Elsa Schiaparelli

Elsa Schiaparelli [skap-uh-rel-ee] (1890 — 1973) was an Italian fashion designer. Along with Coco Chanel, her greatest rival, she is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in fashion in the early 20th century. Starting with knitwear, Schiaparelli’s designs were heavily influenced by surrealists like her collaborators Salvador Dalí and Alberto Giacometti. Her clients included the heiress Daisy Fellowes and actress Mae West. Schiaparelli did not adapt to the changes in fashion following World War II and her business closed in 1954.

Her mother was a Neopolitan aristocrat and her father a renowned scholar and curator of medieval manuscripts. She was a niece of astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who discovered the canali of Mars, and she spent hours with him studying the heavens. She studied philosophy at the University of Rome, during which she published a book of sensual poems that so shocked her conservative family that she was sent to a convent until she went on hunger strike. Schiaparelli went on to marry one of her professors, Count William de Wendt de Kerlor a Franco-Swiss theosophist.

Soon after the fall of Paris on 14 June 1940, Schiaparelli sailed to New York for a lecture tour; apart from a few months in Paris in early 1941, she remained in New York until the end of the war. On her return she found that fashions had changed, with Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ marking a rejection of pre-war fashion. The house of Schiaparelli struggled in the austerity of the post-war period, and Elsa finally closed it down in December 1954, the same year that her great rival Chanel returned to the business.

Schiaparelli’s legacy is bringing to fashion the playfulness and sense of ‘anything goes’ of the Dada and Surrealist movements. She played with new juxtapositions of colours, shapes and textures, and embraced the new technologies and materials of the time. Her acrylic, cellophane, a rayon jersey called ‘Jersela’ and a dress of rayon with metal threads called ‘Fildifer’ were the first time synthetic materials were used in couture. Schiparelli created wraparound dresses decades before Diane von Furstenberg and crumpled up rayon 50 years before Issey Miyake’s pleats and crinkles. In 1930 alone she created the first evening-dress with a jacket, and the first clothes with visible zippers.

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