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‘Or give me a new Muse with stockings and suspenders
And a smile like a cat
With false eyelashes and finger-nails of carmine
And dressed by Schiaparelli, with a pill-box hat.’
from Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice
Once upon a time, (In the 1920’s) a young Italian beauty was invited to a ball in London. Sadly, she didn’t have a suitable gown. Undaunted, the young woman subbed in as her own fairy godmother. She bought some dark blue fabric, draped it, pinned it and off to the ball she went in an original, more than likely the original Schiaperelli gown. Of course the young woman was Elsa Schiaparelli, who became one of the leading fashion designers of the twentieth century.
Schiaparelli, Schiap’ as she became known among her friends, dressed Anita Loos, The Duchess of Windsor, and socialite Daisy Fellows (the Singer sewing machine heiress). She dressed many movie stars both on and off the screen, including Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson and Tallulah Bankhead. She costumed May West in the movie Every Day’s a Holiday and and Zha Zha Gabor in Moulin Rouge.
Even more interesting than the people she dressed are those she collaborated with, among them, surrealist Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, and scultptor Alberto Giacometti. Her connections with the art world ran deep, she served as an influence and was influenced by a number of the important schools of her era, notably surrealism and cubism. . Her rival Coco Chanel refered to Elsa Schiaparelli as “that artist who makes clothes.” Salvador Dali designed the fabric for her Lobster Dress which was worn by Wallis Simpson and photographed by Cecil Beaton. Dali was influential in a number of Schiaparelli’s more avant garde designs such as the Tears Dress and the Skeleton Dress.
One of the most beautiful examples of artistic collaboration is with the French artist, poet and film maker Jean Cocteau. Cocteau produced two drawings for Schiaparelli which were translated into designs for a jacket and this evening coat for the Autumn 1937 collection.
That same year, Schiaparelli’s Fall-Winter 1937-38 collection featured a hat shaped like a woman’s high heeled shoe, with the heel standing straight up and the toe tilted over the wearer’s forehead.Her hats continued to be witty and fascinating; one with a hen in a nest was on the cover of VOGUE in 1938.
Schiaparelli loved color and used it in eccentric combinations. Often she slashed somber ensembles with a vibrant hue, for example, a simple black dress worn with crimson stockings or a lime green jacket. She is the recognized mother of “shocking pink”, the hot pink hue that became associated with the house of Schiaparelli. She was the first to use shoulder pads, animal print fabrics, and zippers dyed the same colors as the fabrics.
Polly Singer Couture Hats and Veils boasts two Schiaparelli hats in the archive. (Unfortunately, these hats are not offered for sale.) Arabesque is an example of a hat perfectly made to electrify a monochromatic ensemble. A vivid cerelean blue, this striking hat is more than capable of lighting up a little black dress or charcoal suit. Elsa is a beautifully sculpted hat in one of the classic Schiaparelli animal prints. Both pieces exemplify design gambits that are purely Schiap.
How much fun would it be to face the wintery winds in a Schiap’? I’m reminded of a character in Nancy Mitford’s novel Love in a Cold Climate (If you haven’t read this, you’re in for a treat!). The character, Fanny, wanted to wear the Schiaparelli label on the outside of a jacket “so that people would know where it came from”.
Elsa Schiaparelli died in 1973. She was buried wrapped in a chinese robe of shocking pink silk.
Jan Masters Yon