So I got on one of my obsession kicks today, this time about the history of couture fashion. I spent a good 6 hours reading about the genius of Elsa Schiaparelli, whom I knew for her invention of shocking pink (yes, she actually invented a color, at least when it comes to couture) and for her amazing collaborations with surrealist artists which resulted in masterpieces like the Lobster Dress (Salvador Dalí painted that lobster onto the fabric), the Skeleton Dress (it caused a scandal when it debuted in 1938) and the Shoe Hat.
What I didn’t know is that she invented so many other things that we now take so much for granted that we don’t even think of them as having been invented, really. Things introduced to the world of high fashion by Elsa Schiaparelli include square shoulders combined with nipped-in waistlines, wacky prints, graphic patterned sweaters, jackets to wear with evening gowns, the long runway walked by tall, thin models, ready-to-wear boutiques for couturiers, sportswear mix-and-match separates, colored zippers, the wrap dress, the skort, man-made fabrics and the wedge heel.
Schiaparelli’s couture house closed in 1954. She wasn’t able to roll with the post-war times despite having been at her most brilliant in the interwar period. That same year saw the rebirth of the signature line of her greatest rival, Coco Chanel. Chanel, who had kept under the radar since her couture house closed after the German occupation of France (she had been a Nazi officer’s mistress and was not exactly beloved in France after the war despite her own innovations and contributions to French fashion), would come to eclipse Schiaparelli in popular reputation, although not among couturiers, many of whom have borrowed liberally from Elsa’s artistic genius over the decades.
If you’re at all interested in fashion history, or even just like looking at purty dresses, take a romp through these galleries: the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 2004 exhibit, “Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli,” and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s awesome interactive timeline of the Golden Age of couture, which does an excellent job showing the links between famous couturiers, so many of whom started as cutters and pattern-makers under other famous couturiers.
ETA: Rowan pointed me to this article on a new exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on the history of European fashion from 1700 to 1915. It opens on October 2nd and runs until March 6th. Meanwhile, here’s a photo gallery of some of the gloriousness. I’m completely in love with this dress from England, around 1885.