Schiaparelli’s Boutique Mingles Art and Fashion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Elsa Schiaparelli collaborated with Surrealist artists to create a reputation for outrageous fashion designs while developing new and successful means of marketing her creations.

Summary of Event

In January, 1935, Elsa Schiaparelli moved her couture house into new quarters at 21, place Vendôme in Paris. Although she had been showing her designs since 1926, she had presented major collections for only six years. Beginning with sportswear and her signature knits—her trompe l’oeil sweaters were the first of her creations to make fashion news—she expanded to designing day wear and, in 1930, to evening wear. She defined the feminine silhouette of the 1930’s, with its broad and squared shoulders, and she repeatedly shocked the establishment with new fabrics, refined shapes, and unusual buttons and accessories. In six years, she gained significant recognition. Recognition translated into financial success, and her new house, at the center of one of the most exclusive districts in Paris, symbolized that success. [kw]Schiaparelli’s Boutique Mingles Art and Fashion (Jan., 1935)[Schiaparellis Boutique Mingles Art and Fashion (Jan., 1935)] [kw]Boutique Mingles Art and Fashion, Schiaparelli’s (Jan., 1935) [kw]Art and Fashion, Schiaparelli’s Boutique Mingles (Jan., 1935) [kw]Fashion, Schiaparelli’s Boutique Mingles Art and (Jan., 1935) Fashion designers;Elsa Schiaparelli Fashion design Design;clothing Surrealism;fashion design [g]France;Jan., 1935: Schiaparelli’s Boutique Mingles Art and Fashion[08830] [c]Fashion and design;Jan., 1935: Schiaparelli’s Boutique Mingles Art and Fashion[08830] [c]Arts;Jan., 1935: Schiaparelli’s Boutique Mingles Art and Fashion[08830] Schiaparelli, Elsa Dalí, Salvador Cocteau, Jean Franck, Jean-Michel Fini, Léonor

The move, however, meant more than a larger space. In addition to her studio, workrooms, and sales salons, Schiaparelli dedicated three rooms with windows fronting on the square to the display and sale of separates, perfumes, and accessories—the daring hats, scarves, gloves, and jewelry on which her reputation was in part based and which had become known as “Schiaparelli-isms.” Unlike the designs offered in the salons upstairs, which were custom-made for individual clients, these separates could be purchased “ready to wear.” Schiaparelli’s boutique combined high-fashion appeal with remarkable business acumen and the outrageousness of the avant-garde. It took a person of Schiaparelli’s background to hit upon the idea.

Unlike the Parisian designers with whom she competed, Schiaparelli was born to the class that made up her clientele. Her family combined Italian aristocracy and intelligentsia; a brief marriage had given her the title of countess. She had lived in Rome, London, New York, and Paris, and she spoke four languages, three of them fluently. Her society connections, especially those with Americans in Paris, were useful and helped to provide her with financing, expertise, and notoriety, as well as with clients. Her connections with the cultural elite were essential for her sense of design, and her collaboration with the Surrealist avant-garde resulted in the creations for which she became best known.

The boutique itself was an act of collaboration: The idea was pure Schiaparelli, but the interior was designed by Jean-Michel Franck to resemble a great gilded cage. Schiaparelli’s longtime American associate Bettina Jones broke new ground in creating the striking window displays. Spanish expatriate Salvador Dalí designed a couch in the form of enormous Surrealist lips, which Schiaparelli had made in shocking pink—her signature color, which she developed and introduced in 1936. Her perfume bottles were designed by Léonor Fini, an artist known for Surrealist erotica.

Throughout the mid-1930’s, the cross-fertilization between Schiaparelli’s designs and the work of artists stamped Schiaparelli’s most characteristic designs. To her, fashion design was an art, and as such, it had to be daring and shocking. Surrealism gave her the images and techniques to fulfill her vision. This art form sought to deconstruct the world of experience by means of metamorphosis, fragmentation, and dislocation; the designs Schiaparelli and her Surrealist friends created from 1935 through 1939 achieved those ends. In 1937, Schiaparelli applied to an evening coat a Jean Cocteau drawing of a vase of flowers that is transformed, by the addition of eyes, into a picture of two lovers kissing. In the same year, Schiaparelli produced a jacket animated by Cocteau’s drawing of a female figure whose hair cascades down the jacket’s sleeves and whose hands clasp the wearer’s waist.

Schiaparelli worked with many artists, but Dalí was her most frequent collaborator, and it was with him that she created her most notorious works. To celebrate the boutique, Dalí presented her with a life-sized model of a bear into whose body he had constructed drawers reminiscent of his Venus de Milo with Drawers (1936). Under this influence, Schiaparelli in 1936 created her “desk suit,” on which real and false pockets are treated as drawers, with drawer pulls substituting for buttons. In the following year, she showed several Dalí-inspired designs: a dress made of fabric painted by Dalí with a depiction of a large, cooked lobster across the center of the skirt (a garment chosen by Wallis Warfield Simpson as part of her trousseau when she married the duke of Windsor). The evening gown known as the “tear dress” had both painted tears and actual rends in the fabric, causing the viewer to question the function of clothing and the gap between the wealth of couture and the poverty of rags.

It was in the creation of hats, the perfect Freudian vehicle for social and sexual displacement, that Dalí and Schiaparelli were at their most outrageous. Schiaparelli designed a hat that was also a shoe; in one version, the fetishized high heel was shocking pink. Another hat, which, like the lobster dress, alluded to the woman wearer as comestible object, was in the shape of the lamb chop, complete with white patent-leather frill to mimic paper trim at the bone end. Only Schiaparelli was audacious enough to wear this version.

Beyond such examples of specific influence, many of Schiaparelli’s creations bore the imprint of Surrealism. The early trompe l’oeil sweaters presented one thing as something else. Schiaparelli’s buttons were often adapted from unusual objects, including fruit forms, kitchen utensils, and insects. She designed a line of gloves that mimicked the hands they were meant to cover, and she was the first designer to engage artists to paint designs—including musical notes, circus performers, and poodles—which she then had translated to fabrics.


Schiaparelli successfully marketed her designs to shoppers at her boutique and to clients for whom she did custom work, and she continued to affect the shape of fashion. Paris in the 1930’s placed great emphasis on youth, style, and bravura: Gaiety in the face of an absurd and darkening world was the order of the day. Furthermore, the economics of fashion were changing. Style was no longer only for the upper classes. More women worked and had wages to spend, fashion publications were growing in circulation and influence, skilled copyists were imitating couture designs before models left the runway, and American designers were pioneering moderately priced, ready-to-wear clothing. These trends were captured in Schiaparelli-isms and in the boutique that sold them.

Schiaparelli altered the relationship between social class and fashion in two ways. As the first of the socialite designers—women of high station who turned to fashion design and merchandizing as genteel employment and diversion—Schiaparelli capitalized on the panache of her own breeding, and she also employed a number of wealthy or titled women as models and associates. She and her aristocratic models could not only display designs within the salon but could also wear such designs at social events. Second, Schiaparelli pioneered the notion of offering items of high fashion to buyers who had neither the courage nor the money for couturier designs. The boutique became a tourist attraction, and Schiaparelli-isms were carried home by many upper-middle-class travelers as souvenirs of Paris.

Of course, Schiaparelli’s designs had a major impact on the fashion industry. Her early collections emphasized coordinated separates, and this economical, logical tactic set the precedent for women’s clothing. She also pioneered the use of many synthetic fabrics and of the zipper for closures. Her suited silhouette of the 1930’s, popularized by film stars such as Joan Crawford, became the uniform for career women of the prewar period. Schiaparelli’s exploitation of fantasy and the absurd was adapted by Parisian designers Yves Saint-Laurent and Jean-Paul Gauthier and by the punk designers of the 1970’s in Great Britain.

One of Schiaparelli’s most formidable business skills was her ability to identify talent in young people and her willingness to let such talent loose. It is no surprise, therefore, that several of her associates went on to have spectacular careers. For example, both Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Cardin were her apprentices after World War II. She also recognized early the talents of a young jewelry designer, Jean Schlumberger, who worked with her from 1937 to 1939.

Schiaparelli was one of very few designers who was able to maintain close collaborations with avant-garde artists, but the links she forged between fashion and art would continue to hold. Through her work, Surrealism came to be recognized by a broader public, and publishers of fashion magazines came to realize the movement’s potential. Surrealism’s stress on the eroticism of the female form, the potential of the fragmented, fetishized image, the linking of fashion with the subconscious and the absurd—all aspects explored in the illustrations of Schiaparelli’s designs by such artists as Léonor Fini, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, and others—became standard elements in fashion layouts. Even after Schiaparelli had largely retired from designing, the relationship between Surrealism and commercial fashion continued: Dalí, for example, continued to design for fashion publications long after World War II.

It is probably in the field of fashion merchandizing, however, that Schiaparelli and her boutique—which was the first of its kind—had the greatest influence. Other designers had brought out perfumes linked to their design houses, but Schiaparelli added designer cosmetics and beauty supplies. She made her scarves such fashion accents that they were in much greater demand than the clothes they accessorized, and then she broke major ground by combining these cosmetics and accessories with a truly ready-to-wear line that could be sold directly to customers. While Schiaparelli’s one-of-a-kind couture creations made her reputation, it was the boutique, and especially the perfume business, that made her fortune.

After Schiaparelli began the practice, most designers exploited licensing’s financial potential, and most operated boutiques. In fact, while designers came to base their reputations on couture designs shown in fall and spring exhibitions, such designs are so labor-intensive and costly to produce that designers’ profits depend on the proceeds from the sale of diverse items, many of which (such as bed sheets) are only indirectly related to fashion. Fashion designers;Elsa Schiaparelli Fashion design Design;clothing Surrealism;fashion design

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blum, Dilys E. Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Richly illustrated volume that emphasizes the relationship between Schiaparelli’s designs and architecture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Marly, Diana. The History of Haute Couture, 1850-1950. London: B. T. Batsford, 1980. A history of the beginnings of haute couture, with emphasis on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Interesting chapters on the organization and financial aspects of the couture industry and on clients and their wardrobe requirements. Schiaparelli is discussed primarily in chapter 9. Black-and-white illustrations; brief bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Carolyn. The Thirties in “Vogue.” New York: Harmony Books, 1985. A montage of images and ideas covered in Vogue magazine during the decade. Divided into broad groupings—the social scene, arts and entertainment, and travel and leisure. Important for the flavor of the times and for photographs of celebrities in couture creations, including those by Schiaparelli. A brief section on the magazine’s coverage of and links with Surrealism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Richard. Fashion and Surrealism. New York: Rizzoli, 1987. A richly illustrated overview of the interactions between clothing design and Surrealist art. Discussion of Schiaparelli is scattered throughout; a chapter is dedicated to her collaborations with Dalí. Of particular interest are many illustrations of otherwise seldom shown Surrealist pieces. Gives attention to contemporary Surrealist designs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mulvagh, Jane.“Vogue” History of Twentieth Century Fashion. London: Viking, 1988. A chronological discussion of fashions featured in Vogue. The period is divided into segments of six to nine years; the sections dealing with each segment are introduced with brief essays. Useful because so many other works are cavalier about the specific dates of fashion events. Copiously illustrated, but in small black-and-white reprints from the magazine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schiaparelli, Elsa. Shocking Life. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1954. Schiaparelli’s autobiography. A good source for information about her cultural background, the network within which she operated in the 1930’s, her career, and her travels. Considerably less revealing of her inner and personal life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steele, Valerie. Women of Fashion: Twentieth Century Designers. New York: Rizzoli, 1991. A history of women in fashion, written from a contemporary feminist perspective and highlighting the major role played by female designers in the period between the two world wars. Attention is also given to an international range of contemporary women designers. Moving postscript about acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Extensive notes and bibliography. Many illustrations, some in color.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Palmer. Elsa Schiaparelli, Empress of Paris Fashion. London: Aurum Press, 1996. One of the best biographies of the designer available, based largely on her autobiography but in many ways more complete than that work and more informative about her personality. Lavishly illustrated, with fine color depictions of Schiaparelli designs.

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Categories: History