The shocking life of Elsa Schiaparelli, who shaped today’s fashion industry

When it comes to fashion, avant-gardism always involves an element of risk. But it is not always where you expect it. In his memoirs, Lady Glenconner (we were able to meet Princess Margaret’s future lady-in-waiting in the series The Crown) evokes an incident that occurred in the 1940s. The British schoolgirl and her classmates are summoned by an angry headmistress: on this day of celebrations where the parents of boarders are invited, the father of a pupil has been sprayed in the back of the neck by a cheeky young girl suspected of having drawn a water pistol.

The culprit must denounce herself on the spot, under penalty of a general punishment. With a contrite air, the young Caroline Blackwood (who was to become the “dangerous muse” of the painter Lucian Freud) raises a hand. “Well, actually, I think it was my mother.” The eccentric heiress Maureen Guinness wore a hat that day “representing a duck in a pond, with water. Every time she lowered her head the duck plunged its beak into the water, and the moment she sat up the duck had doused the unfortunate Sir Thomas. To the hat, said Lady Glenconner, the fashionista had matched shoes “with transparent plastic heels, with fish inside”.

A touch of dadaist humor typically Schiaparelli. She styled the women with pumps, reversible hats, a lobster or a pothole (poultry included).

But the visionary genius of Elsa Schiaparelli should not be limited to her eccentric creations, as Coco Chanel liked to do. Worried by the phenomenal success of the Franco-Italian who was overshadowing her, the irascible Chanel shrugged her shoulders pretending to make fun of this artist who makes dresses». Because Schiaparelli’s contribution to the fashion industry in the XXe century ranges from commercial practices to technical innovations.

Like Chanel, she was going to do everything to liberate women’s bodies – but unlike the latter, she was also going to blur the lines of demarcation between various fields of creative expression, participating in changing norms and mentalities.

poor little rich girl

Twenty years after the first exhibition devoted to him, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs offers a new retrospective dedicated to the French-Italian seamstress (1890-1973). “Shocking! The surreal worlds of Elsa Schiaparelli» brings together 520 works (clothing and accessories, works of art, jewelry, perfume bottles, posters by Man Ray, Dalí, Cocteau Where Meret Oppenheim), “revisiting his work in order to make the public rediscover his innovative fantasy, his taste for the spectacle and his artistic modernity”.

The origin of this “innovative fantasy” is set in Elsa’s unfulfilling and lonely childhood. Born into a wealthy Roman family in 1890, Elsa wanders off with her two sisters in the corridors of the immense Palazzo Corsini. His father is a recognized academic, his mother a descendant of the Medici. On the walls of the palazzo that has become a museum, you can still admire paintings by Rubens or Caravaggio.

Elsa suffocates there and does everything to escape from it, in the literal sense of the term: the year of her 6th birthday, she manages to escape the attention of her governess for a few hours to follow a brass band. She thinks she’s ugly and tries to germinate seeds in her ears and nostrils in the hope of turning into a bouquet of flowers… The theme of metamorphosis will be omnipresent in her work.

To escape boredom and to provoke her parents (probably the only way to attract their attention), Elsa experiments and develops a pronounced taste for jokes – sometimes poetic, sometimes morbid, generally caustic. In 1954, she shared certain anecdotes in a book, such as this jump out of the window with an umbrella instead of a parachute. The object is a source of fascination for her, especially those imagined by Leonardo da Vinci: she devotes a collection to them.

little beast that rises

His sense of humor can be biting. As revenge for not being accepted at the adult table, she one day finds a way to get her hands on a jar full of chips which she releases under the dinner table. The fleas had a feast, to the dismay of the guests and to the delight of young Elsa.

Insects would often invite themselves into his work, in the form of locust buttons (1937-1938), a oversized bee brooch (1952), or on a famous trompe-l’oeil necklace adorned with a galaxy of beetles and bees (1938). Like the butterfly, an obvious symbol of its own metamorphosis, which inspires another collected in 1937and often came to rest on his creations.

Elsa, who studies philosophy (but dreams of being an actress), writes in 1911 a collection of erotic poems which is worth to her to be sent to boarding school in Switzerland. A hunger strike allows him to put an end to the punishment. A little later, to escape parental pressure (and the threat of a marriage with a Russian aristocrat who does not have the good fortune to please her), she flees to Paris.

Creative madness has already taken hold of her: in a ball gown she made from navy crepe and orange silk, she makes an impression – especially when the seams crack during a frenzied tango, leaving the dress in pieces and the dancer somewhat exposed.

Occultism and heterogeneousness

Aged 23, she is heading for London. She attends a conference there on theosophy, and decides the next day to marry the lecturer. Wilhelm de Wendt de Kerlor is a small-time crook who reads palms and claims to be a medium. Elsa, young, rich and lost, is the ideal prey. What’s more, the estate is somehow familiar to the future seamstress: she grew up under the same roof as her uncle Giovanni, famous astronomer who, convinced of the existence of the Martians, tries to find a way to establish communication with them.

With Kerlor, she learns the basic rules of promotion. It is she who plays the assistants and poses for her publicity flyer, pretending to be hypnotized by her husband. Later, she will have the idea of ​​diverting press clippings concerning her into patterns integrated into her clothes: the client became sandwich womanand paid to be!

Kerlor is deported for illegal exercise of divination. The couple then moved to New York in 1916, and gave birth there to a daughter, Gogo, who contracted poliomyelitis. Kerlor’s charm wears off as quickly as Elsa’s dowry melts. A curious incident – ​​Kerlor grabs their mink bedspread to double her coat – triggers a realization in the young woman. She immediately returns to Europe, her daughter under her arm.

In Paris, her friend Gabriele Buffet-Picabiathe artist’s ex-wife avant-garde Francis Picabiasoon plays a decisive role in Elsa’s life: she introduces her to her friends hobbies, including Jean Cocteau. Elsa drags the devil by the tail. Without the support of her family, she lives for a time with her daughter Gogo in a room under the roof, which they share with rats and mice. To earn a living, she makes some outfits for “Gaby”. His luck turns when his creations catch the attention of the almighty couturier Paul Poiret. For Schiaparelli, it’s the start of a new chapter.

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The shocking life of Elsa Schiaparelli, who shaped today’s fashion industry

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