Taylor’d With Style: A Pink Legacy
by JeanAnn Taylor
Fashion during the early 1900s was filled with dramatic changes. In the beginning, women wore corsets with layers of petticoats, they also kept their ankles and arms covered. Then, two women introduced fresh ideas transforming the path of fashion design forever: Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.
Coco’s designs eliminated cinched-in waists and brought a mannish, comfortable vibe to women’s fashion. Coco’s designs were elegant and sophisticated. She made casual sportswear popular. Coco Chanel was considered to be the uncontested queen of modern fashion. Then, in the mid 1920s, along came Elsa Schiaparelli.
Elsa Schiaparelli was born in Rome in 1890, seven years after Coco’s birth. She was born into an aristocratic family, one that was too busy and emotionally distant to give her the affection and attention she needed. She was expected to marry a wealthy, yet unattractive Russian in a pre-planned arrangement.
However, in 1911 she published a series of sensual poems. When they were discovered by her parents, she was sent to a convent in Switzerland. Unhappy there, she went on a hunger strike and was allowed to leave. To escape the pre-planned marriage, Elsa moved to London to work as a nanny. This was the first time she felt true freedom.
It was also there that she met Count Wilhelm Wendt de Kerlor and fell in love. They married in 1914 and moved to New York in 1916. On the trip to America, Elsa met Gabrielle Picabia, the wife of a Dada painter. Their friendship opened the door for Elsa to meet many early 1900’s avant-garde artists—artists who inspired her throughout her career.
In 1920, Elsa had her first child, nicknamed Gogo. Sadly, her happiness as a wife and mother was short-lived as her husband began spending her inheritance—and time away from home. To make matters worse, Gogo contracted poliomyelitis.
Elsa then packed up and headed to Paris where she could find the medical treatments Gogo desperately needed. There, Elsa found a job at a local antique shop. After work she frequented restaurants where artists gathered and became infatuated with the surreal art of the era.
Elsa’s life reached a turning point when she accompanied a friend to a fitting with Paul Poiret. As she waited on her friend, she tried on a few of his designs. Poiret watched and thought she would make an excellent model.
He saw the value of her wearing his designs around town, so he let her borrow a few. By wearing his high-fashion designs, Elsa learned to embrace the luxurious lifestyle of the wealthy. She fell in love with well-fitting clothes, high-quality materials, innovative designs, and saturated colors.
In the mid-1920s, Elsa continued to surround herself with artists. Their influence led her to design simple, yet radical garments. One of her first creations was a hand-knit pullover sweater with a black and white trompe-l’oeil* motif.
Her design was an instant success. By 1927, she opened the doors to her fashion house, Schiaparelli—Pour le Sport. Her use of abstract motifs and unexpected color-play was a key element in her unique designs.
These innovative garments included jumpsuits with visible zippers, culottes, strong-shouldered suits, and reversible black and white evening gowns—with plunging necklines. In 1934, she was the first female fashion designer to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.
The rivalry between Coco and Elsa began early in her career and continued until the end. As Coco was accustomed to being the most sought after designer, she felt betrayed by her friends who went to “that Italian artist who makes clothes,” as Coco called her.
Elsa retaliated by calling Coco, “that hat maker.” Patrons such as Ginger Rogers, Vivian Leigh, and Mae West helped to make Elsa successful, much to Coco’s chagrin. A particular painful occasion was when Wallis Simpson announced her marriage to the newly-abdicated King of England, Edward VIII, wearing Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress—a white silk evening gown with lobsters painted on the skirt.
Their rivalry was so intense, Coco once succeeded in setting Elsa on fire. “Innocently” enough, while attending a costume ball, Coco asked Elsa to dance. Coco was dressed as herself, but Elsa was dressed as a tree. As they danced, Coco led Elsa into a chandelier lit with candles. Elsa was saved from burning by guests who threw water on her.
Our choice of clothing always makes a statement, but in the 1930s, clothing was used to send messages oblivious to many today. Women in this era recognized the importance of what they wore and they went to great lengths to send the appropriate message. Both Coco and Elsa designed garments for the strong, independent woman, but Coco’s designs were classic, sophisticated, and elegant, while Elsa’s flair for surrealism led her to create eccentric, unexpected, and outlandish designs.
Like Coco, Elsa drew inspiration from men’s clothing. She created the first coat-shirt in 1935, and was the first to give her collections a theme. The Parachute Look and the Circus Collection were two of her most sensationalized collections.
Elsa created many bizarre pieces: the shoe hat—a hat with the heel of a shoe pointed to the sky; hats with insects embroidered on them; a dress with a skeleton form quilted in the fabric; ankle boots fringed with long monkey fur; long gloves with red python nails, and a purse shaped like a telephone.
While Coco accessorized with layers of classic pearls, Elsa accessorized with feathers, buttons shaped like prancing horses, and other exotic baubles.
Another difference in the two designers was their use of color. Coco primarily created with black and white. Elsa experienced with bright, vivid colors. Before Schiaparelli, the color pink was not often used in fashion.
Then in 1937, she created Shocking Pink, a bold, ultra-bright magenta that became synonymous with her name. This signature color stood out among the dark-colored garments of other designers. Elsa wasn’t the first to “think pink” but her influence gave the hue a powerful and lasting impact.
Elsa also followed Coco into the perfume business. Her fragrance, Shocking!, was created in the bright pink hue she became known for. While Chanel No. 5 was sold in a simple, rectangular bottle, Shocking! was sold in a bottle shaped in the form of Mae West’s bust. It was also decorated with porcelain flowers and a velvet measuring tape.
In 1940, Elsa was forced to close her Couture House due to WWII, but continued to make practical clothing such as jumpsuits with pockets and transformable dresses. In 1945, the War was over and many women began traveling.
Schiaparelli accommodated their fashion needs by creating the Constellation Collection. It included six dresses, a reversible coat, and three folding hats—all under twelve pounds. This innovative collection was another instant success.
For the next nine years, she watched the world of fashion change. The spiral down to a casual and insouciant mindset discouraged her so that she closed her Couture House in 1954. After closing, she focused on writing her biography, Shocking Life. Elsa Schiaparelli died in her sleep in 1973.
Although Coco came from poverty and Elsa came from wealth, they both came from dysfunctional families and suffered from loneliness as children. They both grew into strong, independent women, and they both—in different ways—found success in a man’s world.
While Coco used her sewing skills to create her designs, Elsa, who had no formal training, sketched her designs and had local tailors sew them. Coco often relied on the money of her suitors to finance her goals. Elsa relied on her artist friends for inspiration and encouragement.
Despite their many differences and conflicts, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli both had the insight to visualize what they wanted, and they both made it happen.
*trompe-l’oeil: realistic imagery that creates an optical illusion