Before Moschino, D&G, Versace: Elsa Schiaparelli

Elsa Schiaparelli laid the foundation for the work of the biggest Italian fashion houses nowadays. She didn’t know how to sew or sketch.
Indeed, Coco Chanel’s greatest rival in the 20s came from an aristocratic family, counting in her circle of friends famous artists like Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia. Before diving into the fashion business, Elsa was a scriptwriter and translator.
What made her jump into women’s clothing was a hand-knit sweater. It wasn’t even one of her own! A friend’s item grabbed her attention – the thread was so thick that Schiparelli had to find out how it was made. It turned out Armenian immigrants used a special technique to achieve that texture. Excited by the idea, Elsa asked them to do one for her. She started roughly sketching a black sweater with a white bow at the neck:



This was a woman with extraordinary taste, but no experience in sewing or sketching. Despite that, the seamstresses accomplished her dream and upon wearing it, the Italian artist discovered many women wanted something similar.

Schiaparelli simply followed her instinct and saw an opportunity: designing clothes with surrealistic shapes and drawings; objects and forms that ordinarily would never belong in a human’s wardrobe. She took a bet on the trompe l’oeil effect (used in paintings) and fooled the wearer’s eye with faux scarves, belts and neckties.

Elsa Schiaparelli's Lobster Dress


Moschino red suit


As for drawings, she needed the hands and ideas of Salvador Dali. One of her iconic dresses is a white evening dress with a huge, red lobster print painted by him. Their collaboration didn’t stop there – together, they worked on a skirt suit with pockets in the shape of a chest of drawers!
Elsa Schiparelli’s accessories were out of this world, too. Before Moschino could bring the milk carton bag or the Happy Meal bag, Elsa commercialized piano and telephone handbags. Her hats were extraordinary, too; several featured fruits and birds, while one of the best sold at the time featured the heel up in the air and the toe, tilted on the wearer’s head.
If you think about it, the colorful, fast-food and art-inspired Moschino prints, the landscape and religious Dolce & Gabbana prints and even the Versace ones couldn’t exist if Elsa Schiaparelli hadn’t pushed for a more artistic, surreal approach to fashion back then.
Sometimes, the world needs more whimsy, not functionality 😉

photo source:,

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