The Personal Collection of Elsa Schiaparelli - Paris, January 2014

The Creative Firework

This was how her admirer Yves St. Laurent described Elsa Schiaparelli, the fiery Italian intellectual who introduced the world of Dadaist and Surrealist art to the world of fashion with startling and far-reaching results, not the least a hat in the shape of a lamb chop; results that are still influencing us today. She invented Shocking Pink. She invented the power suit; she opened the first boutique and her Circus Collection fashion show was the very first to be put on as a theatrical event. But above all, Elsa Schiaparelli was a cultural magpie, absorbing influences and telling details from archaic to modern dress and from the works of her friends and collaborators, first the cubists and then the surrealists. Not for her the politesse of haute couture. She dressed women as dangerous art billboards rather than fashionable puppets.

Elsa was rebellious from the very start. She was strictly brought up at the end of the l9th Century in the very grand Palazzo Corsini in Rome. Her father was an absent-minded Oriental scholar and her mother an elegant society woman. From a very early age she was fascinated by the trunks of her mother’s clothes which she discovered in the attic. She remembered in her autobiography that ‘there were white pads that in my mother’s youth women placed behind them keeping them in place with string knotted in front so that all the emphasis should be given to the curves of the behind and in front, to their bosoms, which were held very high. I thought this a very pretty fashion and I still think so.’ Many of the extraordinary evening dresses she designed in the l930’s have a hint of this late Victorian hourglass silhouette with the bustle but Elsa of course took this much, much further with embroidery on the bustle but nowhere else.

Another early influence was Elsa’s aunt Lillian who lived in Egypt and regularly sent her sister beautiful materials ‘wonderful exotic things that brought dreams to my severe surroundings’ she remembered. ‘Perhaps she awakened the love of eastern things which I have retained throughout life.’ One of Elsa Schiaparelli’s strongest suits as a creative artist was her ability to recognize and use inspirations wherever she found them; from the beaded traje luces of a traditional matador (and his pink stockings) to the sari, to elaborate traditional Chinese embroidered robes to the wry subterranean wit and dreamlike reality of surrealism.

Everything she experienced and came across was subverted to her extraordinary vision, became grist to her creative mill. One might say that just as there is world music, Elsa Schiaparelli created world fashion; a fabulous fusion of East and West, Surreal and the elaborations of the l8th Century French court. Nothing was left out – buttons were small miracles of ingenuity and creativity. Embroidery executed by her friend Francois Lesage was of an originality and luxury not seen in a hundred and fifty years and the result? As Yves Saint Laurent put it – a series of explosive creative fireworks.