Chanel’s archrival Elsa Schiaparelli finally gets her due at the Met
- Last Updated: 12:18 AM, April 30, 2012
- Posted: 9:29 PM, April 28, 2012
In 1913, a young Italian socialite, Elsa Schiaparelli, was invited to Parisian ball. She had nothing to wear, so she bought 4 yards of dark blue crêpe de Chine and 2 yards of orange silk and draped them carefully around her body, creating a sash with half the silk and a turban with the rest. “Thus [I] sailed happily into the ball!” she would later write in her 1954 autobiography, “Shocking Life.”
The dress was her “first couturière’s failure” she explained, because as she danced the tango on the ballroom floor, the pins began giving way, and the dress unraveled. “Had it not been for [my] partner dancing [me] off the floor and out of the room, [my] first meeting with the Tout-Paris might have resembled an act out of the Folies-Bergères,” she wrote, though in the book she refers to herself in the third person or by her nickname, “Schiap” — pronounced “Skap.”
The daring dress — and the carefree attitude about her near denuding — set the stage for one of the most interesting and whimsical careers in fashion.
The designer was, along with rival Coco Chanel, the most influential style maven between the World Wars, says Valerie Steele, museum director of the Fashion Institute of Technology. She dressed the chic women of her day: Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, and was hailed as a genius on a 1934 cover of Time magazine.
“Madder and more original than most of her contemporaries, Mme Schiaparelli is the one to whom the word ‘genius’ is applied most often,” the article read. She is now the subject, along with Miuccia Prada, of the spring Costume Institute Exhibition at the Met, which runs from May 10 through Aug. 19.
“Her influence on fashion, along with Prada’s, is extraordinary,” says Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute. “They both upend ideas of good taste and bad taste, They provoke and challenge what we mean by fashion and what is considered fashionable.”
In the introduction to the show’s catalogue, Judith Thurman lists the innovations Schiaparelli gave us, among them the popularization of “shocking pink” fuschia: “wraparound dresses, shirtwaist jackets, culottes, the overall, the jumpsuit, swimsuits with a built-in bra . . . wedge heels, folding eyeglasses, mix-and-match separates and the power suit.”
But her most memorable looks are those she created with Salvador Dalí. The impish pair made chapeaus shaped like shoes, pork chops and even a vagina. They designed a white organza dress with a lobster painted on the skirt and sprigs of parsley affixed to the bodice, as well as a black “skeleton dress” with ribs sewn on.