As far back as I can remember, I loved using my imagination to create things. I had a special orange box filled with all sorts of items I could use to make just about anything I put my mind to. Scissors, glue, felt pens, stickers, crayons, construction paper – it was a creative girl’s dream box.
Even though it seemed to have everything I could ever possibly need inside, I would sometimes venture away from the box and find things to use for my project that weren’t exactly meant for crafting. My mother’s perfect shade of lipstick, for example, was a definite necessity for finishing the masterpiece in my coloring book where I had managed to stay inside all the lines.
I recently learned about the life of another woman, born almost a century earlier, who was very much like me.
Elsa Schiaparelli (pronounced Skap-a-reli) came into the world in 1890 to a wealthy family in Rome, Italy. She married at age 23 and 6 years later, gave birth to a daughter whom she nicknamed ‘Gogo.’ Almost immediately after she was born, her husband moved out, leaving her to raise their newborn daughter alone.
She decided to move to Paris, France in 1922 and began making her own clothes. She had been receiving financial support from her mother but felt the need to earn an independent income. With a little prompting from her friend and mentor Paul Poiret, one of the top French fashion designers at the time, she became a freelance designer for small fashion houses.
In 1927, Schiaparelli launched her own collection of knitwear using a unique double layered stitch created by Armenian refugees. Her first designs appeared in Vogue, giving her fashion business a huge boost. She added a sports collection the following year and evening wear soon followed.
Schiaparelli was one of the first to design the easy-to-wear wrap dress (1930), a look that flatters all female body types. It was made popular again in the 1970s by American fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg.
During Prohibition in the U.S., Schiaparelli cleverly designed a fashionable “speakeasy dress” with a hidden pocket for a flask of alcohol. It was not long before every dress factory in New York began to copy her designs. But Schiaparelli had a good attitude about it. She was quoted saying, “The moment people stop copying you, you have ceased to be news.”
Schiaparelli also loved being creative with color, shapes, textures, and materials. She became known for her expressive hats including one resembling a giant shoe and another, an oversized lamb chop.
Schiaparelli experimented with synthetic materials such as acrylic, cellophane, and rayon which had never been used before in couture. Not all of the fabrics had been tested for durability, however. When Diana Vreeland, a noted columnist and editor for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, brought her synthetic Schiaparelli dress to the dry cleaners, it melted into a mound of muck!
Despite a few failures, Schiaparelli became quite successful and ended up moving her business to Place Vendôme in 1935, taking over couturier Louise Chéruit’s 98-room salon and work studios. She gave it the name, “Schiap Shop” (pronounced “Skap Shop”).
Like her rival, Coco Chanel, Schiaparelli soon began adding costume jewelry to her collections to enhance her clothing. She wanted her designs to be inspired, original, and distinctive. And, like Chanel, she wanted them valued as an art form and not for the materials used.
Together, Chanel and Schiaparelli helped propel costume jewelry to a socially acceptable level. They are considered two of the most influential people in the fashion industry between the two World Wars.
She is best known for her fanciful, playful designs inspired by nature, circus themes, and signs of the zodiac.
One example of Schiaparelli’s unique nature designs was a clear, Rhodoid plastic necklace with colorful metallic insects inside to give the illusion that the bugs were crawling on the wearer’s neck! (See photo: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/155927)
Throughout the 1930s, Schiaparelli employed several designers including Jean Clément, Jean Cocteau, and Salvadore Dalí to produce jewelry for her. Many of them were surrealist artists like herself who believed in always adding an element of the unexpected.
During the 1940s and ‘50s, Schiaparelli’s jewelry tended to lean more toward the abstract or floral-themed with colorfully combined high-quality rhinestones. Man-made pink and green glass watermelon stones resembling the gemstone tourmaline were often used in costume jewelry during the 1950s.
Watermelon tourmaline from Brazil
Schiaparelli often used these glass stones in her designs. I recently purchased a gorgeous pair of her signed watermelon stone clip earrings from the early 1950s to repurposed into adjustable rings:
She also incorporated textured metal for a look that was chunky and bold as seen in this oversized Schiaparelli clip earring:
Schiaparelli jewelry was not always marked. Her earlier pieces from the 1930s were unsigned. During the late ‘30s, they were signed with SCHIAPARELLI in block letters until 1949. She then licensed an American company, DeRosa, to manufacture her jewelry which was stamped with Schiaparelli in script letters or with a paper tag that reads: Designed in Paris – Created in America.
Schiaparelli dressed leading actresses in at least 32 films and 30 stage productions across Europe and the U.S. including Mae West for Every Day’s a Holiday (1937).
Mae West publicity photo, 1932
She used a mannequin based on West’s measurements which inspired the torso bottle for her best-known perfume, Shocking. The packaging was in shocking pink, one of Schiaparelli’s signature colors which she also incorporated into her jewelry with vibrant pink stones.
Bougainvillea with shocking pink flowers
After France declared war on Germany in 1939, Schiaparelli presented “trench” brown and camouflage print taffetas (crisp, textured silks) in her Spring collection in 1940. But she was not able to continue with new designs as Germany invaded France in May of that year. Schiaparelli sailed to New York for an American lecture tour where she remained until the end of the war in 1945.
Upon her return to Paris, she discovered that fashions had drastically changed, rejecting the pre-war look. In 1947, Christian Dior’s soft, feminine “New Look” had taken over. Schiaparelli did not adapt quickly to these changes and she began to lose sales. Her couture house soon closed after filing for bankruptcy in December of 1954.
Schiaparelli returned to New York, focusing entirely on designing costume jewelry throughout the 1950s which is highly sought after today and very collectible. She also wrote her autobiography, Shocking Life, which was published in 1954.
Schiaparelli then retired and spent her time between her home in Tunisia that she had bought a few years earlier and her apartment in Paris. Her business was sold in 1973 and she died later that same year at age 83.
Much like Schiaparelli, I liked to venture outside the box. And today, I find no problem with also coloring a bit outside the lines. It certainly adds to life that element of the unexpected!
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com
Read more articles in » blog