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Elsa Schiaparelli and her Impact on Fashion

Updated on May 6, 2016

Elsa Schiaparelli 1890-1973

Her Legacy

There probably has not been a designer with such a huge impact on modern fashion yet forgotten by name than Elsa Schiaparelli. Her whimsical designs transformed fashion. Much of her style is still incorporated today.

Conceivably her most popular works were:

  • the presentation of the runway modeling combined with music
  • androgynous models
  • colorful zippers
  • the wrap dress
  • wedged shoes
  • culotte’s
  • built in bra’s
  • “ready to wear” couture (at the time all was specifically tailored for the client)
  • clear raincoats
  • the backwards suit (which was copied by karl Lagerfeld in the 80’s.)
  • fabric with newspaper clippings as the design
  • gloves with painted fake nails attached
  • jackets with straight shoulders (a precursor to the "power suit")

Elsa's Beginnings

Of Italian and Egyptian heritage, Elsa was born in Rome on September 10, 1890 in the Corsini palace. Her mother was a descendent of the Medici’s and her father director of Lincei library and professor of Oriental literature. Her aristocratic family afforded her the chance to mingle with elite members of society. Her older sister was considered a beauty while Elsa was told she was plain. The negative attention changed her life. However, Elsa was non-conformist and believed fashion would make up for her looks. While attending college at Sapienza University of Rome, she distributed a book of "adult" poetry, Arethusa, which embarrassed her Roman Catholic family. They sent her to a religious community where she went on a 9 day hunger strike. By the age of 22 she’d left home for London where she became a nanny. During her journey to London, she was invited to a ball in Paris. Traveling and with nothing appropriate to wear, she wrapped herself strategically in fabric in order to attend. Her attire was a hit, but while dancing, her dress started to come unpinned but she was able to exit before it fell off entirely.

While living in London she met Count William de Wendt de Kerlor, a theosophist, at a lecture, whom she married.

Family and Early Success

In London, she was still recognized as a woman from a wealthy family and she felt this stifled her creativity. They moved to New York City to continue her education. Elsa became pregnant and gave birth to a girl, Countess Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha de Wendt de Kerlor. While still very young, her daughter caught Polio. With her husband gone much of the time Elsa asked for a divorce.

Because Europe offered treatments for polio that the United States did not have, Elsa and her daughter moved to France in 1922. Gogo, (her daughter's nickname) did recover.

Elsa was a frequent patron at the famous LeBœuf sur le Toit, where she met people that would help her become famous.

Elsa's first real break came in the late 1920’s, she'd hand drawn a configuration of a dark sweater with a white bow at the neckline or trompe-l’œilmotif. She received a request from a buyer to make 40 shirts with skirts to match to sell them in their store. Her sweater was declared ingenious by Vogue. By 1932 she had opened a shop in Paris “Schiaparelli – Pour le Sport Pour la Ville, Pour le Soir” or Schiaparelli Sportswear, City and Evening Wear, and had over 400 employees. In the United States her combination of sportswear and couture were a major hit, much of her success is owed to the American textile manufacturers who licensed her first designs.

Trompe l'oile or Bowknot Sweater


Shocking Pink Schiaparelli Label

Success in Paris

In the early 1930s when the great depression and beginning of the Second World war made expensive materials unattainable for most people she would use odd materials that were plentiful, for attire. She utilized cellophane for clothing. She made dresses only using one piece of fabric fashionable. She also worked with metal string in her garments.

In 1934 she became the first female fashion designer to be on the cover of Time magazine.

Elsa was at the height of her success. Her famous clientele included: Wallis Simpson, the future Duchess of Windsor, Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, Vivien Leigh, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney, Gala Dali, and Mae West.

Schiaparelli was Highly influenced by Dada and Surrealism, the paranormal and psychic ability. She worked together on various events with Salvador Dali. Together they made the "Shoe Cap", "Tears gown", Skeleton gown and a Lobster gown. Dali liked to put a shoe on his head while thinking. And together they designed a hat, the looked like an upside down high heel when it was worn. She also designed a lamb chop hat, a birds nest hat and a hat that swooped over the eye with a cutout to see through and a cutout eyebrow. She made some extremely extraordinary buttons. They included clowns, bugs, hearts, bullets, cupids, rabbits feet, astrology signs, butterflies.

She also collaborated with poet Jean Cocteau, Lina Beretti, Perugia, Lesage and others.

The use of color in fashion did not scare Elsa and she made combinations that were quite a contrast to the usual muted colors of the time. Her most signature color was “shocking pink”, a hot pink. The inspiration was a piece of jewelry owned by, heiress to the singer sewing fortune, Daisy Fellowes.

During her life, Schiaparelli produced eight perfumes, but in 1937 she developed her most famous perfume, called “Shocking!”. The bottle was pink and in the shape of Mae West's figure. At the time the it was rivaled by another famous perfume, Chanel No. 5. Just as art imitates life, she was at odds with fellow designer, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel. Chanel called her “that Italian woman that makes clothes”.

The clothing that Coco Chanel designed was considered to be better sewn but it lacked the flair, creativity and sometimes offensive designs that Elsa was famous for.

Lobster Dress Collaboration with Salvador Dali

Fashion, World War 2 and Late Success

In 1940 she left war torn Paris for the United States where she gave a series of conferences “Clothes and the Woman”. In Dallas she was received the Neiman Marcus award for her contributions to fashion. Despite the war, Elsa returned to Paris. As an Italian citizen living in France she was at an increased risk of danger. Once again, in 1941, she left for the United states. When the war ended in 1945 she moved back to Paris. She appeared on the cover of the New York Times in 1949 because of the success of her Constellation wardrobe collection.

In 1947 she hired Hubert de Givenchy as the creative director of her boutique.

But her popularity was not to last. She was rumoured to have been a sympathizer to the French Vichy government which had collaborated with the Nazi’s. The time of rationing was over and women returned to the fashion styles of earlier times, which included corsets and more conservative tastes. Elsa did not adapt to the times and her main competitor was Christian Dior. was One of her last contributions was Zsa Zsa Gabor’s outfits for Moulin Rouge.

In 1953 Elsa comes out with a line of menswear.

At the age of 64, she closed her business, it was 1954. She went on to write an auto-biography.

Elsa died on 13 November 1973, from a stroke suffered two months earlier. She was 83 years old. She was buried in an antique Chinese robe, the fabric was Shocking Pink in color.

Her legacy did not die with her. Along with her many contributions to the fashion industry she had 2 grandaughters by her only child, nicknamed Gogo.

Her granddaughters are Marisa Berenson an actress and model in the 1970s and the late Berinthia Berenson-Perkins (photographer, wife of late actor Anthony Perkins), who died in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Elsa three great-grandchildren.

Women dress alike all over the world: they dress to be annoying to other women. -Elsa Schiaparelli

Skeleton Dress collaboration with Salvador Dali, 1938

Birthplace of Elsa Schiaparelli

Corsini Palace:
Palazzo Corsini, Via di Parione, 11, 50123 Firenze, Italy

get directions

Birthplace of Elsa Schiaparelli

Video: Famous Firsts


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5 out of 5 stars from 1 rating of Elsa Schiaparelli and Her Impact on Fashion


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    • pumpkincat210 profile imageAUTHOR

      Courtney Rhodes 

      3 years ago from Houston, Texas U.S.A.

      Thank you:) She definitely was non-conformist and deserves more recognition. My curiousity about fashion in the 30's is how I discovered her. It seems like it was a lost decade however it seems it was one of the most influential.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 

      3 years ago from North Texas

      Very interesting. I guess we haven't heard much about her because she offended the establishment -- but not so much they wouldn't steal her ideas. A great story, and enjoyed the read! Voted up!

    • amiebutchko profile image

      Amie Butchko 

      3 years ago from Warwick, NY

      Love this hub. Very interesting. I love reading about fashion of this era.


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