Designer shocked the world, changed fashion forever

Elsa Schiaparelli's daring clothing still seems out front to modern eyes

October 19, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

PHILADELPHIA -- To explore Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, a retrospective exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is to see the future as envisioned by a woman of instinctive genius.

Nearly every garment viewed on the street today has an antecedent in a Schiaparelli design, be it a dinner jacket, sport coat, trompe l'oeil sweater, pantsuit or a flowing summer frock.

If worn now, the couture of Schiaparelli, regarded as radical in the 1930s, would easily pass as au courant. Asymmetrical hemlines, zippers as design elements, extra-large or secret pockets, crinkly fabrics, severe silhouettes, outrageous head gear and other contemporary looks can be traced to Schiaparelli's fertile imagination.

And that ubiquitous shocking pink hue that vibrates off the pages of slick fashion magazines this season? It was the designer's signature color.

Whether your reference point is Japanese designer Issey Miyake, the punk aesthetic, nerd chic or Erykah Badu, "you just see all of the ideas were there in the 1930s and late 20s," says Dilys E. Blum, the museum's curator of costume and textiles. She spent five years researching the Schiaparelli show, which runs through January 4.

The exhibition draws on clothing donated in 1969 by Schiaparelli to the museum. Works also came from a large collection at the Musee de la Mode et du Textile in Paris (where the show opens in the spring) and other sources in the United States, Europe and Japan. Blum's exhaustive book, also titled Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, accompanies the show.

At a time when designers rarely qualified to become members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, the commission that determines which designers are eligible to be true haute couturieres, Schiaparelli was one of an exalted few, says Sass Brown, a faculty member of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "She's an exceptionally important designer," Brown says.

Sculptor of textiles

Her greatest gift lay in her ability to channel ideas, emotions and cultural currents into her work, while sustaining a keen sense of style. Politics, history, the arts, astrology, mythology, social trends and ethnic diversity all surfaced in her collections.

Schiaparelli was more artist than dressmaker. She worked with textiles as a sculptor might with clay, "in that she worked with the actual fabric, draping it on a live model and manipulating it into the desired effect," Blum writes.

In the fifth of her Twelve Commandments for Women developed for an American tour, Schiaparelli proclaimed: "Ninety percent are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say. So, they buy a gray suit. They should dare to be different." Women took up the challenge. By 1932, 400 Schiaparelli employees were producing seven to eight thousand garments in eight ateliers, Blum writes.

During her peak years, from 1935 until 1940, Schiaparelli left archrival Coco Chanel in the dust. At shows, her Paris salons overflowed with admirers. Schiaparelli's playful clothing was coveted by nobility, socialites and performers such as Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. Season after season, Vogue, Women's Wear Daily and other fashion publications waxed ecstatic over Schiaparelli's designs.

Offered in upscale department stores in the United States, Schiaparelli's couture was wildly popular among an affluent clientele there as well. While she used innovative fabrics, including a rippled rayon she called "treebark," Schiaparelli's modern designs were easy to re-create and were widely copied by home dressmakers from patterns made available by women's magazines and department stores. Cheap knockoffs, to the designer's dismay, abounded as well.

Schiaparelli is perhaps best known for her collaborations with artists Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. "Dali's Surrealist painting Anthropomorphic Cabinet was revisited as the drawer-like pockets on a Schiaparelli suit, while Cocteau's genius for expressing form with a single line revealed itself as a woman's face embroidered on one of her dinner jackets," Blum writes. These garments, the curator notes, "became Surrealist objects themselves."

Blum argues that Schiaparelli's designs weren't "derivative" as some historians maintain. She pulled from the same zeitgeist as artists Dali, Cocteau, Man Ray, Meret Oppenheim and "was equal to any of the artists of the period," she says.

Lacked formal training

Schiaparelli was born in Rome in 1890 to an intellectual, upper-middle class family in which she was the resident rebel, Blum writes. Her father was a scholar of Arabic and Islamic languages and literature, and her mother was a great beauty with a critical eye. Later, according to Blum, Schiaparelli would remember "dressing up in bustled gowns stored in a trunk in the attic."

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