Shock of Pink: How a Colour Shaped Schiaparelli’s Vision

photos from Victoria and Albert Museum

Colours fascinated Elsa Schiaparelli. Her autobiography, Shocking Life, is paved by her colour discoveries, from the blue and red uniforms she designed during the First World War to the oranges and turquoises of Kremlin treasures.

In the first third of her book, however, the colour pink only comes up only to describe her new-born daughter, Gogo. Schiaparelli’s early career was, much like her contemporary Coco Chanel’s, defined by black and white. The first garment she created, in 1927, was a jumper with “a white bow against a white background.” Her first evening dress was, again, monochromatic.

The shocking-pink came thanks to Schiaparelli’s first foray into fragrances. In 1937, while struggling to name her upcoming perfume, she remembered a pink Tête de Bélier Cartier diamond owned by her friend, client and Paris editor for Harper’s Bazaar, Daisy Fellowes. In her autobiography, Schiap (as she nicknamed herself) describes the jewel colour as “bright, impossible, impudent, becoming, life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world but together, a color of China and Peru but not of the West – a shocking colour, pure and undiluted.” She asked Surrealist designer Leonor Fini to create a perfume bottle imitating Mae West curves in that very shade. The perfume was named “Shocking”.

Though the colour wasn’t an immediate hit with her friends or business partners, customers loved the perfume’s colour as much as its smell. Thanks to its success, Schiap discovered how perfume sales can keep a fashion house afloat. The color was extended to blush and lipstick. A make-up advert dubbed the Place Vendôme, where Schiap had her flagship store, “la zone rose.” Schiap quickly adopted the shocking-pink as a house staple, using it in her Surrealist creations. Her first shoe-hat, designed for her autumn 1937 collection, had a shocking-pink heel. Dali loved the color so much he used it for one of his own oeuvres d’art, “an enormous stuffed bear with drawers in its stomach,” dyed in shocking-pink.

The RGB composition of shocking pink is generally seen as 252, 15, 192, a variation of magenta pink sitting somewhere between ultra pink and fuchsia. It has also been called neon pink, or hot pink in America.

Contrary to her couture house, Schiaparelli’s shocking-pink outlived her. Yves Saint Laurent described it as “the nerve of red… an aggressive, brawling, warrior pink” he used in many collections, including his F/W 1980 “Collection Shakespeare” tribute to the Surrealists. John Galliano used similar pinks in his last two Dior Haute Couture collections. Would the master have approved? Christian Dior’s definition of pink, “the sweetest of all colors”, “the color of happiness and of femininity” was more sweet than vibrant.

- Lucie Goulet

2 thoughts on “Shock of Pink: How a Colour Shaped Schiaparelli’s Vision

  1. “warrior pink”.. i like that! and ye, i totally see how it doesn’t look like a natural hue.. it’s not really a colour i’ve ever seen in nature (living in north america that is).. but perhaps more exciting because of that. hm.

  2. Great article. It’s so interesting to think about the time before hot pink was as knee-jerk related to fashion and femininity as it is now!

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