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Elsa Schiaparelli, avant-garde fashion designer, Paper Dolls...


Fashion/  Beauty

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"Shocking, the Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli" is the title of an Exhibition that was held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  They used to have a wonderful on-line exhibit with links to teachers' packets, but that's gone now.  But I have a copy of the PDF packet on my site, and you can download it.  Just click to open it, then save it or print it:  Teacher's Packet.  About all that remains of the show, besides their Elsa Schiaparelli collection, is this book that accompanied the special exhibition.



These images of Elsa's fashions are from the Philadelphia Museum of Art's  exhibit, curator Dilys E. Blum.  You can see better images in the accompanying book (above).


Bow-knot Sweater, Hand-knit pullover sweater with bowknot, November 1927, Black and white wool. 


Wrap around dress and coat ensemble, Afternoon dress and winter coat, 1930-31, Black wool and silk


Evening cape spring 1937, Dark navy wool and red silk embroidered with gilt metal thread



Sari dress,  summer 1935, Rayon, metallic thread, and glass beads.  And gloves with painted nail effect made from snakeskin.


Two Evening dresses made in collaboration with Salvador Dalí, one with lobster print , one with tear design (tortured silk), summer/fall 1937, white and red silk organza.

The lobster dress was infamously worn by Wallis Simpson, the Duke of Windsor's wife, who was the reason he was no longer King of the U.K..  She was photographed in the dress by famed photographer Cecil Beaton. 

The placement of the lobster on the 'virginal' white dress has always caused a stir for it's sexual innuendo, and when worn by a woman many blamed for seducing, latching on to, and not letting go of the future King, the dress became symbolic for many and as infamous as she had become. 

Here's another image of it followed by the Salvador Dali lobster telephone from 1936 that is supposed to have inspired the dress pattern.


Butterfly dress, Waltz-length evening dress, summer 1937, Ivory organdy with multi-colored butterfly print


Versailles Cape, Evening cape, winter 1938-39, Black silk velvet embroidered with gold sequins, also called Apollo of Versailles Cape (Met Museum of Art, N.Y.C.)


Flag Dress, Evening dress, summer 1940, Silk printed with flag of the Royal des Vaisseaux


Dinner jacket, spring 1947, Black crepe and pink silk taffeta with paillette and seed-pearl embroidery and jet buttons


This second series of images are from the V&A Museum's image collection.  Click on the image to go to the V&A's page of images, then click on the corresponding image to read more about the item.  You can also access a larger version of the image.


Evening Dress, 1952, Organza, with cotton machine embroidery and velvet appliqué, and under-dress of Thai silk.  Ms. Schiaparelli was supposedly buried in a very old Chinese silk robe of shocking pink.


Jacket, 1938, Silk twill, fastened with cast metal buttons in the shape of mermaids.  From her pink and blue, circus themed line.


Dress, 1940, Black silk crepe, embroidered with pearls, sequins and metallic strip, and fastened with a plastic zip


Evening Coat, 1939, Machine-sewn red grosgrain and machine-sewn red silk


Evening ensemble, 1937, Hand-sewn plaited gilt braid


Evening ensemble, 1938, Rayon marocain, backed with satin, and embroidered with various gilt threads, beads and diamantes


Here are some new images to this page.


Orange silk organza evening dress from 1935 (Met Museum of Art, N.Y.C.)



Magenta, embroidered dinner jacket from 1938 with insect buttons.  Creative buttons that never looked like buttons was a lifelong trademark of Ms. Schiaparelli.  (Met Museum of Art, N.Y.C.)



This blouse and matching handbag are decorated with ration coupons that were necessary in the post-war years to purchase clothing as well as food. From the 1940s.  (Met Museum of Art, N.Y.C.)



Suit from 1940 with the padded, squared-off shoulders that she developed to balance out the natural pear-shape of women.  This style became very popular with movie stars of the era. (Met Museum of Art, N.Y.C.)



Dinner suit and evening jacket with heavy embroidery from 1938. (Met Museum of Art, N.Y.C.)



Ivory silk organza evening gown embroidered with metallic thread, pearls and rhinestones from 1938. (Met Museum of Art, N.Y.C.)


This Elsa Schiaparelli shoe-hat has been co-opted by resent designers as pointed out on this web-log.


Elsa Schiaparelli also designed accessories like shoes, hats, handbags, jewelry, and scarves.  Just do a Google image search on any combination with 'Schiaparelli' and you'll get an eyeful!  Here's a link to a search for 'Schiaparelli jewelry'.

The Woman

What People Have Said About Her

Her Fashion Innovations

Le Shocking

Her 12 Commandments for Women

Some of her Loyal Clients

Her Quotes

Books by or About Elsa Schiaparelli


The Woman

Elsa Schiaparelli (b.1890 Rome, d.1973) was an Italian-born, avant-garde fashion designer working in Paris in the 1920's and 30's.  

She fled the Nazis and worked tirelessly in America to raise money for French relief charities.  She refused to design clothes, despite the many offers to back her, until France was liberated.  

But when she returned to Paris after the war, her flamboyant, creative styles were out-of-step with the austerity of the post-war years.  Her career was over by 1954.  

She wrote her memoirs which were published in 1954:  Shocking Life.  She died in her sleep in 1973.


What People Have Said About Her

Yves Saint Laurent, a protégé and colleague, said:  "Her particular charm?  Her brutality, her arrogance, her self-possession, disdain, storms of anger, odd whims, her Gorgon's mask."  

And she, "didn't want to please; she wanted to dominate".

And, "She slapped Paris. She smacked it. She tortured it. She bewitched it. And it fell madly love with her."

Chanel, her great rival, called her:  "that Italian artist who makes clothes".

Salvador Dalí, a collaborator, said of her salon:  "Here new morphological phenomena occurred; here the essence of things was to become transubstantiated."

She said of her unusual career:  "Poverty forced me to work, and Paris gave me a liking for it."

"Everybody has copied Mummy," said her daughter, Gogo Cacciapuoti, mother of actress Marisa Berenson, and the late photographer Berry Berenson Perkins. 

"She was dying to try out jeans," says Gogo, who later brought her mother Levis from America.

Time Magazine put her on their cover in 1934 because of the importance of her style on American fashion.


Her Fashion Innovations

These fashion innovations of Elsa Schiaparelli's are reclaimed by every generation of fashion designers, or at least reinvented.  But she is the original.

1. Zipper closures on even her evening gowns, for the quick escape from the dress, no doubt, for whatever the reason...

2. Graphic knitwear, knit with emblems, patterns, humorous touches.

3. The wrap-around dress (no, Diane von Furstenberg did not come up with that on her own).

4. Mix-and-match separates for a more flexible wardrobe.

5. The backless swimsuit for the perfect tan on your back.

6. The built-in bra.

7. Culottes and pants for the modern woman, at a time when women were not supposed to advertise that their legs were not actually connected all the way to their ankles, the way many of the outfits of the early century made it look.

8. The wedgie shoe.

9. The jumpsuit.

10. The overall.

11. Paper clothes.

12. Transparent raincoats.

13. Folding eyeglasses.

14. Fun furs.

15. The scarf dress.

16. Colored stockings.

17. Athletic wear or sports wear.

18. Shirtwaist jacket.

19. Ethnic-themed collections, including the turban.

20. Ready-to-wear boutique.

21. Humorous prints on serious clothes, including quotes written on the fabrics.

22. Cast buttons in artistic forms, looking more like broaches than buttons, adding to the piece of clothing, rather than just closing it.

22. The power-suit.  The shoulder pads and inverted triangle shape minimizing a woman's pear-shape.  "The Wooden Soldier look" she called it.  Others call it the "Nutcracker Princess look".  Ouch.

23. Surrealist fashions, like erotic-shaped hats, food-looking accessories, fabrics printed with body parts, bones and organs, and even household furniture, so your breasts looked like a bureau drawer.

24. Synthetic fabrics with bold patterns, and special finishes.

25. Ensemble outfits with coordinated dress, jacket, scarf, etc.

26. Water-proof cottons.

27. The modern idea of a fashion show with a runway, music, art, elongated shape-less women...


Elsa Schiaparelli's famous perfume, 'Shocking' from 1936, has been recreated with all it's over 500 ingredients and 1,000$ price tag, and is on sale by the new Schiaparelli label in Paris. Click on the image of the original perfume above, in the shape of Mae West's curves, to visit their website.


The perfume 'Sleeping' came out in 1938, and the bottle is in the shape of a lit candle in a holder.  She launched 16 perfumes.


'Shock-in-the-Box' a perfume presentation of 'Shocking' by Schiaparelli, circa 1938.


Le Shocking

Shocking pink (hot pink or fuchsia) was Elsa Schiaparelli's signature color.  It has been described by various people in various ways.

Elsa called it:  "life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world put together, a color of China and Peru but not of the West."

Yves Saint Laurent said it had:  "the nerve of aggressive, brawling, warrior pink."

French lingerie shops call it:  "Le shocking".

She called her autobiography:  "Shocking Life".  

And her most famous perfume:  "Shocking" was packaged in a bottle modeled after Mae West's voluptuous figure.


1950s cream satin fitted jacket, is appliquéd with leaves of mink and sprinkled with crystals.  (AP Photo/Union des Arts Decoratifs).


Her 12 Commandments for Women

Always a business woman, many of these commandments were for her business benefit, especially the last!

1. Since most women do not know themselves they should try to do so.

2. A woman who buys an expensive dress and changes it, often with disastrous result, is extravagant and foolish.

3. Most women (and men) are color-blind. They should ask for suggestions.

4. Remember-twenty percent of women have inferiority complexes. Seventy percent have illusions. 

5. 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.

6. Women should listen and ask for competent criticism and advice.

7. They should choose their clothes alone or in the company of a man.

8. They should never shop with another woman, who sometimes consciously or unconsciously, is apt to be jealous.

9. She should buy little and only of the best or cheapest.

10. Never fit a dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress.

11. A woman should buy mostly in one place where she is known and respected, and not rush around trying every new fad.

12. And she should pay her bills.


Bolero jacket, 1938, embroideries of dancing circus elephants and swinging trapeze artists against a background of densely applied rose soutache. Part of her circus inspired designs.(AP Photo/Union des Arts Decoratifs)


Some of Her Loyal Clients

Marlene Dietrich

Wallis Simpson

Greta Garbo

Katharine Hepburn

Tallulah Bankhead

Joan Crawford

Zsa Zsa Gabor


Evening ensemble, 1948, Black silk crepe, with plastic zips


Her Quotes

She had a particularly Italian view of food:

"A good cook is like a sorceress who dispenses happiness."

"Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale."

On fashion:

"Women dress alike all over the world:  they dress to annoy other women."

"Fashion 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."

"In difficult times fashion is always outrageous."



These are some images of Schiaparelli's classic designs from the Schiaparelli website.  I'm afraid they give no dates, but they are probably from the 30's.

A black velvet jacket encrusted with cut-mirrors.


Starburst on a shocking pink cape.


An embroidered evening cape/gown.  And a full-length view.  The two faces forming the vase of flowers was designed by artist avant-garde Jean Cocteau.



Books by or About Elsa Schiaparelli

My list of books by or about Elsa Schiaparelli available at


To broaden your search to the era or contemporaries, you can use this Search tool for  

Just enter 'Books' in the 'Search' field, and names or words in the 'Keyword' field (for example 'Coco Channel').  Then click on the 'Go' button to see what's available, what people's comments about the books are, and what they cost.

Amazon Logo


References:  Many, including those linked on this page, and the article "Mother of Invention" by Judith Thurman from 'The New Yorker', October 27, 2003.





Paper Dolls with Schiaparelli clothing!  What will they think of next?


To see what the fashions were for everyday women in the 1930's, click on the vintage pattern image from the 'Sense and Sensibility Patterns' site.


Click on the above image to go directly to their 1930's section of the incredibly rich site:  Fashion  There is even a paragraph or two on Elsa Schiaparelli.


For more fun and edification with lots of images of wonderful creations, visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Dressing for the Cocktail Hour page.


Visit the Wikipedia page for Elsa