Elsa Schiaparelli couldn’t sew and she didn’t sketch, yet she stormed Paris fashion in the 1920s and 1930s. Along with Coco Chanel, her greatest rival, she is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in fashion between the two World Wars. While her contemporaries Chanel and Vionnet set the period’s standards of taste and beauty in fashion design, Schiaparelli flouted convention in the pursuit of a more idiosyncratic style. Her designs were heavily influenced by Surrealists and she Invented the power shoulders, the wedge shoes, the jumpsuit, and the color shocking pink and inspired a generation of unconventional couturiers.
Madder and more original than most of her contemporaries, Mme Schiaparelli is the one to whom the word ‘genius’ is applied most often.
Time magazine wrote of its cover subject in 1934. Of her contemporaries she described Chanel as “that milliner”, while Chanel once dismissed her rival as ‘that Italian artist who makes clothes”.
She came from a privileged background and was born at the Palazzo Corsini in Rome in 1890. Her mother, Maria-Luisa, was a Neapolitan aristocrat, and her father, Celestino Schiaparelli, was a renowned scholar and curator of medieval manuscripts. Her father was Dean of the University of Rome and an authority on Sanskrit. She was a niece of astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who discovered the so-called 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 shocked her conservative family. Schiaparelli was sent to a convent until she went on hunger strike and at the age of 22 accepted a job in London as a nanny. Elsa led a refined life with a certain amount of luxury provided by her parents’ wealth and high social status. She believed, however, that this luxury was stifling to her art and creativity and so she removed herself from the “lap of luxury” as quickly as possible. Schiaparelli moved first to New York City and then to Paris, combining her love of art and design to become a couturier
Elsa Schiaparelli by Cecil Beaton 1930s
Interior designer Elsie de Wolfe wearing a Schiaparelli sequined cape