September 10, 1890 – Elsa Schiaparelli:
“Shocking Pink? I invented it.”
Oh, to be born in Rome, then die in Paris, and in between be one of the two most prominent figures in fashion between the two World Wars, collaborating with Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau, and dressing heiress Daisy Fellowes, socialite Gloria Guinness, the Duchess of Windsor, Greta Garbo and Mae West.
She was born to an aristocrat mother and scholar father. Schiaparelli studied at the University of Rome, majoring in Philosophy, and published a book of poetry. The book was especially erotic and controversial, and its publication shocked her family who sent to her to a convent. Schiaparelli went on a hunger strike leading to her release when she was 22 years old. She took a job as a nanny in London, where she spent her free time at museums.
In London she met her husband Count William de Wendt de Kerlor (just one of his many names) who was a tireless, inventive self-promoter, a con man who claimed to have psychic powers, and numerous academic credentials. He sometimes passed himself off as himself as a detective, criminal psychologist, doctor, or lecturer. In Vaudeville he billed himself as “The World Famous Dr. W. de Kerlor.”
Schiaparelli was attracted to this charismatic charlatan and they became engaged on the day after their first meeting and married a few weeks later. Schiaparelli was just 23, and the good doctor was 30. The newlyweds survived on her dowry and a regular allowance from Schiaparelli’s wealthy parents. Schiaparelli helped facilitate and promote her husband’s schemes. In 1915 the couple were forced to leave England after de Kerlor was deported following his conviction for practicing fortunetelling, then illegal. They then moved around, landing in Paris, Cannes, Nice, and Monte Carlo, before leaving for the USA in the spring of 1916.
In New York City, the de Kerlors lived in an apartment above the Café des Artistes on tree-lined West 67th Street near Central Park West. It is one of my favorite residential buildings and in the mid-1970s, I would sometimes stand on the sidewalk and look up at the atelier-style flats and dream of living there before entering the bar with its cool murals for a cocktail. Those murals depict frolicking nudes and were painted by Howard Chandler Christy, an early resident. The name of the building is The Hotel des Artistes, and it is a stunning 18-story building with a Gothic-style facade featuring charming gargoyles of painters, sculptors and writers. It was home to Noël Coward, Isadora Duncan, NYC Mayor John Lindsay, Alexander Woollcott, and Norman Rockwell. The apartments are double-story artist studios, with soaring 19-foot windows, paneled living rooms, and carved oak staircases leading to balconies and second floor bedrooms.
I digress. De Kerlor also rented offices there for his new “Bureau of Psychology” where he hoped to achieve fame and fortune through his paranormal consulting work. Schiaparelli provided support by doing promotions to provide the newspapers with sensational copy. During this period de Kerlor came under surveillance by the Bureau of Investigation, (BOI) a precursor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), not only for his dubious professional practices but also on suspicion of harboring anti-British and pro-German allegiance during wartime.
By 1917, de Kerlor’s frienships with journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant put him and his wife on the government radar as possible Communist revolutionaries. The de Kerlors decamped to Boston in 1918, where they continued their activities. De Kerlor, an incurable publicity hound, admitted to a BOI investigator his prideful support of the Russian Revolution and to an association with a notorious anarchist. Schiaparelli incriminated herself by revealing that she was tutoring Italians in Boston’s North End about Bolshevism and that she had the knowledge to assemble a bomb. Both were spared prosecution or deportation when the U.S. government concluding that they were foolishly grandstanding and not a threat to society.
In New York City, Schiaparelli started to work with Gaby Picabia, ex-wife of French Dadaist artist Francis Picabia and owner of a boutique selling the latest French fashions. Through her work there Schiaparelli met Dada artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. Her husband turned out to be a bisexual cad, so she decided to follow Man Ray back to Paris.
Back in Paris, Schiaparelli began to design and make clothes and, in 1927, she started her own line. Affectionately known as “Schiap” to her close friends, she mixed with some of the era’s most famous figures, including Marlene Dietrich, Christian Bérard, Garbo and Cocteau.
Her first collection consisted of sweaters adorned with surrealist trompe l’oeil images, a theme that became Schiaparelli’s trademark. A black sweater with a white trompe l’oeil scarf at the neck was a big success and was selected to appear in French Vogue. Demand for the sweater became huge and Schiaparelli hired a team of workers to produce more. She was able to open her first shop, House of Schiaparelli, selling her ready-to-wear clothing.
Moving beyond just sweaters and scarves, Schiaparellli produced a collection she called Pour le Sport: bathing suits, skiwear and linen dresses. She also created the revolutionary divided skirt, a forerunner of shorts, which was worn by international tennis champion and feminist Lili de Alvarez at Wimbledon in 1931 and shocked the world.
In 1931, Schiaparelli added eveningwear and relocated her shop renamed Schiap Shop.
She attracted attention with her collaborations with Dalí, outrageous, original designs created together. Two of her most famous pieces produced with Dalí are the Shoe Hat, which was worn up-turned on the woman’s head; the Tears Dress, an evening gown painted with trompe l’oeil rips and tears; and the Skeleton Dress, a black gown featuring padded pieces representing bones.
Schiaparelli used a shade of magenta which came to be known as “Schiaparelli Pink”. In her memoir, Shocking Life (1954), Schiaparelli writes that her fascination with the color came from a Cartier diamond owned by her friend, Daisy Fellowes, describing the jewel’s color 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 color, pure and undiluted.”
She used the color on the packaging of her debut fragrance, which was named Shocking, and throughout her collections.
She is noted for introducing many styles and techniques into the fashion history. She was the first designer to create zippers in colors that matched the material used in her garments and was also the first to do clothes with detailed, big buttons. Schiaparelli was the first designer to introduce the Wrap Dress, taking inspiration from aprons to produce a design that would accommodate and flatter all female body types. Her design, which first appeared in 1930, offered armholes on each side, brought together in the front of the garment and wrapped and tied at the waistline. Initially conceived as beachwear and produced in four colors of silk, the dress was popular and was widely copied by garment manufacturers for everyday street wear. This uncomplicated design was revisited in the 1970s by designer Diane von Fürstenberg.
She did a swimsuit design with an interior bra with an alluring low-cut back by using hidden straps that crossed in the back and closed around the waist. She produced the first evening dress with a matching jacket. During Prohibition, Schiaparelli’s popularly named “speakeasy dress” provided a hidden pocket for a flask for your booze.
Most important, Schiaparelli introduced the idea of showing designs on a catwalk, accompanied by music and art.
She returned to Paris when World War II ended but soon discovered that fashions had changed, and Christian Dior‘s revolutionary ”New Look” was the preferred look. The House of Schiaparelli struggled in the austerity of the post-war period, and Schiaparelli closed her heavily indebted design house at the end of 1954, the same year that her great rival Coco Chanel returned to the business.
Elsa Schiaparelli died in her sleep in 1973, gone at 83 years old. Her designs are witty, irreverent and show where art and fashion collide.
Schiaparelli and fellow Italian designer Miuccia Prada were the subject of a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada: Impossible Conversations, in 2012. At the opening, Schiaparelli’s granddaughter, the fabulous actor/model Marisa Berenson spoke about her childhood memories of her grandmother:
“She hated to be called grandmother. She never wanted anybody to call her Elsa, because she didn’t like her name, so her friends called her Schiap, and my sister (Berry Berenson) and I did too.”