There are many extraordinary designers that we look back upon with great admiration. And then there is Elsa Schiaparelli. I am not sure where or when have I first heard of Elsa Schiaparelli. Still, there is a vague picture in my head of sitting on the floor of my teen room whilst going through the pages of a freshly printed fashion magazine and spotting her lobster dinner dress next to the lobster telephone made by Salvador Dalí. I thought it was witty and peculiar. As I later found out, so was her entire life work.
To describe Schiaparelli’s work with only those two words ‘witty’ and ‘peculiar’ would be a misconception at best and dishonour at worst. She was a practical designer that favoured severe tailoring and relentlessly indulged in colour and ornaments, but most importantly, she was the supreme artist-designer and a fierce collaborator. There are many artists who provoke deep curiosity in us. And then there is Elsa Schiaparelli. I love Elsa. I envy her. I despise her and I adore her. I want to get to know her and I want to know everything about her. I see her in pictures and observe her face and her looks. I want to peel away the layers of Elsa as one peels the onion. I read about Elsa in her own words and I want to be her.
There I am – a young Elsa, growing up at the Palazzo Corsini in Rome. My uncle, the famous astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, shows me what Mars looks like through a telescope and tells me stories of Martians harvesting their crops on this faraway planet. Even though my uncle noticed that I am born with the Great Bear constellation on my cheek, I am told I am ugly, so I plant seeds of daisies and nasturtiums and morning glories in my ears and throat and mouth. I want to see them sprout and make me beautiful. I want to be a writer, so I write a book of poems. It is published when I am only fourteen.
There I am – a young Elsa, travelling to London and falling in love. I marry. I move to New York. I am pregnant. I am a single mother.
There I am – Elsa in Paris, the unrestrained and courageous Elsa. There are spectacular others who meet me; Amelia Earhart, Katherine Hepburn, Coco Chanel, Marlene Dietrich,… What do they see through their eyes when they meet me? I create surrealist dresses with Salvador Dalí, with Jean Cocteau I create jackets. Their work is dreamy and I understand it. My work is shocking. I lead a shocking life. Travels take me to the most peculiar places and then the war comes.
There I am – Elsa in the United States during the war. I decide I should organise exhibitions and concerts to enliven the French culture and art in the States. Contemporary artists flock to exhibit Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, Fernand Léger, and Marcel Vertès. But soon, I am back at school and I start my work as a nurse’s aid at the American Red Cross. This humble job of helping people, washing their hurting bodies and listening to them makes me gain courage and self-respect. I watch heart operations and tumour removals and this notion of the complexity of the human body makes me feel peaceful.
There I am, back in Paris after the war. At Place Vendôme, I am back at work, enjoying the thrill of dressmaking again. Elsa, the dressmaker by pure chance.
Reading about Elsa’s life in her own words makes me long for her sense of fiery direction. I want to know – did Elsa know Elsa? She writes: ‘I merely know Schiap by hearsay. I have only seen her in a mirror. She is, for me, some kind of the dimension.’ There is a sort of transcendence about Elsa Schiaparelli that I can only vaguely envision. When she comes to my mind’s eye in the most precise way, she appears as the unthinkable inventor with the blind surrender to her inner force.
- Elsa Schiaparelli: Shocking Life, V&A Publishing, London, 2018