But when Meryle Secrest published her book Elsa Schiaparelli : A Biography (Knopf) in 2014, my certainty about this well known woman suddenly disappeared. She was of course not the first famous person in history to hide her past. But Schiaparelli’s story was more veiled in mystery, confusion, lies and omissions than most. Even the supply of wonderful photos in the book may have been staged.
Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) was born into a quiet and scholarly family in Rome in 1890. Convinced from an early age of her ugliness, and clear about the need to avoid her parents’ marriage plans, she quickly moved herself to Paris. After Paris she then moved to London where, in 1914, she married a strange conman called Wilhelm de Wendt de Kerlor. After de Kerlor was deported, Schiaparelli followed him to New York. There they had a daughter, Maria Luisa/Gogo but once de Kerlor deserted the family, he was never seen again. Unfortunately for young Gogo, her mother was not a very warm or attentive parent either.
Elsa returned from the USA to Paris in 1922 and had one of those serendipitous events that change lives. Thanks to a friendship with Gaby Buffet-Picabia, ex-wife of the Dadaist artist, Schiaparelli was introduced to a wide range of new and influential artists, including Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp and the incomparable Paul Poiret. Schiaparelli readily acknowledged Dali’s role in designing her fabrics and accessories. And thanked him for introducing her to decadent, arty parties.
Schiaparelli and Dali
photo credit: The Guardian
I imagine that the Pour Le Sport collection, which expanded in 1927, was seen as revolutionary. Her bathing suits, ski-wear and divided tennis skirts, were sensible and smart. Her silk crepe dresses, short fitted suits or jackets teamed with black dresses were classical. She soon added evening wear to the collection, and her Paris business boomed. Her shocking pink colour, used in dresses and perfumes, was memorable.
The Depression years must have been uncertain for anyone in a luxury business. Designers found that increasingly modern and luxurious clothes would not appeal to families who were unemployed and often hungry. So Schiaparelli made masculine, non-luxurious dresses with wide shoulders, narrow waists and zips. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s world came to life in clothes designed for travelling in luxury liners, trains or motoring in streamlined cars. It must have worked; she made an enormous amount of money. In 1935 she was able to move into a huge mansion on Paris' Place Vendome and opened a large salon on the ground floor. By 1932 she was a tough boss, responsible for 400 workers.
She was most creative in the years before war broke out in 1939, teaming up with Dali and Cocteau and obscuring the boundaries between art and fashion. Did Schiaparelli copy Hollywood or did Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo (who moved to the USA in 1924), Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers keep up-to-date with Paris’ trends? Paris designers like Schiaparelli readily acknowledged the impact of film costumes on their work. But with freedom of movement her design goal, Elsa Schiaparelli (and a few other French designers) created the first real style for the modern woman in the fashion capital of the world. Paris, not Hollywood!! But that leads us to another question. During the 1930s, when Schiaparelli and Chanel were great designer rivals, who led and who followed?
The worst part for me was when Secrest reported that the dress designer was most probably a German spy during the early years of WW2. Schiaparelli was a friend both of Otto Abetz, Hitler’s ambassador to France, and Gaston Bergery, one of the Vichy regime’s senior figures. This sounded very familiar. After the Germans occupied France in 1940, Coco Chanel lived with Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage in the Ritz Hotel in Paris. And Chanel became a very close friend of Nazi General Walter Schellenberg
The book Elsa Schiaparelli : A Biography
written by M Secrest
Note the Shocking Pink used in the background
When the war ended and Schiaparelli returned to France, she was questioned by the authorities but never charged with collaboration with the Germans. This again reminds me of Coco Chanel.
Though she hired a young Hubert de Givenchy as her assistant in post-war Paris, Schiaparelli's designs were no longer sensational and her business closed in 1954. She became a cranky old lady.