Elsa Schiaparelli was an Italian fashion designer who was prominent during the time between World Wars I and II. She can best be described as the anti-Chanel (in fact, the two were even considered rivals). Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest is more about designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s contributions to fashion than about her life. The book (out tomorrow) details Schiaparelli’s surrealist influences and the new inventions she brought to the fashion world. I had heard about Schiaparelli before, but didn’t know much about her except that she designed fun clothes with surreal touches. Even though she was considered Coco Chanel’s main rival, her fashion house closed in 1954, so most people don’t know who she was. After recently reading (and loving) a biography on Coco Chanel (in which she dismisses Schiaparelli’s designs), I decided to check out Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography.
I really enjoyed reading this book. It was very interesting to read about Schiaparelli’s designs and innovations, especially since most of them are still around today. Schiaparelli began her fashion career with sweaters featuring a trompe l’oeil effect and expanded from there. Even though many of her designs were a little out there (her lamb chop and high-heel hats come to mind), a lot of them were based on practicality. Schiaparelli was the first to design evening jackets so party-goers could stay warm and still look fashionable. Around the time of World War II, when people were traveling a lot, she designed clothes with large pockets to hold personal items. She also created a version of a wrap dress and was one of the first designers to embrace zippers because she wanted clothes that were easy to put on.
I was surprised by how many of Schiaparelli’s ideas I still see today. She fully embraced the surrealist movement and created pieces like sweaters with lines that looked like ribs (providing an x-ray effect), long gloves with red fingernails and rings on them, newsprint scarves, and fur shoes. She worked with different artists to create prints and buttons on her clothes always looked like something else (acorns, carrots, faces, coins). She was the first to add extra support and padding to swimsuits and dresses. “Shocking pink,” a hot pink color, became her signature, and she even created a perfume called Shocking. The bottle was a woman’s torso with flowers instead of a head. Schiaparelli was also well-known for using brightly-colored coq feathers on everything, which Hollywood fully embraced.
I really liked reading about Schiaparelli’s designs, but there wasn’t much in the book about her as a person. Secrest writes that there isn’t a lot of information out there about who Schiaparelli was, and even her own autobiography seems embellished and not completely true. The lack of concrete information makes the biography feel impersonal- it’s full of facts but not much about the person behind them. After reading Elsa Schiaparelli by Meryle Secrest, I know a lot about the fashion she created, but not much about her, her influences, or her feelings. I still enjoyed the book, but after reading the wonderful Chanel biography, I was a little let down by this one.
3.5 out of 5.
Disclosure: I received a copy of Elsa Schiaparelli by Meryle Secrest from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.