Art-à-Porter: Elsa Schiaparelli, the artist who makes clothes

For my column this week, I decided to throw it back to the 1930s, when Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel were the two rivals contending for the title of queen of the fashion industry. Schiaparelli eventually lost that ‘rivalité,’ as her name today is clearly not omnipresent as Chanel. The innovations she brought to designing are nonetheless invaluable, as she was arguably the first fashion designer to think of her clothes as works of art.

The “Skeleton Dress” (1938) is one of Schiaparelli’s most cutting-edge pieces. The Italian fashion icon designed a long black gown that challenged the ideas of femininity of the time by featuring padded shoulders as well as grotesque elements such as an apparent ribcage. The appearance of the dress having actual bones was attained through a trapunto quilting technique. Schiaparelli wanted the wearer of the dress to go against standardized gender norms and to assume femme fatale or vamp-like qualities.

The “Skeleton Dress” is regarded as one of the first examples of power dressing for women and has had a tremendous influence on the work of many contemporary designers, like Alexander McQueen. The motif of the skull/skeleton is found in many of McQueen’s pieces, such as the “Skeleton Heel” he designed for Lady Gaga.

It is, however, impossible to discuss Schiaparelli’s work without addressing her collaborations with some of the most celebrated artists of her time, like Salvador Dalì and Jean Cocteau. Schiaparelli worked with Dalì on her 1938 “Circus Collection” that featured the “Tears Dress,” which is perhaps her most iconic work. Schiaparelli and the Spanish surrealist designed a gown with a trompe-l’oeil effect of torn pieces of fabric falling off the wearer’s body, revealing spots of her signature hue, shocking pink.

This particular dress is a direct reference to one of Dalì’s recurrent oneiric motifs, which is a macabre image of a woman with skin falling off her body. This can be seen in one of Dalì’s less well-known works, “Necrophiliac Springtime” (1936). Another iconic piece that resulted from Schiaparelli and Dalì’s collaboration was the “Shoe Hat” (1937), a headdress shaped like a stiletto that is worn with the sole pointing up. This particular work shows how Schiaparelli was the first designer to incorporate a humoristic aspect in her designs. This is especially true if one were to compare the headdress with the contemporary “Chanel Suit,” which, though still groundbreaking, was unquestionably plainer.

Her collaborations with Cocteau were also successful from an artistic standpoint, and they revealed Schiaparelli and Cocteau’s interest in optical illusions and the duplicitous nature of reality. The duo collaborated on an evening jacket which, on its back, featured a remarkable design that could be interpreted both as a flower vase and as two silhouettes about to kiss. This particular piece speaks to the surrealist view that reality can never be interpreted in solely one way, which is why many surrealists were interested in the irrationality of dreams. Schiaparelli therefore may not have enjoyed as much commercial success as her rival Coco Chanel, but in my opinion, she won the contest with her rival in terms of creative genius.