Elsa Schiaparelli Made Fashion For Air Raids

A Fashion Memoir series book report

Nothing suggested Elsa Schiaparelli would ever have a career in fashion. She was born in Rome to strict aristocratic parents who never failed to be displeased with their daughter’s rebellion. Let me count the ways: by twenty-two, Schiaparelli, or “Schiap”, had run away from her Catholic school to bohemian London, married a rich Polish count and was abandoned in Greenwich Village, New York with a daughter and little support. It was hard work and necessity that propelled the young mother. She supported herself by working at a boutique specializing in French fashions owned by Gaby Picabia. Through Picabia, Schiaparelli met Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. When they decided to move to Paris, Schiaparelli joined them. It was during this time that her protégé Yves Saint Laurent said she “bewitched” the city. And her subtle blend of classicism and outrageousness evolved with women as their haircuts and hemlines got shorter.

Fashion Memoir: Elsa Schiaparelli examines the Italian designer’s contribution to fashion during the ’30s. Author Baudot is a writer and critic at French Elle, and has written his share of designer profiles for the Fashion Memoir series, including Chanel and Yohji Yamamoto. This biography and photo anthology is worth reviewing for a better understanding of Schiaparelli’s place in history and her lasting impact after retiring in 1954, and is full of images of the designer, her store windows, snapshots of celebrity fans like Marlene Dietrich, and illustrations of her designs.

Baudot weaves Schiaparelli’s designs into the fabric of social history, demonstrating her ability to connect with women between the two World Wars, notably Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, and Lauren Bacall. Schiaparelli opened her boutique 1927 and soon became the voice for emboldened new women who appreciated avant-garde design. She was known for using unusual materials and bold colour choices that reflected the period’s modern taste. Baudot believes her strength lied in designing multi-functional clothing that was both simple and shocking. Think of a dress that could be lengthened by simply pulling a ribbon or a woolen broiler suit produced for a potential air raid.

Schiaparelli drew inspiration from the many avant-garde artists in her social circle, and collaborated with Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. Her designs were a reaction against tradition, exploiting the artistic world of Surrealism and Dada. In particular, she had a deep appreciation of the artist and designer Paul Poiret, who gave her dresses when she first moved to Paris and encouraged her to start her own business. Unfortunately, not all her relationships with designers were so positive. She had a deep disdain for Chanel, and the press often drew comparisons of the two designers. They became fierce rivals and Chanel once described her competitor as “that Italian artist who makes clothes.”

After the Second World War, the fashion industry began to shift toward accessible, mass-produced sportswear. When she tried to reestablish herself in this clime, Schiap was summarily dismissed by new-era designer Christian Dior: “Remember the Surrealist trimming with which Mme. Schiaparelli loved to decorate her clothes … to push the frontiers of elegance until it bordered on the bizarre.” Still, she left a legacy of radically new fashions like backless swimsuits, built-in bras, and shoulder pads that would become staples in contemporary fashion design, inspiring generations of fashion heirs, like Galliano and Kenzo. While the book goes into great detail about her strengths as a designer and her inspirations, it doesn’t reveal much about her personal life. If you want a better understanding of Schiap the lady, consider reading her autobiography, Shocking Life. Baudot excerpts passages from here, which make up the best parts of his Fashion Memoir.

further reading // Fashion Memoir: Elsa Schiaparelli by Francois Baudot // Thames and Hudson // 1997

book report // Brittany Mahaney
photography // Brianne Burnell