Elsa Schiaparelli’s Surrealism

Lady Gaga would not be Lady Gaga without her.

A master of unexpected, bolt-of-lighting-like, proto-pop-art design, Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) changed the way the entire fashion world thought about fashion.

While on board a ship heading from London to New York, Schiaparelli formed a friendship with Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, the wife of Dadaist painter Francis Picabia. This relationship drew her into the inner circle of the influential avant-garde, where she met brilliant, wacky, world-famous artists such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp.

These artists encouraged Schiaparelli's tendency to be bold and surprising, to play tricks on the viewer — or in her case, the wearer. Thus was born the trompe l’oeil (“to trick the eye” in French) bow sweater, the object that would make the designer a superstar. She wore it to a society luncheon, sparking a horde of orders.

Her explanation of the sweater's creation is psychedelic, spoken like a true surrealist:

I drew a large butterfly bow in front, like a scarf round the neck — a primitive drawing of a child.

Much more of Schiaparelli’s work would be tied to popular artistic movements of the time. In the mid-to-late 1930s, as she collaborated with Salvador Dali, she designed a gown with the jolting red image of a lobster painted on it, a nod to Dali’s own lobster telephone sculpture. Schiaparelli popularized the idea of fashion as a statement of confidence rather than a means of cultivating beauty. This idea became known as “hard chic.”

According to Vogue editor Bettina Ballard, “A Schiaparelli customer did not have to worry as to whether she was beautiful or not — she was a type. She was noticed wherever she went, protected by an armour of amusing conversation-making smartness.”

Want your own, DIY Schiaparelli trompe l’oeil jumper? Check out this tutorial from teen site Rookie.

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