FASHION HISTORY: Elsa Schiaparelli's Firsts

If you asked anyone on the street today which name they recognize; Elsa Schiaparelli or Coco Chanel, the answer would be unanimous, Chanel would prevail. History seems to have forgotten her, yet during the 1930s, some considered the Italian born Schiaparelli the more creative designer of the two rivals.

Which seems all the more shocking considering she didn’t have any training! She wasn’t educated in pattern making, construction of any technical aspects of clothing at all. She operated on impulse and feeling. She would drape fabric directly on the mannequins, sometimes even on herself, and create from there. Artistry at it’s finest!

Fashion History Elsa Schiaparelli

Credit: Biography

She was inspired by other artists, such as Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. She would often collaborate with artist on her designs and incorporate some of their work into hers. That’s right, Schiaparelli and Dali were precursors to Adidas and Kanye West!

The designer started her business in 1927, working primarily with knitwear, expanding exponentially the following season with linen dresses, bathing suits and ski outfits. Evening wear followed in 1931.

Schiaparelli like most of her contemporaries had to stop her operations during the war. She travelled to New York City and stayed there for most of the duration of the war. When she returned to France, she discovered that fashion has greatly changed in her absence. She tried to reinvent herself and keep up with the times but she had to admit defeat in 1954 and close up shop. Coincidentally, that was the year Chanel came back!

Because her career was so brief, history has diminished her overall impact on the fashion industry.

Luckily, not everyone forgot about her, in 2012, The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted their annual exhibition to her work, in an exhibit called ”Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations”.

On the 125th anniversary of her birth, it’s worth listing her accomplishments and innovative ideas.

First up, the wrap dress, commonly credited to Diane Von Furstenberg in the 1970s, Schiaparelli was one of the first to develop in way back in 1930.

She pioneered bathing suits that incorporate hidden bras, for added support. Which are still present today in pretty much all bathing suits.

She popularized dresses with matching coats, for those chilly nights out on the town. No one had ever done that before!

Québec designer Denis Gagnon has Schiaparelli to thank for designing the first ever garments with exposed zippers. Revolutionary at the time. She even collaborated with zipper and button producers for these garments, since they were receiving much needed publicity through these pieces.

She brought Hot Pink (called Shocking Pink back then) to the forefront. She used it all the time, it was her signature colour. She even named her first perfume Shocking! Today, make-up company Nars has a shade of hot pink called Schiap, in her honour.

Nars Schiap Color

Credit: Nars

She was also a big fan of innovative textiles (as are we), novelty prints and crumpled fabric. She would use fabric to complete designs on her garments, for example woven crepe crumpled together to resemble tree bark. She was the first to experiment with synthetic fabric in couture, absolutely unheard of at the time!

She’s responsible for the divided skirt (commonly referred to as Skort today), first worn by tennis player Lili de Alvarez during the Wimbledon finals in 1931.

As you can see, Elsa Schiaparelli played an instrumental part in fashion as we know it today and she deserves to be thought of as one of the most prominent figures in fashion history.

We owe her so much!




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