At Large  January 27, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Schiaparelli’s Surrealism Lives On in New Collection

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Elsa Schiaparelli, 1948 (negative), c. 1948 (print). Detail. Gelatin silver print. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of the artist, 2005.

This past week, the fashion house of Schiaparelli debuted their couture collection featuring surrealist forms, realistic animal busts, and kitsch designs. The house today is led by Daniel Roseberry, but the designs presented hark back to the founder of this couture atelier: Elsa Schiaparelli. Known for her revolutionary ideas, controversial designs, and collaborations with Surrealist artists, Schiaparelli created clothing that also functioned as works of art. For Roseberry’s collection, he disclosed the inspiration was Dante’s “Inferno,” with pieces that represent the vices of lust, pride, and avarice. It’s no wonder Roseberry chose this poem, after all, he faces enormous pressure to create works that stand next to Elsa Schiaparelli’s, which transcend time.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Photograph of Elsa Schiaparelli wearing a "Napoleon" hat and shocking pink jacket of her own design.


Elsa Luisa Maria Schiaparelli (1890-1973) founded the house of Schiaparelli, but before she was a fashion designer, and even before she she was the head of a couture atelier, she was just Elsa. Born into a family not the least bit involved in the fashion industry, Elsa went on to study Philosophy at the University of Rome. The Schiaparelli’s were a conservative, aristocratic family, and Elsa led a very privileged life. But at the age of 22, she left her parents to travel to London, to become a nanny.

In part, Schiaparelli moved to avoid an arranged marriage. While in London, Elsa, who had an interest for theosophy and the spiritual, attended a lecture by Count Wilhelm de Wendt de Kerlor. After only one day of knowing one another, de Kerlor and Schiaparelli became engaged, and in 1914 they married.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Two Schiaparelli evening gowns. The left gown, from 1951, features Schiaparelli's signature colour, shocking pink. The right gown, featuring a whimsical butterfly print, is from 1937.


In the spring of 1916, the couple took the great transatlantic journey to America. On the ship, Schiaparelli met Gabrielle Picabia, the wife of Dadaist painter Francis Picabia. This friendship helped facilitate Elsa’s entry into the creative and artistic world in New York, where she met Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and other artists. Although New York led her to great friends and influences, it also provided some hardships: while in New York, de Kerlor was under FBI surveillance for his dubious professional practices and his support of the Russian Revolution, the pair had a child who contracted polio, and in 1924, Schiaparelli and de Kerlor were divorced.

Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s and Maison Schiaparelli

Schiaparelli bureau-drawer suit, Photograph By Cecil Beaton

After her split with de Kerlor, Schiaparelli moved to Paris, where she and Gabrielle Picabia teamed up with French couturier Paul Poiret to sell couture in America. Though this proposed project never came to fruition, it ignited a spark for fashion in Schiaparelli. Determined to break into the fashion industry, Schiaparelli struck success when she launched a collection of knitwear, with sweaters embroidered with trompe l’oeil images of bows and ribbons. These sweaters gave the illusion of a scarf wrapped around the wearer’s neck, and was a huge success. From there, her success only continued: Schiaparelli went on to expand her collection to include bathing suits, ski wear, dresses, evening wear, and  more. In 1935, she established the “Schiap Shop”, a 98-room salon.

Courtesy Maison Schiaparelli

Look 16, House signature fragrance bottle Shocking! shaped tailored jacket in black wool crepe. Matching draped skirt in black light wool crepe.The model wears a hammered brass and patina handmade giant’s head mask.

Schiaparelli worked very closely with Surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Together with Dali, Schiaparelli was able to lean into her interests of surrealism, form, and mysticism. An early project of the pair was a perfume shaped like a telephone dial. They also made a dress with lobsters on it, which Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor famously wore on her honeymoon. And most literally from Dali’s art, they presented a collection of women’s suits with furniture drawers on them, like pockets. These reference directly Dali’s paintings, where he used drawers to reference the subconscious. These pieces were even photographed with models holding copies of Minotaure, the Surrealist journal. In addition to Dali, Schiaparelli also collaborated with Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray, and many others.

Courtesy Maison Schiaparelli

Look 10, Bustier dress in hand-painted wool and silk snow leopard faux-fur, with matching hyper-realistic snow leopard head handmade in resin

Just as Elsa Schiaparelli worked with the Surrealists to create historic fashion, Roseberry’s work, too, nods to surrealism. Schiaparelli’s fashion was so successful because her designs were inspired by her own psyche, with complex imagery of her dreams and other provocative concepts. Roseberry’s latest collection for the house of Schiaparelli too, was created out of his own feelings surrounding our consumerist, attention-based society. The faux taxidermy busts of lions, wolves, and tigers quite literally pop off of the models and shock us, but perhaps Roseberry wanted us to reflect on if they are the predators, or if we, the social media filled public, are. 

Regardless of his intentions, Roseberry’s collection fuses art and fashion and continues to elicit powerful responses, just as Schiaparelli’s designs did in the 20th century.

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