By Jean Marie Carey

Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli was born 10 September 1890 in Rome. Her biography is as vivid as the shade of shocking pink long associated with her name. During the 1930s, her Paris atelier was a trendsetting hub frequented by socialites, film stars, artists, and her friend and artistic collaborator Jean Cocteau. With almost no formal training in the visual arts or the business of fashion, Schiaparelli managed to create a multimillion-dollar business with collections that set new directions for 20th century women’s wear. Knit separates, shoulder pads, and even neon colors are all part of her legacy.

On her mother’s side Schiaparelli was descended from the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, among the most influential statesmen and religious leaders of Renaissance and Baroque-era Italy. Schiaparelli’s father a scholar of Arabic and Sansrkit cultures and served as dean at the University of Rome.

Schiaparelli was rebellious from an early age and tried various schemes to live independently as an artist. At 21 she managed to have a book of love poetry published, titled Arethusa.

She began her fashion house in small rented rooms on the Rue de la Paix in Paris in early 1927. Her collection of hand-knit sweaters made an appearance in the February issue of Vogue. The House of Schiaparelli was an instant success and catapulted its head designer quite suddenly into the upper echelons of Paris fashion. Within a few short years she employed 400 knitters and seamstresses at her atelier. Incessant in her quest to innovate, she was also skilled at courting publicity for her company. When she visited England on a tweed-buying trip in 1930, she appeared in public in one of her own designs, a pair of loose-fitting divided pants that resembled a skirt from a distance. These were culottes, and Schiaparelli convinced a Spanish tennis champion, Lili de Alvarez, to wear them for her 1931 appearance at the famously formal Wimbledon tournament.

Schiaparelli introduced her first fragrance, “S,” in 1928, but her most memorable was called “Shocking!” at its launch in 1937. Its bottle was shaped like a woman’s torso and had been created for the company by the artist Leonor Fini. Gala Dali wife snapped a photograph of Salvador Dali wearing one of Schiaparelli’s slippers on his head, which gave Schiaparelli the idea for the famous shoe hat, a head covering that cleverly resembled an upside-down woman’s pump.

Schiaparelli returned to Paris in 1945, having spent the war years in New York City. Tastes had changed, and Schiaparelli’s quirky shapes failed to catch on with buyers. In 1954 she was forced to file for bankruptcy, and lived the next 19 years remembered little more than as an eccentric footnote to interwar fashion. She died in Paris on 13 November 1973, at age 83 after a stroke and several weeks in a coma.

Reference: “Elsa Schiaparelli.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, vol. 34, Gale, 2014. Biography in Context, .

Day Suit, 1938-1939. Cotton, ceramic; “shocking pink” textured novelty weave; ceramic mermaid ornament. The color of this suit, Schiaparelli’s signature, was dubbed thus because it represented her desire to shock those around her with her unique and sometimes avant-garde designs. Her goal was to design clothing and accessories that possessed an artistic aesthetic, rather than the more conventional idea of fashion and beauty. The textural novelty weave Schiaparelli used is an example of her propensity to use interesting fabrics to enliven a simple silhouette. The quirky mermaid ornament is typical of her sense of whimsy and was probably executed by an artist such as Jean Clement or Roger Jean-Pierre who often executed her button and ornament designs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nr. 54.141.34a-b.

Day Hat. Autumn 1939. Blue velvet ribbon; multicolored and variegated artificial fruits, berries and nuts; artificial tan leaves. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nr.  51.33.9.

Day Vest, 1937. Saffron wool and green velvet embroidered overall in primary color wool folkloric floral pattern. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nr. 54.141.62.

Necklace, Autumn 1938. Gilt metal molded leaf-form elements. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nr. 55.26.241. 

Evening Dress, c. 1948. Alternating lavender faille and white satin stripes arranged in various orientations over body of dress. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nr.  86.120.3.

Schiaparelli wearing her own designs ca. 1937. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

Further Reading: Dilys Blum. Shocking!: The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2003. 

Sofia Gnoli. The Origins of Italian Fashion: 1900-45. London: Victoria & Albert Publishing, 2014. 

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