Elsa Schiaparelli : biography
Schiaparelli designed the wardrobe for several films, starting with the French version of 1933’s Topaze, and ending with Zsa Zsa Gabor’s outfits for the 1952 biopic of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge in which Gabor played Jane Avril. Moulin Rouge won Marcel Vertès an Academy Award for Costume Design, although Schiaparelli’s role in costuming the leading lady went unacknowledged beyond a prominent on-screen credit for Gabor’s costumes. Authentically, Gabor’s costumes were directly based upon Toulouse-Lautrec’s portraits of Avril. in the collection of the V&A
She famously dressed Mae West for Every Day’s a Holiday (1937) using a mannequin based on West’s measurements, which inspired the torso bottle for Shocking perfume.
The failure of her business meant that Schiaparelli’s name is not as well remembered as that of her great rival Chanel. But in 1934, Time placed Chanel in the second division of fashion, whereas Schiaparelli was one of "a handful of houses now at or near the peak of their power as arbiters of the ultra-modern haute couture….Madder and more original than most of her contemporaries, Mme Schiaparelli is the one to whom the word "genius" is applied most often". At the same time Time recognised that Chanel had assembled a fortune of some US$15m despite being "not at present the most dominant influence in fashion", whereas Schiaparelli relied on inspiration rather than craftsmanship and "it was not long before every little dress factory in Manhattan had copied them and from New York’s 3rd Avenue to San Francisco’s Howard Street millions of shop girls who had never heard of Schiaparelli were proudly wearing her models".
Perhaps Schiaparelli’s most important legacy was in bringing to fashion the playfulness and sense of "anything goes" of the Dada and Surrealist movements. She loved to play with juxtapositions of colours, shapes and textures, and embraced the new technologies and materials of the time. With Charles Colcombet she experimented with acrylic, cellophane, a rayon jersey called "Jersela" and a rayon with metal threads called "Fildifer" – the first time synthetic materials were used in couture. Some of these innovations were not pursued further, like her 1934 "glass" cape made from Rhodophane, a transparent plastic related to cellophane. But there were more lasting innovations; Schiaparelli created wraparound dresses decades before Diane von Furstenberg and crumpled up rayon 50 years before Issey Miyake’s pleats and crinkles. In 1930 alone she created the first evening-dress with a jacket, and the first clothes with visible zippers. In fact fastenings were something of a speciality, from a jacket buttoned with silver tambourines to one with silk-covered carrots and cauliflowers.
- "Shocking!" The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (September 2003-January 2004) and the Museé de la Mode, Paris (March–August 2004).
- Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations; The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (May–August 2012)
In Paris, Schiaparelli – known as "Schiap" to her friends – began making her own clothes. With some encouragement from Paul Poiret, she started her own business but it closed in 1926 despite favourable reviews. She launched a new collection of knitwear in early 1927 using a special double layered stitch created by Armenian refugees and featuring sweaters with surrealist trompe l’oeil images. Although her first designs appeared in Vogue, the business really took off with a pattern that gave the impression of a scarf wrapped around the wearer’s neck. The "pour le Sport" collection expanded the following year to include bathing suits, ski-wear, and linen dresses. The divided skirt, a forerunner of shorts, shocked the tennis world when worn by Lili de Alvarez at Wimbledon in 1931. She added evening wear to the collection in 1931, using the luxury silks of Robert Perrier, and the business went from strength to strength, culminating in a move from Rue de la Paix to acquiring the renowned salon of Madeleine Chéruit at 21 Place Vendôme, nicknamed the Schiap Shop.Maison Robert Perrier (Fédération Nationale du Tissu). 2000. Exhibit. Mairie du 4e arrondissement de Paris, Paris.