Elsa Schiaparelli was a singular presence on the mid-twentieth-century fashion landscape. She was Italian, born to an academic father and an aristocratic mother. “Wild” Elsa eschewed a traditional path in life from a young age. The young woman refused to consider suitable men for marriage, instead eloping with a psychic medium and fleeing with him to England. The pair’s stay was short-lived, for they were kicked out for fortune-telling, which was illegal at the time. The couple had a daughter and moved to the U.S. There the husband disappeared, leaving Elsa considering what to do next.
Undeterred for long, Schiaparelli moved back to Europe where she developed a strong interest in the Dada and Surrealist art movements. Her first foray into fashion design was her series of famous trompe l’oiel sweaters.
Schiaparelli loved boldness, she loved drama and excitement. She was untrained in tailoring or pattern cutting and designed by draping fabric on models. She followed her artistic instincts, incorporating floating design elements, like keys and leaves, into her designs. Her wild ride through fashion earned her the enmity of more traditional designers like Coco Chanel, who considered Schiaparelli a mere “Italian artist who makes some clothes.”
Schiaparelli and Dali worked together on projects from 1935, encouraging and feeding off of each other’s avant garde ideas. In 1937 then-Wallis Simpson arranged a photoshoot with Vogue for a pre-wedding spread, with Cecil Beaton engaged as the photographer. Wallis wanted a memorable dress. She requested Schiaparelli design the gown. Schiaparelli then turned to her friend Dali to paint his signature lobster design on the finished product.
The story goes that neither Schiaparelli nor Wallis questioned where Dali would paint the lobster, and it was only when the dress was delivered and donned by Wallis that they realized the placement would raise eyebrows. There is no documentation of the-soon-to-be-Duchess’s reaction to the dress, but the photoshoot went on and the pictures were sent to Vogue. A planned two-page spread became seven. Conservative Cecil Beaton was not pleased with the effect of the photos, but Vogue knew a money shot when they saw it.
The Duchess bought several pieces from Schiaparelli’s collection for her trousseau, including this scrollwork jacket and skirt, which she wore for another photo shoot.
Wallis chose a few other designs from Schiaparelli for her trousseau, including a blue and silver lame dress and a black crepe dress printed with small turtles near the neckline.
As for the lobster dress, the Duchess returned it to Schiaparelli, who eventually donated it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The design was eventually resurrected by none other than Anna Wintour herself, who commissioned Prada to design a version of the lobster gown for the Met Gala in 2012. Anna was not so daring as the Duchess, and the lobster was placed in a more discreet location.
Schiaparelli, battered by the war and unable to fully find her feet in the aftermath, shuttered her couture business in 1951 and the design house in 1954. Her designs live on in many museums, where they sit happily in the same buildings filled with works of the artists she loved.
Show us any and all Schiaparelli designs you love.