The Nearly Forgotten Fashion Pioneer Who Changed the Way Women Dressed

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Mention the name Chanel and virtually every woman, and most men immediately have a mental picture of the famous logo, eponymous boutiques, couture fashion and famous Fragrances created several generations ago by the fashion doyen Coco Chanel. Ms. Chanel’s professional and personal life has been well-documented in books and movies. Though she has been deceased for many years the Chanel Brand has been protected, nurtured and managed to ever greater heights and is considered one of the most successful luxury goods franchises in history.

Women’s Jackets and Coco Chanel alone among their contemporaries from the first half of the 20th century remain household names. There was another creative fashion artist however who was considered by the connoisseurs of that time to have been their superior in talent, vision and success. Her name was Elsa Schiaparelli and for all of her fame and accolades she is largely forgotten today.

Elsa Schiaparelli was born to an aristocratic Roman family in 1890. Her world as a child was full of books, music, the arts and rich, successful people. As a young Philosophy student at the University of Rome she wrote a fairly scandalous book of erotic poems that enraged her conservative family and they shipped her off to a convent where she promptly went on a hunger strike. She left the convent and undertook a lifestyle change by attempting to leave behind the luxury she had always enjoyed and becoming a Bohemian. Her goal was to be an artist and she delved deeply into Surrealism.

After living a simple life devoted to art and study in New York City and London, young Elsa finally moved to Paris. There she was invited to attend a ball but had nothing to wear. She simply bought some fabric and made a type of wrap dress for herself. She became close to Modernist artists Man Roy and Marcel Duchamp. They, along with the most famous French Couturier of the early 20th century, Paul Poiret, encouraged her to start to design clothes.

Ms. Schiaparelli started her first couture house but it quickly failed by 1926. In 1927 she tried again and launched a collection featuring trompe l’oeil images on sweaters that became the rage. She was featured in Vogue. Her business exploded with the introduction of “pour le sport” line including spectacular linen dresses, bathing suits and ski wear. In 1931 she opened the Schiap Shop on the Place Vendome. The same year the tennis player Lili de Alvarez created a sensation when she played Wimbledon wearing Elsa Schiaparelli’s “divided skirt, the forerunner of shorts. The new shop included an Evening Wear department that became famous and added greatly the House success.

Elsa Schiaparelli is credited with many firsts in the fashion world. These include:

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