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Shockingly Schiaparelli: The Story of an Icon

Shockingly Schiaparelli: The Story of an Icon

Surreal. Flamboyant. Inimitable; The perfect way to describe the concoctive creations of Italian-born designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli’s delight in the unconventional, and her desire to incorporate absurdity into her designs led her to become one of the most remarkable couturières the twentieth century, and equally an innovator in practicality. 

“In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous”

Schiaparelli once stated, “In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous”, suggesting the reliance of fashion as a means of expression as well as rebellion. In the September 1940 issue of Vogue, Elsa Schiaparelli released an article entitled ‘Needles and Guns’, in which she discussed how her dressmaking and design had been compromised by the challenge of the war, and the innovative solutions she had found to the struggle. Schiaparelli stated, “rapidly we learned to do without all these things, however, to depend more and more on personal struggle and on the tricks of our own invention”. Dog leash fastenings and chains had been used on Schiaparelli’s coats and there is an irony in the utilisation of unexpected items in struggle, as the illusion of extravagance remained.

Schiaparelli and the Surreal

Some of Schiaparelli’s most phenomenally bizarre pieces were influenced by Surrealist artists including Salvador Dalí. The Surrealist movement aimed to balance the rationality of life with the unconscious mind, thus portraying strange, dream-like imagery which remained a great source of inspiration for Elsa Schiaparelli. An extraordinary example of the influence of Dalí on Schiaparelli is seen in the 1937 gown known as the ‘lobster dress’. Outrageous and shocking at the time, the gown was created in collaboration with Salvador Dalí. The lobster design, sketched by Dalí, was heavily inspired by his previous work, notably his 1936 creation, ‘Lobster Telephone’, a powerful example of Surrealism through the juxtaposition of unexpected objects.


Throughout art history and Salvador Dalí’s work, the lobster is considered a motif of sexuality and extravagance, heightening the shocking, yet revolutionary, placement on the gown. Wallis Simpson, American socialite, and wife of Edward VIII was featured wearing the scandalous masterpiece in the May 1937 issue of Vogue, shortly before her wedding. Despite the black and white photographs, the gown maintained its shock factor.

Schiaparelli’s lobster gown has remained one of her most notable and recognisable creations that holds its power to this day, and in 2017, eighty years on, the dress was recreated by Bertrand Guyon, Maison Schiaparelli’s former Director of Style.

Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue and Global Chief Content Officer of Condé Nast, gave a nod to Schiaparelli’s lavish past at the 2012 Met Gala, in which the theme was ‘Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations’. Although Wintour’s gown was Prada, the unforgettable, yet more subtle, lobster design brought the legacy of Schiaparelli and Dalí to the red carpet.


Skeleton Dress, 1938. Another one of Schiaparelli's collaborations with Salvador Dalí. (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Shocking Pink

In 1937, Elsa Schiaparelli introduced her signature colour, appropriately named ‘Shocking Pink’. In her 1954 autobiography, ‘Shocking Life’, Schiaparelli stated, “The colour flashed in front of my eyes. Bright, impossible, impudent, becoming, life giving, like all the lights and the birds and the fish in the world put together,”. There is a refreshing irony to the sensational shade, as Schiaparelli took pink, a colour too often stereotyped to represent women, and transformed it into something daring, brave and, of course, shocking. Schiaparelli’s ‘Shocking Pink’ gained much recognition and caused a sensation, especially in the film industry, as she designed Zsa Zsa Gábor’s gown in John Huston’s 1952 film ‘Moulin Rouge’.

‘Shocking Pink’ served as an expression of empowered femininity and fearlessness and continued to gain attention from influential figures such as Diana Vreeland, former editor-in-chief of Vogue, and iconic films such as ‘Funny Face’, 1957, in which editor-in-chief Maggie Prescott exclaims, “Think Pink!”, “In pink she’ll be Harper’s Bazaar-able”. This hue revolutionised femininity within fashion and acted as a form of expression against tired convention, all in good style. Elsa Schiaparelli holds her place as the conductor of a lavish orchestra of social change and modern femininity and will forever be recognised as a pioneer of revolutionary fashion.



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