Today is the 126th birthday of Elsa Schiaparelli. Her designs are still considered cutting edge today, 80 years later. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
BEST KNOWN FOR: Elsa Schiaparelli was one of the world’s leading fashion designers in the 1920s and ’30s.
A pioneering Parisian fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli was born on September 10, 1890, in Rome, Italy. She was the great niece of Giovanni Schiaparelli, who discovered canals on the planet Mars.
Hailing from upscale stock, Schiaparelli, at a young age, seemed to be driven to upset her aristocratic mother and scholarly father. After high school, she enrolled at the University of Rome, where she studied philosophy, and soon published a book of poetry that was deemed so sensual by her parents that they directed her to a convent. To expedite her release from the convent, Schiaparelli went on a hunger strike; once released, she dashed off to London for a job as a nanny.
In London, Schiaparelli met and eventually married her former teacher, Count William de Wendt de Kerlor, who was a theosophist. The couple soon relocated to New York, where they had a daughter, Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha de Wendt de Kerlor.
New York proved to be an enlightening experience for Schiaparelli. There, she began working at a boutique specializing in French fashions, and soon cultivated her own taste in clothes and accessories. After her marriage failed, Schiaparelli returned to Paris, where she continued her work in the fashion industry. She soon began designing clothes of her own, and in 1927, opened her own business.
Schiaparelli’s debut collection, a series of sweaters featuring Surrealist “trompe l’oeil” images—which would come to serve as her trademark—caught the attention of the fashion world, including French Vogue. She followed her initial success with another well-received collection of bathing suits and ski-wear, as well as the “divided skirt”—an early form of women’s shorts. In 1931, Schiaparelli’s divided skirts were worn by tennis champion Lily d’Alvarez. That same year, “Shiap,” as she was known, expanded her work into evening-wear.
For Schiaparelli, fashion was as much about making art as it was about making clothes. In 1932, Janet Flanner of The New Yorker wrote: “A frock from Schiaparelli ranks like a modern canvas.” Not surprisingly, Schiaparelli connected with popular artists of the era; one of her friends was painter Salvador Dali, whom she hired to design fabric for her fashion house.
As her fame continued to grow, Schiaparelli traveled increasingly in famous circles. She was worshipped by some of the world’s best-dressed women, including Daisy Flowers, Lady Mendl and Millicent Rogers.
Schiaparelli also designed clothes for film and the theater. Her work appeared in more than 30 movies over the course of her career, most notably in Every Day’s a Holiday, starring Mae West, Moulin Rouge and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Schiaparelli discontinued her couture business in 1951 and closed her design house three years later, but continued to work in fashion, designing accessories and, later, wigs. In 1954, she released an autobiography, Shocking Life.
Schiaparelli died on November 13, 1973, in Paris, France. In the decades since her death, Schiaparelli has continued to be regarded as a giant in the fashion world. In 2012, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art featured her work, along with that of Italian designer Miuccia Prada, in a major exhibition.