Elsa Schiaparelli at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Beachwear, ca. 1932
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Orange and yellow raw silk; L. at CB (a) 48 in. (121.9 cm), (b) 46 in. (116.8 cm), (c) 27 1/2 in. (69.9 cm)
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Frederick H. Prince, Jr., 1967 (2009.300.1336a–c)

Schiaparelli experimented with new ideas for cut and construction as well as decoration from the outset of her career. Sportswear was her first design endeavor. In this early example, made to be worn for casual beach activities at a fashionable seaside resort such as the Côte d’Azur or Biarritz, she added a quirky yet stylish element to the standard dressmaking concept of a wraparound by cutting two half-dresses, each with one armhole, that wrapped and tied to make a whole. Each of a different color, they could be reversed, as could the two-tone cardigan jacket that completed the set.

Coat, ca. 1933
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Cream cotton corded weave, metal; L. at CB 48 in. (121.9 cm)
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta–Ramos, 1955 (2009.300.1212)

Buttons and fasteners, innovative in both design and choice of materials, were hallmarks of Schiaparelli’s oeuvre. In perhaps one of her most audacious decorative statements, she recycled bullet casings to serve as buttons and raised functional flapped pockets to waist level, as if to suggest the front of a hunting jacket.

Belt, fall 1934
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Black silk taffeta, plastic; 29 in. (73.7 cm)
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta–Ramos, 1955 (2009.300.1227)

Hands figured prominently in Surrealist imagery. As Richard Martin notes in Fashion and Surrealism (1987), separated and migratory body parts—particularly eyes, lips, hands, feet—are essential elements in the Surrealists’ philosophy of transmutation. Here the wearer is given an extra pair of perfectly manicured hands, which, attached to the belt, actively embrace the wearer yet, ambiguously, are folded upon each other in an inert state of ladylike repose. This design has inspired many subsequent interpretations.

Dilys Blum notes in Shocking! (2003) that sketches of hands by the Swiss-German Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim are likely to have been the sources of the design of this belt and other hand motif objects shown in the fall 1934 collection.

“Cocteau” Evening Jacket, Fall 1937
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Linen, metallic foil, beads, paillettes

Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2009 (2009.421)

Elsa Schiaparelli was a well-born Italian designer who made her mark in Paris from the late 1920s to the 1950s. Her initial success was based on a trompe-l’oeil sweater with the illusion of a knotted cravat, but she quickly moved from designing knitwear to the establishment of a couture house, where she continued to play with whimsical Dada- and Surrealist-inflected conceits. Schiaparelli’s collaborations with artists resulted in some of the most renowned works of twentieth-century haute couture. A jacket with dresser drawers for pockets, her notorious “Shoe Hat,” and a provocative “Bug Necklace” came from her partnership with Salvador Dalí. An evening coat embroidered in a pattern that reads simultaneously as a vase and two confronting faces and this jacket, with its trompe-l’oeil profile, were products of her collaboration with Jean Cocteau. Although she is best remembered for these playful works, they appear to have been ordered by a limited number of clients, and most of the surviving examples are from Schiaparelli’s own collection. This jacket is therefore a particularly serendipitous discovery, having been only recently sold by the family of a client who was clearly enamored of the designer’s more assertive and signature work.

Evening dress, summer 1937
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Printed crepe–back silk satin; L. at CB 20 in. (50.8 cm)
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Edward G. Sparrow, 1969 (2009.300.1347a,b)

The butterfly was a ubiquitous motif in Schiaparelli’s work and, for the Surrealists, a symbol of transformation and sometimes of death. Schiaparelli used it decoratively to represent beauty emerging from the mundane. It expressed her philosophy that although everyone could not be naturally beautiful, chic clothes and a sense of style could transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. At the same time, the ultra-realism of the print points up the incongruity that lifelike insects, not romanticized interpretations, are the slightly unsettling motifs of this elegant evening dress.

Evening jacket, summer 1937
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Blue silk velvet, metal, rhinestones, plastic; L. at CB 20 in. (50.8 cm)
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Anthony V. Lynch, 1971 (2009.300.1354)

Schiaparelli developed a lifelong interest in the heavens from her uncle, Giovanni Schiaparelli, a prominent astronomer. Typically mining her childhood experiences as source material for her creative life, she used celestial iconography in several collections between 1935 and 1940. In crafting this jacket, a collaboration with master embroiderers Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage, she designed her ultimate personal and artistic expression of the theme. Surrounded by a midnight blue galaxy sprinkled with beadwork stardust, silver and gold planets, rhinestone crescent moons, swirling comets, and shooting stars, twelve glyphs representing the signs of the zodiac are embroidered

at center front. Ursa Major, the constellation known as the Great Bear, or Big Dipper, which Schiaparelli adopted as her personal emblem in childhood, illuminates the left shoulder.

Evening ensemble, 1938
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Ivory silk organza embroidered with metallic thread, purl, and rhinestones
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.3a–e)

“A good fashion is a daring fashion, not a polite one.”

—Daisy Fellowes

According to Jean Cocteau, the Honorable Mrs. Reginald “Daisy” Fellowes “launched more fashions than any other woman in the world.” She was the supreme word in elegance, going beyond fashion to create a style of her own. She loathed the commonplace and enjoyed making other women look foolish. As Cecil Beaton explained, “At the races, while her rivals would be wearing enormous picture hats of chiffon or transparent straw that spouted fireworks of feathers, Daisy Fellowes might turn up hatless. The effect, of course, succeeded in making the others appear overdressed and slightly ridiculous.”

Daisy Fellowes was not an acquisitive clotheshorse and was known for wearing the same dress for day and evening. She wore this empire-line dress to at least two official functions: a reception given by the king and queen of England at the Palais de l’Élysée on July 19, 1938; and the court presentation of her daughter in March 1939.

Evening ensemble, ca. 1938
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973); André Perugia (French, 1893–1977)
Green silk faille, metallic thread, gold kidskin, beige plastic; L. at CB (a) 62 in. (157.5 cm), (b, c) 5 x 9 in. (12.7 x 22.9 cm)
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Millicent Huttleston Rogers, 1951 (2009.300.1168a–c)

Custom textiles such as this one were important vehicles of expression for Schiaparelli. A mottled pattern of deep greens injected with a glittering gold wood-grain motif transmogrifies the human body, like a fleeing Daphne, into a tree. Deploying industrial zippers as decoration on evening wear was an early iconoclastic gesture that became a signature Schiaparelli design element.

Evening ensemble, ca. 1938
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Purple silk velvet, metal foil; L. at CB (a) 58 1/2 in. (148.6 cm), (b) 23 in. (58.4 cm)
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Millicent Huttleston Rogers, 1951 (2009.300.1167a,b)

Dinner suits with square shouldered jackets and long skirts were a Schiaparelli specialty. Here she made use of the unparalleled skills of the Lesage embroidery house to embellish the jacket with heavy padded foil strip embroidery in a large floral design typical of the Baroque period. A black swan ornament at the waist adds a whimsical yet slightly sinister note recalling the dark forces of Von Rothbart and his daughter, the black swan Odile, in the balletSwan Lake.

Hat, winter 1937–38
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Black wool felt; W. 11 in. (27.9 cm)
Gift of Rose Messing, 1974 (1974.139)

Schiaparelli’s collaboration with Salvador Dalí reached the height of Surrealist absurdity in this high-heeled shoe from winter 1937–38. The idea for it, as recounted in Dilys Blum’s authoritative book on the designer, was a photograph of Dalí wearing a shoe on his head and another on his shoulder taken by his wife in 1933. The hat was made to wear with a black dress and jacket embroidered with red lips that were suggestive of those belonging to the voluptuous actress Mae West, for whom Schiaparelli was designing movie costumes at the time.

Hat, winter 1938–39
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Black wool felt, feathers; 4 x 10 1/2 in. (10.2 x 26.7 cm)
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Millicent Huttleston Rogers, 1951 (2009.300.1163)

The original owner of this hat, Millicent Rogers, lived in St. Anton in the Arlberg Valley of the Austrian Tyrolean Alps before World War II. She enjoyed commissioning articles of clothing that suited the various locales where she resided. Here, in a particularly humorous gesture, Schiaparelli transformed a single gambart, the brushlike ornament that decorates traditional Tyrolean hats, into a proliferation of birds that appear to have dive-bombed into the crown of this one, epitomizing the Schiaparelli, and Rogers, wit.

Buttons, fall 1938
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973); Jean Clément (attributed) (French, 1900–1949); Roger Jean–Pierre (attributed) (French, active 1934–76)
Synthetic, metal; 2 1/4 in. (5.7 cm)
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta–Ramos, 1955 (2009.300.1499a–i)

The range of Schiaparelli’s decorative aesthetic included ornaments that would be considered repugnant or inappropriate for an item of dress. She provided clients with the flexibility to adapt to the day’s mood by making her jacket buttons interchangeable. These cricket buttons, from her “Pagan” collection of 1938, come with metal clasps into which the buttons can be inserted and removed at will.

Necklace, fall 1938
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973); Jean Clément (French, 1900–1949)
Plastic, metal; 7 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. (19.1 x 21 cm)
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta–Ramos, 1955 (2009.300.1234)

This necklace is from Schiaparelli’s “Pagan” collection of 1938, which referenced the lush imagery of flora and fauna and mythological figures represented in two paintings by Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Birth of Venus (ca. 1485) and Primavera (ca. 1482).

Rhodoid was a newly developed plastic material that suited Schiaparelli’s design intent for this necklace, perhaps her most macabre and certainly one of her most iconic designs. A transparent foundation creates the illusion that insects are crawling on the wearer’s skin. Never too heavy-handed, Schiaparelli chose brightly colored toylike ornaments that temper the repugnant effect.

Evening jacket, 1938
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Deep magenta rayon crepe embroidered with metallic thread and polychrome sequins with plastic insect buttons
Gift of Mrs. J. R. Keagy, 1974 (1974.338.2)


Dinner Suit, 1937–1938
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Green silk crepe and green silk velvet embroidered with metallic thread and red and pink rhinestones with half dome shaped plastic buttons inset with flowers
Gift of Julia B. Henry, 1978 (1978.288.19a–c)

While Mademoiselle Cheruit had her “smokings,” a fitted jacket ensemble for early evening affairs, Schiaparelli was the most famous purveyor of the cocktail-appropriate dinner suit. Her suit consisted of a bolero or flared jacket that could be removed for the evening, and a sleeveless sheath dress. Unlike the previous decade, the 1930s dictated different skirt lengths for different hours: the silk, rayon, or wool crepe sheath of the dinner suit was steadfastly ankle or “cocktail” length.

Schiaparelli’s dinner jackets changed the outline of women’s fashion from soft to hard, from feminine to masculine during the mid- to late 1930s. The basic silhouette, which comprised wide shoulders and a narrow waist, first appeared in her autumn/winter 1931–32 collection entitled “Wooden Soldiers,” which was inspired by the Indo-Chinese costumes featured in the 1931 Exposition Coloniale in Paris. The extended shoulders, achieved through padding, became hugely influential in Hollywood, helped along by international café society darlings like Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe), Mrs. Reginald (Daisy) Fellowes, and the Duchess of Windsor.

During a trip to America, Schiaparelli commented, “In Hollywood, one special item of popularity had preceded me—that of the padded shoulders. I had started them to give women a slimmer waist. They proved the Mecca of the manufacturers. Joan Crawford had adopted them and molded her silhouette on them for years to come. They became emphasized and monstrous. Adrian took them up with overwhelming enthusiasm.”

Coat, spring 1939
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Polychrome wool felt, blue silk faille; L. at CB 57 1/2 in. (146.1 cm)
Gift of Ruth Ford, 2002 (2002.479.4)

More than any other designer working in Paris during the mid- to late 1930s, Schiaparelli epitomized the giddy, blithe world occupied by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. As Bettina Ballard commented in her autobiography In My Fashion, “Her daring nonsense—fish-shaped buttons, monkey hats, fox-head gloves, skunk coats, lobster prints, bold colors—plus a true sense of hard chic made her exactly right for those last, frivolous, extravagant years before World War II.” Her “Commedia dell’Arte” collection was perhaps her most theatrical and fantastical. Introduced by the strains of Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Pergolese, and Cimarosa, it represented Schiaparelli’s response to the deteriorating political situation in Europe.

Evening dress, fall 1939
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
White silk organza, metallic thread, plastic, white suede, green metal; L. at CB (a) 79 1/2 in. (201.9 cm), (b) 26 1/2 in. (67.3 cm)
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Millicent Huttleston Rogers, 1951 (2009.300.1165a,b)

Music was the theme of Schiaparelli’s fall 1939 collection. Correspondingly, she designed this white organza dress and gloves embroidered in metallic threads with music-score notes and accessorized with a belt containing a working music box in the buckle. Cutout scrollwork shapes on the buckle top relate to those on a violin, forms immortalized in Man Ray’s 1924 photograph Le Violin d’Ingres. An elaboration of the Surrealist notion of woman’s body as musical instrument, the wholly integrated creation captures the visual, audible, and transcendent essence of music in the person of the wearer.

Evening ensemble, 1939
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Orange silk organza with metallic stripes and orange silk

Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.10a–c)

Fashion in the mid-1930s glorified styles of other cultures. Indian and Southeast Asian styles were particularly evident in the work of Elsa Schiaparelli. Vogue remarked that her “sari dresses” made women look like “Hindu princesses.”

This sari dress was worn by Madame Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, the great-niece of the supremely elegant Eugenia Errázuriz. Like her great-aunt, Madame Lopez-Wilshaw was a considerable force in the fashion world, particularly during the late 1930s. During the Phony War, when she and her husband moved from their house in Neuilly to the Ritz, Madame Lopez-Wilshaw’s Wednesday suppers became a well-known site of fashionability. Vogue explained, “At the first parties, Patricia Lopez wore a short afternoon dress, but, little by little, women arrived in long black sheaths, and now you definitely have to dress for dinner. This is part of the general discipline. Women must be attractive, and the signal of emulation is given. Nothing eccentric or fussy, but sound, refined taste. Long-sleeved dinner dresses, jewels, and smooth, curled hair.”

Suit, fall 1938
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Plaid rayon crepe, blue plastic
Gift of Mrs. J.R. Keagy, 1974 (1974.338.5a,b)

Schiaparelli chose realistic beetles and other insects to decorate jewelry, buttons, and suit collars for her fall 1938 nature-based “Pagan” collection. The collection referenced the lush imagery of flora and fauna and mythological figures represented in two paintings by Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Birth of Venus (ca. 1485) and Primavera (ca. 1482). The vividly printed rayon crepe and translucent blue plastic buttons are statements of Schiaparelli’s preference for innovative manmade, rather than natural, materials.

Suit, fall/winter 1938–39
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Wool
Gift of Mrs. J. R. Keagy, 1974 (1974.338.1a,b)

Although sinuous curves ruled the evening wear silhouette in the 1930s, the strong shoulder was a dominant element as well, especially in the crisp suits of Elsa Schiaparelli. While not herself a tailor, and scorned by arch-rival Chanel for her lack of skills, Schiaparelli presided over one of the great tailoring ateliers responsible for the definitive broad-shouldered and form-fitting suits and jackets of the 1930s. The designer’s conceptual embellishments were based on this tailoring foundation. In some instances, the tailors spoke for themselves, as in this example, a suit with breast pockets incorporated into the dimension of the bust. The strong shoulders of the 1930s were expressed through shoulder pads, wide lapels, shawls, capes, boat necklines, and accents of feathers or frothy scarves. Hollywood actress Joan Crawford was particularly enamored of the padded-out look after buying a few Schiaparelli suits in the early 1930s. This and the work of American designer Adrian carried the strong shoulder into the 1940s.

Pantsuit, ca. 1939
Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)
Brown wool tweed, brown leather; L. at CB (a) 28 in. (71.1 cm), (b) 43 in. (109.2 cm)
Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta–Ramos, 1955 (2009.300.1870a,b)

Schiaparelli paired one of her signature structured jackets with man-tailored cuffed pants for this only slightly feminized version of a man’s tweed suit. Although in the 1930s they were accepted attire as separates for casual and sports-related activities, pants and especially pantsuits, as an expression of fashion, were uncommon—only for the most unconventional couturier and style-confident client. From the 1940s onward, with the onset of war and prominence of pants-wearing film stars such as Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, pants for women increasingly gained acceptance. Yet it was not until the 1970s that pantsuits, which were introduced by couturiers Yves Saint Laurent and André Courrèges in the mid-1960s, and, by association, stylish pants, became mainstream fashion.

The Italian-born French couturière Elsa Schiaparelli is best known for the iconoclastic bravado and unrestrained, at times brazen, originality of her work. While her contemporaries Gabrielle Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet set the period’s standards of taste and beauty in fashion design, Schiaparelli flouted convention in the pursuit of a more idiosyncratic style. As much an artist as a dress designer, she commandeered the talents of a host of prominent artisans and artists, most notably those associated with the Surrealist movement. Distilling their disquieting dream-based imagery and provocative concepts through her own creative process, she incorporated themes inspired by contemporaneous events, erotic fantasy, traditional and avant-garde art, and her own psyche into her designs. A repertoire of inventive devices—experimental fabrics with pronounced textures, bold prints with unorthodox imagery and colors, opulent embroideries, outsized and exposed zippers, and distinctive buttons and ornaments ranging from the whimsical to the bizarre—was her medium of creative expression.

While her contemporaries Gabrielle Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet set the period’s standards of taste and beauty in fashion design, Schiaparelli flouted convention in the pursuit of a more idiosyncratic style.

Related

Timelines (3)

Primary Thematic Essays (4)

Other Thematic Essays (10)

Maps (2)

Index Terms (37)

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Early History, 1890–1927

Born in Rome at her family’s apartment in the Palazzo Corsini, Schiaparelli, by her own account, was a difficult child who chafed against societal and parental controls. Even at an early age, the need for personal freedom, which she later expressed in her designs, was her first priority. She was prone to mischievous pranks that often had adult consequences. As recounted in her autobiography, she was once miffed that she could not attend her parent’s dinner party, and retaliated by opening a jar of fleas under the dinner table, which set off an itching episode among the hapless guests before they fled the scene.

Eager to avoid paternal pressure to marry a Russian aristocrat, Elsa took advantage of a childcare opportunity in London in 1913, leaving Rome behind for good. The following year, she impulsively married a Polish-Swiss man who lectured on spiritual mysticism within days of their meeting. Following two years in Nice together, the couple moved to the U.S., where Elsa would remain for the next six years. After giving birth to her only daughter in 1920, she separated from her husband and worked at various odd jobs to support herself until relocating to Paris in 1922.

On her 1916 voyage to America, a chance meeting with Gabrielle Picabia, wife of Dadaist painter Francis Picabia, developed into a strong friendship that would eventually lead to Schiaparelli’s involvement with proponents of the Surrealist movement in art and, later, to an acquaintance with revolutionary fashion designer Paul Poiret around 1924. Dabbling at the time in writing and gold sculpting, she was also making clothes for herself and her two close friends. Poiret noted her sartorial flair and was the first to encourage her to pursue dressmaking as a suitable outlet for her artistic leanings.

Early Career, 1927–41

After several years of designing and selling her pieces freelance, she opened a small atelier in 1927 in the rue de l’Université and captured the worlds of European and American fashion with her first collections featuring hand-knit sweaters. Her initial designs were geometric, but in November of that year she introduced a black and white trompe l’oeil design patterned with a square collar and red bowknot that caught the fancy of an American buyer and launched her career. Over the next several years, her offerings evolved from sweaters and sporting wear to a full line of clothing. By 1932, she already had 400 employees producing 7,000 to 8,000 garments per year from expanded quarters at 4 rue de la Paix. These early designs, while more conservative than her later work, incorporated her quirky and imaginative aesthetic. The clothes and accessories that she created from the mid-1930s to 1940, when she was collaborating with the Surrealist artists Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, and Leonor Fini and enjoying continued inspiration from her long-term association with photographer Man Ray, represent the apotheosis of her creativity.

Further emphasizing the Surrealistic theatricality of the clothes from this period, Schiaparelli organized some of them into thematic collections—”Stop Look and Listen” in 1935, “Music” and “Paris 1937” in 1937, “Zodiac,” “Pagan,” and “Circus” in 1938, and “Commedia dell’ Arte” in 1939.

As a result of having lived for an extended period in America, Schiaparelli was particularly attuned to the American fashion industry and the upper-middle-class American woman’s stylistic and utilitarian preferences. This connection served her well financially. While only a few of her clients would wear her most outrageous designs, she could clothe slightly less adventuresome sorts through her many commercial arrangements with American department stores and specialty shops. Before World War II, as the New York Sun reported in 1940, output from her workshops at 21 Place Vendôme, where she had relocated in 1935, had grown to 10,000 garments per year.

Later Career, 1941–54

Prompted by security and business uncertainties precipitated by the war, Schiaparelli left Paris in 1941 and moved to New York, where, rather than designing, she involved herself with war-related volunteer activities, including providing service as a nurse’s aide at Bellevue Hospital. Her House remained open, but collections were prepared by associates. After four years, at the end of the Occupation, she returned to Paris and resumed her career. While her return was hailed by the press, and she further expanded her American markets with licensing agreements and a New York manufacturing location, her influence was eclipsed by the emergence of a new generation of couturiers, most notably Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga. In 1947, Dior, like Schiaparelli twenty years earlier, captivated America and Europe with what became known as the New Look that, too, had shock value but of a different, ultimately more conventional, sort.

In 1954, the House of Schiaparelli declared bankruptcy and its founder retired, spending most of her time in Tunisia, where she had built a home. She died in Paris at the age of eighty-three.

Clothes in the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Because of their compelling visual and artistic qualities and relative scarcity, Schiaparelli designs are highly prized. The Brooklyn Museum’s extensive Schiaparelli holdings, now part of the Costume Institute’s collection, were formed primarily through the patronage of mid-twentieth-century arbiter of style, philanthropist, and artisan Millicent Rogers and her heirs. Rogers, who was the granddaughter of Henry Huttleston Rogers, founder, along with William and John D. Rockefeller, of Standard Oil, had the means to buy fine couture clothing and the confidence and panache to wear even the most extreme designs.

Some of the most iconic Rogers examples include an evening dress embroidered in metallic threads forming a tune in musical notes accessorized by a belt with a music box in the buckle from her 1939 “Music” collection (2009.300.1165a,b); a clear plastic (Rhodoid) necklace crawling with colored-metal insects, part of her 1938 “Pagan” collection (2009.300.1234); a brown tweed pantsuit with architectural jacket and cuffed pants from 1939 (2009.300.1870a,b); and a day coat with bullet casings for buttons from the early 1930s, an audacious early expression of Schiaparelli’s outré stylistic vision (2009.300.1212).

Fine pieces from other donors include a rare resort ensemble from 1932 comprising two silk half-dresses that wrap to make a whole (2009.300.1336a–c); an evening gown from summer 1937 printed with butterflies, the Surrealist symbol for metamorphosis and death (2009.300.1347a,b); and a stunning blue velvet jacket embroidered with cosmic imagery including the signs of the zodiac and the Great Bear constellation, also known as the Big Dipper, her personal talisman (2009.300.1354).

These rare works join others in the Costume Institute, which include a version of the high-heeled shoe hat Schiaparelli created in collaboration with Salvador Dalí for her winter 1937–38 collection (1974.139), and a patchwork harlequin coat from her spring 1939 “Commedia dell’Arte” collection, which may have influenced Man Ray’s painting, Le Beaux Temps, created in 1939 after the coat would have been designed (2002.479.4). Both may have been inspired by a July 1937 costume ball given in Paris by Maurice de Rothschild with the theme “Italian Comedy.”

Legacy

Among her many contributions to the development of twentieth-century fashion, Schiaparelli’s fearless challenge to the status quo, incorporation of wit and humor into fashion designing, and melding of art with dressmaking rank among the highest. Her work has not only broadly influenced the fashion world but also noted individual designers, including Charles James, Geoffrey Beene, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Jan Reeder
The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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About jackikellum

Jacki Kellum is a Fine Artist, a Designer, and also a writer. For one of her graduate programs, she wrote her thesis on William Blake. Like Blake, much of Kellum's work is about childhood and lost innocence. Also like Blake, Kellum strives to both write and illustrate her work. .
This entry was posted in 50 Fashion Designers You Should Know, Elsa Schiaparelli, Famous Fashion Designers, Le Colis de Trianon=Versailles, Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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