Shockingly Beautiful

Like the scent of Schiaparelli ‘Shocking’ perfume Jane Birkin once brought to a war-destroyed Sarajevo, that lingers in the air decades later, the eponymous fashion label re-invents itself even after closing the door back in 1954. Elsa Schiaparelli and the surrealist movement were an unstoppable force in the 1930’s- the seminal moment when fashion and art came together- with the mutual connection of the wearable and the unorthodox. Schiaparelli made her debut with a trompe l’oeil sweater in 1927 (the same year she opened her Parisian boutique on rue de la Paix). Chic, modern sweater are, of course, triumphs of fitting and this one from Schiaparelli was an artistic masterpiece. She worked with Salvador Dalì, Christian Bérnard and Jean Cocteau. She soon progressed from sweaters to tailoring, with touches that made the observer look twice: pockets like drawers, lobster and acrobat buttons, and in 1936, leather bands painted to look like rippled ribbon. In 1934, she used ‘Cosmic’ fabric, which comprised two layers of rayon tulle in contrasting colors. Together, they gave a watered, wavy effect. Her hats encapsulated her extraordinary approach (among them a shoe hat suggested by Dalì and a wicker basket filled with cellophane flowers), and she designed them for lunch, afternoon, or dinner ‘when your spirits are extremely high’.

During the 1930’s, she was the star whose ability to amuse put every other designer in the shade. Her iconic perfume ‘Shocking’ appeared in 1945. The bottle was based on the voluptuous curves of actress Mae West, for whom Schiaparelli had made a series of dresses including one in lilac broadcloth, and another in black tulle with pink taffeta rose and green leaves for her appearance in a play provisionally entitled ‘Sapphire Sal’. The following year she launched another perfume called The Roy Soleil in a glass bottle designed by Dalì. One of the first editions was sent to The Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson.

In 1954, she closed her house and started to write memoirs, fittingly entitled Shocking Life. In them, she mused on alternative career paths that she could have taken, which included (believe it or not!) being a juggler, doctor, writer, cook, courtesan and a nun. She wrote The Twelve Commandments for Women, which she recommended shopping alone or with a man and included a cautionary advice: ‘Remember- twenty per cent of women have inferiority complexes. Seventy per cent have illusions.’

After a 60-year hiatus, Schiaparelli brand reintroduced itself as a couture house in 2014  at New York Fashion Week and, 80-years later, the brand brought back the famous lobster dress at Paris Haute Couture Fashion week a few days ago. Schiaparelli’s influence was etched all over design director Bertrand Guyon’s collection. Elsa-isms such as the ornate lock, an ivory jacket with two faces in profile or a chocking pink chiffon dress and the notorious lobster bring the meaning of haute to a whole different level! Find bellow a gallery of the haute collection. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did (and still am).

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Photo Credit: Alessandro Garofalo /