Schiap” on Line

‘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

Little Black Dress


But when it’s time to be discreet
There’s one thing
you just can’t beat
And that’s a strapless backless classical little black dress
Richard Hartley, Shock Treatment

Audrey Hepburn knew it, as did Betty Boop and Edith Piaf. Clearly Mme. Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Madame X knew it; that is, the inestimable value of the Little Black Dress.

Thoughout the Edwardian and Victorian eras black as a choice for ladies’ apparel was reserved for those in full mourning. It was French fashion designer Coco Chanel who, in the 1920’s, established black as a fashion choice. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, a designer of great vision and practicality intended the black dress to be versatile, long lasting and available to the widest possible market. In 1926 Chanel published a picture of a short, simple black dress in Vogue. Vogue called it “Chanel’s Ford.” Like the Model T, the little black dress was simple and accessible for most social classes. As Vogue predicted variations on this simple black garment would become “a sort of uniform for all women of taste.”


Today the LBD, as it has become known, is considered essential to a complete wardrobe, and under dire conditions, say while traveling light, can be a complete wardrobe in itself. Living in New York as a busy and often broke young woman, I soon learned which garment would carry me from the office to the opera with very little fuss. One year I wore the same black dress to wedding receptions as on a night train journey across Kenya. It was simply a matter of exchanging pearls and heels for elephant hair bracelets and espadrilles.

The beauty of a sleek, well cut black dress is that it becomes a blank palette for the art of accessorizing. One of the best elements to play off of a black dress is a dramatic hat. Case in point, the simple black de Givenchy sheath worn with a wide brimmed hat by actress Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.

This spring All You Need is Love Hats and Veils was deluged by requests for black hats. Ascot 2008 proved so popular that the design was temporarily removed from the collection for fear that every third woman at the Derby might be wearing the same hat. Like an elegant black dress, a black hat provides the perfect back-drop for color and trim. This Derby season, commentator Nancy Cox wore Blithe Spirit, a dramatic black hat banked in yellow silk roses. Our own First Lady Jane Beshear chose a small black hat trimmed in robin’s egg blue.

Dress it up or dress it down The Little Black dress is the work horse of a wardrobe. As Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, once said, “When a little black dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place.”

by Jan Masters Yon