“She slapped Paris. She smacked it. She tortured it. She bewitched it. And it fell madly in love with her.” That’s Yves Saint Laurent on Elsa “Schiap” Schiaparelli, the great surrealist designer of the modern era, who transformed 1930s fashion with her outré couture that could vie with art. As YSL implies, like many hugely driven, creative geniuses, she was something of a despot and equally given to pithy, final-word-on-the-matter pronouncements. Her autobiography, Shocking Life, is full of them, and she even wrote her own 12 Commandments for Women. Schiap went two up on God, but 10’s a good number. Here are our pointers.
1) BRAINS AND MONEY RAN IN THE FAMILY. Schiaparelli was born in 1890 in an Italian palace. On her mother’s side there were wealthy aristocrats, and Schiap’s childhood was an easy one, though she would grow up to reject this life of moneyed leisure as a hindrance to making art. She came from a line of overachievers. Her father was dean of the University of Rome and a Sanskrit expert. Giovanni Schiaparelli, her uncle, was the famed astronomer who discovered the canals of Mars.
2) SHOCKING BECAME SCHIAPARELLI’S WATCHWORD. The succés de scandale was a trick she learned early. Consider these oft-quoted youthful escapades: as an impish waif studying philosophy in Rome, she published a book of saucy poems that resulted in her family sending her to a convent, where she promptly went on a hunger strike. Not long after this she ditched the convent for an independent life as a London nanny. En route to the big smoke, she was invited to a ball on the spur of the moment. Without a suitable dress, she decided to wear little more than a ream of dark blue fabric wrapped around her body, which predictably began to unwind.
Later in Schiap’s career, her progressive innovations brought the shock of the new. In 1931, tennis champ, Lili de Alvarez, caused a mass intake of breath wearing Schiaparelli culottes for Wimbledon. According to the Daily Mail, any female daring to wear “that divided skirt should be soundly beaten”. The designer’s signature colour was shocking pink, a hue certain to draw all eyes in the room to its wearer. She used it to package her hugely successful perfume, also named Shocking.
3) IT WASN’T ALL ROSES, THOUGH. “Poverty forced me to work, and Paris gave me a liking for it,” Schiaparelli said. Indeed, anyone worried about children draining their creativity should look to her. At 24 she married a philanderer husband called William de Wendt, a theosophist whose lectures she attended in London. When he went AWOL before her daughter was born, her unexpected situation as a single mum spurred her on to become a fashion high-flyer. Her child would grow up to become girl about town Gogo Schiaparelli, or Countess Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha de Wendt de Kerlor to use her full, titled name; their mother-daughter fashion collaborations included designing uniforms for American Red Cross volunteers during the Second World War…
Fashion exhibits have become the average girl’s reason to make the trip to New York – to see the McQueen show. Twitter was all a-twitter about The Met’s announcement about Prada and Schiaparelli. But before these sought-after tickets, there were others – and their accompanying books.