Elsa Schiaparelli - The Art of Fashion and Fragrance

History of fashion and perfumes by Elsa Schiaparelli

A couturier must be an architect for design, a sculptor for shape, a painter for color, a musician for harmony, and a philosopher for temperament." Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972), Balenciaga Paris

Elsa Schiaparelli 1950

Elsa Schiaparelli

Italian fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973), was one of the most influential creators of Parisian haute couture in the era between the two World Wars. She was a visionary and artist in the fashion industry, bringing a Shocking new style to the dull and drab knitwear age. She worked with Dada and Surrealist artists on her fashion, fragrance, and advertisement designs. Elsa's greatest rival, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, even referred to her as "that Italian artist who makes clothes."

In the late 1800s, romanticism was waning, and women's clothing designs became more wearable and free-flowing for movement (the walking suit), rather than drapes of heavy layers of clothing. Jersey and knitwear were at the peak of the fabric trend, due to the cost constraints placed on many in times of war and the need for women working and volunteering outside the home. Unfortunately, the knit material did not hold its shape well. Enter Schiaparelli or "Schiap" as her friends called her (House of Schiaparelli 1928-1954). She saw a need for better garment construction, and introduced fasteners such as zippers and buttons into clothing designs. Being the artist Elsa was, she incorporated these essential notions as statements of fashion, by dying zippers to match the fabrics and creating artistic buttons in shapes of bees and butterflies--anything but boring. Elsa introduced not only stylish notions, but also the use of flamboyant colors into the world of fashion including her trademark Shocking Pink (hot pink for us Americans). Schiaparelli helped woman's wear move from boring jersey, to whimsical wearable art.

Elsa Schiaparelli, fashion designer and fragrance creator
Elsa Schiaparelli, Italian fashion designer

Surrealism Influence of Elsa Schiaparelli Designs

Schiaparelli was influenced by Surrealism, and collaborated with notable artists in her fashion designs, fragrance bottles and advertisements. Perhaps her fascination with Surrealism came from Elsa's youth spent with her uncle Giovanni Schiaparelli, astronomer and science historian who discovered the canals on the planet Mars. Her Zodiac Winter 1938-39 collection was directly influenced by the stars, and kept in tune with the Surrealist movement in Paris at that time. Elsa's initial fashion success was her trompe l'oleil black wool sweater, with a knitted in white bowknot around the collar (November 1927). She wore the sweater to a fashion luncheon where a Lord and Taylor's buyer immediately ordered 40 copies, securing her fame in Surrealist fashions.

Elsa Schiaparelli's trompe l'oleil black wool sweater, knitted-in bow knot
Elsa Schiaparelli's trompe l'oleil black wool sweater with knitted-in bow knot (1927)
Elsa Schiaparelli wore this sweater to a fashion luncheon, where a buyer for Lord & Taylor's immediately ordered 40 copies for the store. The bowknot was one of Schiaparelli's most popular and copied designs. Hand-knitted wool; November 1927 collection.
Elsa Schiaparelli Zodiac Collection (Winter 1938)
Elsa Schiaparelli Zodiac Collection (1938)
Schiaparelli's Zodiac collection included her trademark design of the Big-Dipper, a nickname her astronomer uncle, Giovanni Schiaparelli, gave her as a child when he pointed out that her facial beauty marks made up the constellation. Blue silk velvet, metal, rhinestones, plastic; embroidered by Albert and Marie-Louise Lasage.
Elsa Schiaparelli Patchwork harlequin evening jacket (Spring 1939)
Schiaparelli Patchwork Evening Jacket (Spring 1939)
Elsa Schiaparelli's Patchwork evening jacket was inspired by the Harlequin pattern used by Surreallist artist during this time period, artist of influence included Pablo Picasso and Man Ray. See Le Beau Temps by Man Ray. Polychrome wool felt, blue silk faille; Commedia dell'Arte collection; embroidered by Lesage.

Fashion and Surrealism Artists

Some of her noteworthy fashion designs were created by collaboration and influence of Surrealist artists Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and Jean Cocteau. Elsa's Patchwork evening jacket from her Winter 1939-40 collection, was based on the popular Harlequin pattern used by Picasso and Man Ray. Working with Dali, Schiaparelli created the Tears Dress (Circus Collection, 1938) with trompe l'oeil rips and tears styling, the Shoe Hat (Winter 1937-38) made of black felt, the Skeleton Dress (1938) made of black silk crepe with plastic zips, and the famous Lobster Dress (Summer/Fall 1937) made of white and red silk organza. Working with Jean Cocteau, Elsa created the juxtaposition Two Profiles evening jacket out of a silk jersey material in 1937. The optical illusion of the design of the two face profiles reveals a vase of roses in the negative space on the backside of the jacket's design. Collaborating again with Cocteau, Elsa created a jacket with a female face profile embroidered with blond curly hair cascading down the length of one sleeve (1937). The House of Lesage embroidered both Schiaparelli and Cocteau designs.

Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali Skeleton Dress, Circus collection 1938
Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali "Skeleton Dress" (Circus Collection 1938)
"The Skeleton Dress" was a design collaboration between Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali. Black silk crepe dress using trapunto quilting to create the padded ribs, spine and leg bones. This technique has influenced many fashion designers. Silk crepe; Circus Collection 1938.
Elsa Schiaparelli Lobster Dress, Dali (Summer/Fall 1937)
Elsa Schiaparelli Lobster Dress Dali
(Summer/Fall 1937)
Design collaboration between Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali. Silk designer, Sache, translated Dali's sketch to the fabric. An 8-page spread in Vogue magazine featured Wallis Simpson wearing the Loster Dress. Silk organza, horsehair.
Elsa Schiaparelli Tears Dress, Dali (Circus 1938)
Elsa Schiaparelli Tears Dress Dali
(Circus 1938)
Evening dress and veil design collaboration between Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali, Spring 1938. The illusion of the design resembles torn animal flesh with 3D fabric appliques on the veil. Light blue printed silk crepe with magenta underlayer. See Dali's Necrophiliac Springtime.
Elsa Schiaparelli Two Profiles Jacket, Jean Cocteau (1937)
Elsa Schiaparelli Jacket Jean Cocteau
Design collaboration between Schiaparelli and Jean Cocteau. The design is a classic example of Dali's paranoiac-critical method, where more than one meaning can be attached to the same image. Blue silk jersey, gilded metallic thread, silk appliqued flowers; embroided by Lesage.
Elsa Schiaparelli and Jean Cocteau's embroidered jacket collaboration, 1937
Elsa Schiaparelli and Jean Cocteau's Embroidered Jacket (Fall 1937)
Schiaparelli's "Cocteau" Evening Jacket, Fall 1937. Created by Elsa Schiaparelli and artist Jean Cocteau. Linen, metalic foil, beads, paillettes; embroidered by the House of Lesage. Illustration (left) by Jean Cocteau.

Fragrance and Surrealism Artists

Surrealist artist Leonor Fini designed Schiaparelli's famous fragrance bottle, Shocking, in the shape of a woman's torso. The bottle was modeled after the tailor dummy of actress Mae West, whom Elsa clothed. Advertisements for Shocking perfume were illustrated by artist Marcel Vertes. Vertes and Schiaparelli worked together on the set of the 1952 film, Moulin Rouge, where Elsa designed Zsa Zsa Gabor's outfits and Marcel worked as a costume and set designer. Dali also lent his art to advertisements for Shocking perfume, as well as designing the bottle for Le Roi Soleil (1946) fragrance by Schiaparelli. The "Ray of Sun" bottle was to celebrate the end of the war. French illustrator, Raymond Peynet, used his "Lovers" to advertise Schiaparelli's Succes Fou fragrance in the Valentine's packaging used in 1954.

Mae West in 'Every Day's A Holiday' 1937, costume by Elsa Schiaparelli
Mae West in Every Day's A Holiday, 1937
Actress, Mae West, in the 1937 movie "Every Day's a Holiday." Costumes for Mae West were designed by Elsa Schiaparelli.
Shocking de Schiaparelli, perfume by Elsa Schiaparelli 1946
Shocking de Schiaparelli, perfume 1937
The tailor dummy Elsa used for Mae West inspired the bottle for Shocking de Schiaparelli, created by Leonor Fini.
Elsa Schiaparelli Zut Perfume, ad by Marcel Vertes 1951
Zut de Schiaparelli Perfume
Zut! ("Damn" in English) perfume advertisement by Marcel Vertes, 1951.
Elsa Schiaparelli Shocking Perfume, ad by Salvador Dali 1944
Shocking de Schiaparelli Perfume
Shocking perfume advertisement created by Salvador Dali, 1944.
Elsa Schiaparelli Succes Fou Perfume, ad by Raymond Peynet 1953
Schiaparelli Succes Fou Perfume
Succes Fou ("Huge Success") perfume advertisement by Raymond Peynet, 1953, featuring his "Lovers".
Le Roy Soleil de Schiaparelli, perfume by Elsa Schiaparelli 1946
Le Roy Soleil de Schiaparelli Perfume
Le Roy Soleil ("Ray of Sun" in English) perfume bottle designed by Salvador Dali, Baccarat crystal perfume bottle, 1946, to celebrate the end of WWII.
Le Roy Soleil de Schiaparelli, perfume by Elsa Schiaparelli 1946
Le Roy Soleil de Schiaparelli, perfume ad
Le Roy Soleil perfume advertisement designed by Salvador Dali, c. 1946. See enlarged signature mark.


Zsa Zsa Gabor in Moulin Rouge, costume by Elsa Schiaparelli

Schiaparelli's circle of influence included Surrealist artists she worked with in her designs, during movie costume designing, and also in her advertisement creations. Other artist influence and illustration of the fashionable and shocking world of Elsa Schiaparelli's haute couture included: Christian Berand, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Alberto Giacometti, Meret Oppenheim, and Alfred Steiglitz.

Elsa Schiaparelli's fashion innovations continue to influence today's fashion world. Her artistic and whimsical designs have left their stamp on fashion history. Unfortunately the House of Schiaparelli closed in December 1954. When Elsa returned to Paris in 1945, from her refuge in America during World War II, Christian Dior's "New Look" of a younger romantic style had taken hold in women's design. The softer look included everything Schiaparelli designs had rejected when the fashion house emerged on the scene decades prior. Although her couture business ended, Elsa continued to travel, entertain, and attend fashion events until she passed away in 1973 at the age of 83. The Parisian haute couture artist Elsa Schiaparelli is one of the most remarkably Shocking fashion designers of her time.

Art of Fashion, Fragrance, and Ads for the House of Schiaparelli

The photo collections are for educational purposes, and copyrighted by their respective owners.

Elsa Schiaparelli photographeed by Man Ray, 1934
Elsa Schiaparelli photographed by Man Ray (1934)
Elsa Schiaparelli with Salvador Dali, 1949
Elsa Schiaparelli with Salvador Dali (1949)
Elsa Schiaparelli design illustrated by Jean Cocteau for Harper's Bazaar (1937)
Elsa Schiaparelli design illustrated by Jean Cocteau
(Harper's Bazaar, 1937)
Elsa Schiaparelli design illustrated by Christian Berard for Vogue (1935)
Schiaparelli design illustrated by Christian Bérard
(Vogue, 1935)
Elsa Schiaparelli perfume bottles

Elsa Schiaparelli Perfume Bottle Collection
Left to right: Succes Fou, Sleeping, Si, Le Roy Soleil, Snuff, Shocking (collector bottle), Zut.

Learn more about Elsa Schiaparelli perfumes.

By The Perfume Girl (Originally published on Oct 2011 at Fine Art Registry)


  1. Photo credits: Wikipedia, Flickr, Google Images
  2. Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Shocking! The Art and Fashio of Elsa Schiaparelli." www.philamuseum.org

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