Elsa Schiaparelli: Everything Old is New Again

Modern fashion has deep roots in the 1930’s, from an Italian fashion designer by the name of Elsa Schiaparelli.   September 10, 1890-November 13, 1973.   This woman crumbled the standards of the fashion world and brought futuristic and eccentric designs to the light during the years between the world wars.  Her avant-garde  style is blatantly seen in today’s fashions.

Quite possibly her most famous ideas and works were the introduction of the fashion runway paired with music,  favoring slim, boyish figures for modeling clothes, wedged shoes, built in bra’s, transparent raincoats, folding eyeglasses and funky furs. 

Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome, Italy on September 10, 1890, of Italian and Egyptian parents.  She was born into high society but she did many things to shock her parents.  At University she published a book of sensual poems which embarrassed her conservative Roman Catholic family.  Schiaparelli was then sent to a convent.  She went on  a 9 day hunger strike and at the age of 22 accepted a job in London as a nanny.   She again shocked the crowd when on her way to live in London was invited to a ball in Paris but had nothing to wear.  She wrapped fabric around her and pinned it on.

Large bow: it was bows that made her famous.

She felt her wealth and status was holding back her creativity, so she left her parents and moved to New York City to pursue a fashion and art career.  During her time in London she met on of her lecturers, Count William de Wendt de Kerlor, a theosophist, whom she married at only 18.   He left her after their child Countess Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha de Wendt de Kerlor a.k.a. Gogo, a daughter, was born in New York City.  Gogo later became a socialite, and now goes by the name Marchesa Cacciapuoti di Giugliano in Italy.

Elsa’s first major break came in 1928,  she’d hand drawn a design of a black sweater with a white trompe l’oeil bow at the neck.   Mainboucher  showed it in French Vogue and Anita Loos purchased the sweaters, and a buyer from New York ordered 40 with skirts to go along with them in their store. 

In the early 1930’s she made often sought out strange materials for clothing.  She used cellophane for a transparent illusion.  She worked with materials such as acrylic,  a rayon jersey called “Jersela” and a rayon with metal threads called “Fildifer” – the first time synthetic materials were used in couture.Some of these innovations were not pursued further, like her 1934 “glass” cape made from rhodaphone, a transparent plastic related to cellophane. She also worked with metal in her clothes. Schiparelli created wraparound dresses decades before Diane von Furstenberg and crumpled up rayon 50 years before Issey Miyake.   In 1930 alone she created the first evening-dress with a jacket, and the first clothes with visible zippers of colors.

Modern art, particularly Dada and Surrealism were “Schiap’s” main inspirations.   She collaborated on a number of occasions with Salvador Dali.   Together they created the “Shoe Hat”, “Tears dress”, and a “Lobster Dress”.   She also designed a lamb chop hat and a bird’s nest hat.  She made some very unique buttons.  They included bullets, insects, cupids, clowns, butterflies, rabbit’s hooves, drums and astrological symbols. Notice the spine and ribcage on the black skeleton dress to the right.

Lobster Dress: painted by Salvador Dali.



Elsa had a love for color.   Her odd combinations were not seen before, such as a black dress with red tights or purples and greens together.  Her most famous color was “shocking pink”, a bright magenta, named after a piece of jewelry one of her clients, Daisy Fellowes owned.  She was ultimately buried in an antique Chinese robe of shocking pink.

In 1937 she created the backwards suit, which was copied in 1986 by Karl Lagerfeld.

Elsa continued to excite, amuse and sometimes offend.   She was referred to as a mad genius who relied on ideas and inspiration, unlike her main rival Gabrielle ” Coco” Chanel, whose craftsmanship was better but lacked Elsa’s style of captivating  insanity.

Her most famous bottle of perfume, Shocking, was made in 1937 and was inspired by Mae West’s tailors fashion dummy torso.  Both Shocking and Chanel No. 5 rivaled each other.

There were 3 stunning fantasy collections in 1938 which Elsa created:

1.  Circus collection: Pink and Blue Children’s Collection.

2.  Pagan collection: Nature and insects.

3.  The Frolic (which became the name of Schiaparelli’s lipstick) of the Harelequin collection.

Elsa left Paris in June 1940 during World War II for New York.  After World War II, Elsa returned to Paris but did not adapt to the changes in fashion.  She did create Zsa Zsa Gabor’s outfits for Moulin Rouge, but ultimately her business closed in 1954, she was 64.  That same year Chanel returned to fashion.  “Coco” Chanel referred to Elsa as “that woman that makes clothes”.

Her perfume line kept Elsa living comfortably until her death on 13 November 1973, from a stroke seven weeks earlier.  She was 77 years old.

Her granddaughters are Marisa Berenson (actress, model) and the late Berinthia Berenson Perkins (photographer), who perished in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.  Elsa has 3 grandchildren, socialite Starlite Melody Randall by Marisa and Oz and Elvis Perkins from Berry and late actor Anthony Perkins.

Daughter Gogo

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anonymous
    Aug 03, 2012 @ 09:03:12

    Loved this article!! I <3 Schiap! She was such a visionary! i was just wondering about the Chanel quote though, as I'd heard that it was "that 'Italian' artist who makes clothes" because of her collaborations with Dali, Cocteau etc


  2. Anne Gibbons
    Dec 11, 2011 @ 06:59:20

    I just found a small cloth clutch bag in my house with the Schiapparelli logo tag on it and have no idea where it came from. It is pink outside with gold markings and a grey lining. Maybe it is a jewelry holder, I don’t know. Can you help with any info on it?


  3. Em
    Jan 10, 2011 @ 14:35:17

    Wonderful post–enjoyed all of the information and the way you put it together. I was looking for pictures of Elsa’s buttons but came away with a lot of interesting tidbits about Elsa’s life and how she fit into her time period.


  4. missavogue
    Jul 31, 2010 @ 07:42:05

    *Gasp* I did my very first fashion History project on Elsa Schiaparelli. The stuff she did with Dali is amazing!!! My favorite was the Tear Dress. It was so beautiful once I realized what it was.

    Thanks so much for posting this! :)


    • pumpkincat210
      Jul 31, 2010 @ 07:50:30

      that’s so cool!! i wrote the post because I realized I knew every other decade of fashion in the 20th century except for the 30’s. I was so surprised that Elsa has inspired SO much..and Salvador Dali is one of my favorite artists, my mother has an original painting by him stored at the bank. The link between them hit home and I cannot help but feel akin to her in some way. And the picture of Gogo at the end..took me nearly 2 days to find.. she has effectively disappeared, especially for a former socialite!


  5. shinypigeon
    Jul 29, 2010 @ 10:44:21



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