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Elsa Schiaparelli – Eccentric Chic

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973)  Italian

Wallis Simpson by Cecil Beaton.

Elsa Schiaparelli created simple wearable clothing with elaborate or eccentric trimmings and details. She was known for unusual, sometimes trompe l’oeil effects. In fact, her first design was for a black pullover depicting a white bow as if tied around the neck.* Once disparagingly called “the Italian artist who makes dresses” by Coco Chanel, the description was accurate. The art of her clothes was the focus, not trend-making style. She was one of the first designers to link fashion with the fine arts.

The beginning, 1927.

*As a bonus, a pattern for the sweater that started it all is available here.

Silk blouse, 1938-39.

Most famously known for naming a hot pink color Shocking Pink and her collaborations with Salvador Dali (“Lobster” dress, “shoe” hat) and Jean Cocteau, the great workmanship in her clothes has somewhat faded to the background. However, she left a legacy of clothes that combined elegance and immaculate tailoring. She was not afraid to be imaginative with textiles. She had no qualms using mattress ticking as a couture fabric along with new manufactured fabrics consisting of rayon, new configurations of cellophane, and a glass fiber-infused fabric called Phodophane that was used to construct her glass tunics.

Jacket, 1938-39.

As always, she produced items with a great sense of humor and fantasy. Even her perfume, Shocking, was packaged in a dressmaking dummy shaped bottle modeled on Mae West’s famous measurements. Her garment embellishments ranged from depictions of body parts embroidered or appliquéd on garments to illustrative and decorative pockets, labels, and highly stylized buttons as fasteners. In fact, she bolstered the button industry with her penchant for fanciful, decorative, themed buttons such as 6 to 7-inch long hand mirrors and buttons resembling various insects and circus aerialists.

Schiaparelli, Vogue 1098.

Home sewing connection: She created Vogue Paris Original Model patterns during the 1940-50s that incorporated details such as clever hidden pockets and dramatic collars and necklines.

Hollywood connection: During her work in Hollywood, she designed Mae West’s costumes for Every Day’s a Holiday (1937) and she designed costumes for Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1952’s Moulin Rouge.

Gown, 1948.

Her style, innovations, and influence on fashion:

  • Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali designed fabric prints that she used in her clothing such as her Salvador Dali collaboration on a white evening dress emblazoned with a large red lobster for Wallis Simpson.
  • For her retail business, she created traffic-stopping window displays.
  • Her surrealistic motif of three-dimensional hands clutching the chest of a garment has been reinterpreted by many designers, most recently, Comme des Garcons in 2007 and Hussein Chalayan in 2010.
  • She was the first couturier to highlight functional zippers as part of the design. Even though they were dyed to match the fabric, they were meant to be seen.
  • First designer to delve into merchandising, she created her own line of accessories, trimmings, handbags, hats, and jewelry.
  • In 1954, she authored her autobiography, Shocking Life.

Evening cape, "Circus" collection, 1939.

Images: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Sources: Dressmakers of France, (1956) Mary Brooks Pickens, Dora Loues Miller; Secrets of the Couturiers, (1984) Frances Kennett; Fashion (2003) Christopher Breward; 100 Dresses, (2010) Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The World’s Most Influential Fashion Designers (2010) Noel Palomo-Lovinski.

Lisa Williams



December 1, 2010 #

Elsa Schiaparelli is my favorite couturier. I just love the combination of art and fashion and the strong female figure she was in that time (and still is through her fashion).

Thanks for posting this!


January 11, 2011 #

Oh , Wow how stunning…