Elsa Schiaparelli: Elsa The Lioness
My favourite, well second favourite commandment of Schiaparelli’s twelve commandments is ‘Never fit a dress to the body, but the train the body to fit the dress.” It makes you wonder what she’d make of the whole size zero, models starving themselves, surviving only on loo roll soaked in orange juice debate. Surely striving for thinness is the embodiment of training your body to fit a dress.
She did after all dress Wallis Simpson, a woman whose mantra was that you could never be too rich or too thin. She then stated that “20 percent of women have inferiority complexes, 70 percent have illusions. While, “ninety percent are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say. So they buy a gray suit. They should dare to be different.” Before declaring that “a woman should buy mostly in one place where she is known and respected, and not rush around trying every new fad.” Which also makes you wonder what she’d make of fashion today, especially the idea of fast, disposable fashion all of which is fad led, and magazines preaching that this is the season of florals and minimalism. Yellow and nautical detailing. Fashion after all “is born by small facts, trends, or even politics, never by trying to make little pleats and furbelows, by trinkets, by clothes easy to copy, or by the shortening or lengthening of a skirt.” Her commandments aren’t really commandments, more observations, but then as a guide of something to live by you could do worse. They’re certainly more fun than the original 10.
Now the maison is throwing its doors open once again and paying tribute to its iconic founder with a unique couture collection designed by Christian Lacroix. Debuting in July, the 15 piece capsule collection pays homage to Schiaparelli’s legend by ‘interpreting her iconic creations while perpetuating her timeless image. As Christian Lacroix says of the legendary designer, “Elsa is a sacred sphinge who never ceases to interrogate us while offering us new enigmas as answers. Art, theater and cinema… my wish is to reposition Elsa at the center of her maison and on the stage from which she once seduced the world.”
Her clothes were more fun than anyone elses too. She imbued her work with a sense of playfulness. Her infamous divided skirt, or culottes as I would now be called caused controversy when it was worn by Lili de Alvares at Wimbledon in 1931. The design that first bought her recognition though and set her on her path was a trompe l’oeil bow sweater in black and white which gave the impression of a scarf wrapped around the neck. The sweater was an instant hit and set her on her path of collaborating with the surrealists in the 1930’s on avant garde designs that caused people to do a double a take. Gloves with appliquéd fingernails? Why not. There is always more to a Schiaparelli creation than first meets the eye.
It’s the surrealist work for which Schiaparelli is best known. Her most frequent collaborator was Salvatore Dali with whom she created some of her most famous designs. The Lobster dress of 1937, inspired by Dali’s use of lobsters in his own work, most famously his lobster telephone, the white dress with crimson waistband was printed with a giant lobster that gave the impression of crawling up the leg of it’s wearer, in this case Wallis Simpson, who was famously photographed in it on the eve of her marriage to Edward VIII. The Skeleton dress used quilting set against black crepe to create the effect of a skeleton, with padded bones whereas the Tears dress was a return to trompe l’oeil. The print gave the illusion of torn animal flesh, a theme that had appear previously in Dali’s work. There was also the day suit, designed to look like a baroque chest of drawers, complete with pockets embroidered as individual drawers that curved over the hips. The shoe hat came about from a photograph of Dali, taken by his wife, wearing one of her shoes on his head. Stephen Jones, at least I think it was Stephen Jones, I can’t for the life of me find where I read that it was Stephen Jones, called the shoe hat the greatest hat ever conceived. He also said the same of a punk wearing a hollowed out loaf of bread, Truth be told, if Schiaparelli had been around during punk it probably would have been her wearing the loaf of bread on her head. She did after all wear hat shaped like a lamb chop. She also collaborated with Cocteau, creating a jacket embroidered with a female figure whose blonde hair cascaded down one sleeve and whose hand embraced the waist of its wearer. A coat was embroidered on the back with two profiles facing each other, red lips almost touching, creating an optical illusion of a vase in the space between them, that was filled with roses. The shoulders of the coat were embroidered in a riot of pink roses.
Her grand daughter Marisa Berenson, once said of her, “she was bigger than life in the way she saw things and expressed things. She was full of ideas. She had tremendous imagination and fantasy about everything, including her own life. It was Schiaparelli who first came up with the idea of themed collections, designing around the concept of the zodiac, or circus. To celebrate the opening of her new boutique, she printed fabric with her own press clippings, an idea adapted by John Galliano who used the newsprint print for the packaging of his own label. Her first perfume, Shocking, was housed in a bottle that was an exact, scaled down replica of Mae West’s torso, an idea that Jean Paul Gaultier has taken and run with for his own fragrances. Though whether his bottles are modeled on the torso of Mae West is unknown. She came up with the concept of a wrap dress long before Diane von Furstenberg made the cover of Time for popularizing it, and embraced and experimented with man made fibres, creating garments made of crinkled rayon before Issey Miyake came up with the idea of Pleats Please. Yves Saint Laurent was so taken with her work he created a called les yeux d’Elsa for his A/W 81 collection.
It’s hard to think of another designer whose legacy has been so influential, to whom other designers still turn for inspiration till this day. Who saw fashion not as art or something precious, after all “a dress cannot just hang like a painting on the wall, or like a book remain intact and live a long and sheltered life”. What is the point of clothes if not to live in them? Yves Saint Laurent said of her that “she slapped Paris. She smacked it. She tortured it. She bewitched it. And it fell madly in love with her.” It remains madly in love till this day.
Taken from Issue 47 of 10 Magazine