Barbiecore pink ever set foot on runways, Schiaparelli introduced a hot pink hue known as “shocking pink” that became synonymous with the brand. Historically, only delicate shades of pink were associated with feminity in fashion, made popular in the 1700s by members of the French court.
With the unabashedly brash hue redefining fashion, “shocking pink” became the color du jour of the couture crowd in the late ’30s and ’40s.
Zsa Zsa Gabor was styled in “shocking pink” in the 1952 film Moulin Rouge, and most notably, Marilyn Monroe stunned audiences in a “shocking pink” strapless gown in the iconic 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The Zodiac Collection
The predecessor to whimsigothic fashion, our favorite designs of Schiaparelli include the Zodiac Collection launched in 1938. This collection featured ornate designs inspired by astrological signs and celestial elements.
From garments embroidered with planets and the big dipper (Schiaparelli’s good luck emblem) to evening capes featuring lavishly beaded designs of the Greek God Apollo, this whimsical collection includes some of the most distinguished designs of the 20th century.
While the Zodiac Collection is mainly rooted in overt celestial themes with whimsical undertones, Schiaparelli also draws inspiration from the lavishness of the Palace of Versaille with the “Hall of Mirrors Jacket.” The jacket features two panels of mirrored mosaics across the breast in reference to the royal château’s ‘Galerie des Glaces’ which features 21 mirrors throughout its gilded halls.
Schiaparelli’s Unusual Accessories
Elsa Schiaparelli was also known for her unusual buttons and gloves.
While her buttons ranged from quirky designs resembling playing cards to crickets, she also designed gloves with snakeskin fingernails to replicate human hands.
Schiaparelli designed these gloves drawing inspiration from a Man Ray photograph where Picasso painted a woman’s hands to create the illusion of gloves.
A Series of “Firsts” in Fashion: Schiaparelli’s Practical Innovations
Not all of Schiaparelli’s innovations were purely fanciful. Schiaparelli also popularized the use of zippers in high fashion, as well as designed some of the first-ever separates for women. She was also one of the first designers to develop the wrap dress before Diane Von Furstenberg reinvented the iconic style in the 1970s.
With practical innovations also comes an ingenious design that mirrored the political times. During Prohibition, Schiaparelli designed her first evening dress with a jacket that included a hidden pocket for a flask, marrying playful creativity with practical design.
How Schiaparelli Changed the Face of Fashion
While Elsa Schiaparelli might not be a household name like Coco Chanel or Christian Dior, her impact on fashion is undeniable. Schiaparelli’s fearless approach to design helped pave the way for other avant-garde designers that would come after her. From her boundary-pushing collaborations with artists like Dali and Jean Cocteau to her innovative techniques and use of color, Schiaparelli changed the face of fashion forever. Most importantly, her designs challenged societal norms and the definition of feminity.
The Fate of the Schiaparelli Fashion House
The Schiaparelli fashion house closed in 1954. In 2014, under the leadership of creative director and designer Marco Zanini, the fashion house presented its first collection since it closed its doors. The label also reopened its boutique at 21 Place Vendôme in Paris, in the very same building Elsa Schiaparelli showcased her collections in the 30s and 40s.
Today, Texas-born designer Daniel Roseberry is the creative director for the label, the first American to head a French couture house. The label’s collections are imbued with the spirit of Elsa Schiaparelli, paying homage to her avant-garde designs and surrealist elements.
“Shocking! The Surreal Worlds of Elsa Schiaparelli” Exhibition in Paris
Elsa Schiaparelli’s work is on display at The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris with a six-month exhibition showcasing some of the designer’s most iconic pieces. Spanning all decades of the house, the exhibition includes collaborations with Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dalí, as well as more recent designs by Creative Director Daniel Roseberry.