Elsa Schiaparelli was born in 1890 in Rome Italy. Often she was described as a child prone to mischief, this would prove to be an indication to Elsa’s design career!
The majority of Elsa’s adult life was spent in France where she worked as a freelance fashion designer throughout the 1920’s. In 1927 she opened a small atelier and released her Trompe lœil design on hand-knit pullover sweaters. This would be her first taste of a “viral design”.
Trompe lœil pullover 1927
Now what is Trompe lœil you may be wondering, well it is a term in the art world that refers to a technique that involves making two dimensional details appear to be three dimensional. So in Schiaparelli’s case she made the knit details of scarves, bows, and collars appear to be three dimensional rather than the flat details in the knitwork that they were.
This may seem like a fairly simple concept and design to us now, since we see it quite often, but it was Schiaparelli who pioneered this design. Being the first one to create a design like this, on a handknit pullover sweater. US Vogue championed this design as a “masterpiece”, making it a very popular design in the US.
Playing off the success of her first independent design Schiaparelli released more knitwear. Then she began to add variety in the form of beach pajamas, swimsuits, and accessories, the motifs would range in variety and color as Schiaparelli experimented with bolder and bolder designs. The world could not get enough!
The success of combining Haute Couture and sportswear led to American textile manufacturing offering Schiaparelli her first licensing agreements.
In 1934 Elsa Schiaparelli adorned the cover of Time magazine, the first female fashion designer to do so. The attention her designs and her vivacious personality gained her even more notoriety in the form of high profile clientele.
TIME Magazine cover August 13, 1934
The Lobster Dress
If you know anything about Schiaparelli it’s probably the lobster dress, but what led to this iconic design?
After Schiaparelli’s Time cover her collaborations with surrealism artist Salvador Dali would begin. Starting in 1935 with the Newspaper print, where the text of the material was real newspaper articles and headlines about Schiaparelli’s designs. This would also be the first instance of newspaper print being used in textile design for clothing.
Dali and Schiaparelli would often draw inspiration from each other's work, and the lobster dress is a wonderful instance of this. In 1936 Dali made his Lobster Telephone sculpture, which was inspired by the teachings of Freud, and it would serve as Schiaparelli’s inspiration for the lobster dress which Dali would collaborate on.
The lobster motif, positioned somewhat suggestively on the skirt of the dress, is actually a drawing by Salavdor Dali himself. Dali is said to have argued to add more flourish to the lobster but Schiaparelli convinced him that the simplicity of the drawing would work perfectly with her envisioned placement of it on the dress. And she was exactly right.
In June of 1937 Wallis Simpson, American socialite, would pick this dress from the Summer’s Catch collection to wear on her honeymoon and also be photographed for her spread in Vouge.
The Vouge photoshoot, done by Cecil Beaton, would highlight the dress in a two page spread and the photos were also published in Women's Wear Daily. This would all bring much public attention to Schiaparelli’s designs.
Wallis Simpson photographed for Vouge by Cecil Beaton
The lobster dress has since become a calling card of fashion with many iterations and recreations over the years. Here are some examples;
2012 - Anna Wintor wears a recreation of the lobster dress with a twist from the Schiaparelli x Prada collaboration “Impossible Conversations”
2013 - s/s Thom Brown lobster embellished blazer.
Schiaparelli x The Artists
It seemed as though every time the two artists, Schiaparelli and Dali, collaborated the world could never get enough. Starting with the newspaper print(1935) to the lobsters dress(1937) the shoe hat(1938) and the skeleton dress(1938) just to name a few.
Though Schiaparelli was a powerhouse of a designer in her own right, there is no denying her collaborations with Dali produced some of the most memorable pieces of art-fashion.
Zsa Zsa Gabor in Moulin Rouge, 1953, in a Schiaparelli dress
Other well known collaborations with Schiaparelli are; The Aspirin Necklace with Elsa Triolet(1928), Zsa Zsa Gabor in Moulin Rouge(1953), Andy Worhal illustrated an advertisement for Schiaparelli gloves(1953). And these are just scratching the top of the long list of artist collaborators!
Beyond Collaborators Schiaparelli was inspired by many others in the art world, including Pablo Picaso. Schiaparelli’s widely celebrated black gloves with red python nails was a design inspired by Picaso painting gloves on a model's hands which was photographed by Man Ray, another artist Schiaparelli worked with.
In 1954 Schiaparelli closed the Couture House to focus her life on penning her autobiography, ‘Shocking Life’. Come 1973 Elsa Schiaparelli would pass away in her sleep. The Couture House would remain closed until 2012.