Lobster print dress

PHILADELPHIA (WOMENSENEWS)–Elsa Schiaparelli’s inaugural foray into fashion design was ill-fated, to say the least. Preparing for her first Paris ball, she draped herself in blue crepe de Chine and orange silk and fastened the outfit together with pins. Then, according to her 1954 memoir, “Shocking Life,” the pins gave way during a tango and her partner had to dance her discreetly off the floor.

From this inauspicious start sprang anextraordinary career that defined fashion in the1930s and beyond and helped shape the image of the active modern woman.

More artist than artisan, Schiaparelli was born in 1890, lived until 1973 and never did learn to sew. Yet the Rome native became famous for designing clothes for versatility and practicality.

Celebrated examples include the divided skirt worn in 1931 by Spanish tennis champion Lili d’Alvarez, denounced by British commentators as “unfeminine,” and a wardrobe for aviator Amy Mollison’s 1936 solo flight from England to Cape Town, South Africa, that featured a blue woolen suit and matching topcoat for the cold, a silk toile suit for the Sahara and a white crepe gown with a black cape for evening.

Schiaparelli’s designs–such as a lobster print dress she created with Salvador Dali and a harlequin coat inspired by the work of surrealist painter and photographer Man Ray–borrowed from and influenced the international avant-garde. The breadth of her achievement is highlighted in a major retrospective of her work that opened Sept. 28 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and runs through Jan. 4.

Escaping Tyranny of Prettiness

Dilys E. Blum, curator of costume and textiles at the museum and the show’s curator, says Schiaparelli’s fashions were so striking that they freed women from the tyranny of prettiness.

“She gave women a sense of identity,” Blum says. “You looked great in her clothes no matter what you looked like. You no longer had to be pretty. You could be fashionable and chic and unconventional-looking.”

Schiaparelli encouraged others to copy her couture fashions and that helped bring her work to a wider audience, in both Europe and America. “She started a business that grew into an empire,” Blum says.

Titled “Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli,” the exhibition for the first time unites the Philadelphia museum’s Schiaparelli collection, donated by the designer herself in 1969, with that of the Musee de la Mode et du Textile in Paris, where the show will travel in March. It complements chronologically displayed clothing–mostly the original model designs–with accessories, drawings, photographs and film clips showing her creations worn by such actors as Wendy Hiller in “Pygmalion” in 1938 and Zsa Zsa Gabor in “Moulin Rouge” in 1952.

Schiaparelli’s first coup, in 1927, was a series of hand-knit sweaters with both abstract and trompe l’oeil, or eye-fooling, designs of bows, cuffs and collars that are astonishingly contemporary-looking today. She quickly became known for her use of new and unusual materials, for eschewing buttons for clips and zippers, and for wraparound dresses that conformed to the body. She gave Joan Crawford padded shoulders and dressed personalities as diverse as the Duchess of Windsor and Katharine Hepburn.

She began by working as a freelance designer for small Paris fashion houses and then was briefly employed by Maison Lambal. She launched her first collection, the sweaters, in January 1927 from her apartment, but at the end of the year moved to larger headquarters.

In the mid-1930s, Schiaparelli’s collections grew increasingly flamboyant, embracing vibrant colors (including her signature “shocking” pink) and riffing on the themes of metamorphosis, carnival, music and the stars. (Schiaparelli’s uncle was the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, known for his observations of Mars and comets.) Blum argues that Schiaparelli “had a much more symbiotic relationship” with the Surrealist movement than has been recognized, influencing and collaborating with friends such as Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau, the French author, filmmaker and artist.

Schiaparelli, who had a brief, unhappy marriage and raised a daughter, spent most of the war years in the United States, in New York and Princeton, N.J. By the time she returned to France, to a home that once belonged to Napoleon’s sister, her work was no longer viewed as cutting-edge. The exhibition’s poignant final image is a collage by artist-illustrator Marcel Vertes showing Schiaparelli designs set in a terrain populated by dinosaurs. Schiaparelli went bankrupt in 1954, just as her arch rival, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, was making a comeback.

The audio tour accompanying the show is narrated by Schiaparelli’s granddaughter, the actress Marisa Berenson, who says that the young Elsa was frequently told that she was ugly. Blum suggests that her fashion career was, in part, an attempt at personal transformation.

Another view of Schiaparelli emerges from a 1960 interview with Charles Collingwood, in which the designer laments the decline of elegance and suggests that women have “become stronger and stronger, but I don’t think happier.” The exhibition also showcases her “Twelve Commandments for Women,” which advise women to “dare to be different” and to “buy little and only of the best or the cheapest.” The final commandment: “And she should pay her bills.”

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.

For more information:

Philadelphia Museum of Art–
“Shocking!” The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli: