Exhibit proves ‘Shocking’

Gillian Perazzo

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is recognizing the works of a twentieth century fashion pioneer with its exhibit, “Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli.” The exhibit opened Sept. 28, 2003 and will run until Jan. 4, 2004.

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 – 1973), an Italian-born designer living in France, fused together creativity and practicality to engender a fashion line that dominated the era of World War I and II. While Coco Chanel created wearable fashion, Schiaparelli was noted for her unusual and daring designs. One of Schiaparelli’s commandments painted in her trademark “shocking pink” at the exhibit coveys her theory on fashion: “Ninety percent [of women] are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say. So they buy a gray suit. They should dare to be different.”

Curator Dilys Blum has complied over 150 dresses as well as hats, shoes, jewelry and noted accessories such as scarves. Along with the fashion pieces are drawings and sketches of Schiaparelli’s fashion ideas. The exhibit also includes images from professional fashion photographers of the time, paintings and sculptures from Man Ray and Salvador Dali and motion picture clips of Schiaparelli fashion in action.

Schiaparelli designed clothing to move with the body and represent the woman’s shape. “Never fit a dress to the body but train the body to fit the dress,” was one of her mottos. Clean sketches reveal Schiaparelli’s affinity for clothing that stayed true to the body’s form.

At first clothing began as “strikingly original sweaters” with eye-illusions to create a specific look. Schiaparelli moved to more casual wear and created a skort-like uniform for female tennis players. In 1930, the artist/designer began to add evening gowns to the collection and thus opened her designs to a more surrealistic look. Flowing silk satin evening dresses of the mid 1930s were adorned with butterflies and accessorized with a matching cotton parasol.

In the summer of 1937, Schiaparelli introduced a slightly shorter evening dress, the waltz-length, which immediately became a fashion phenomenon.

The Schiaparelli designs of the late 1930s incorporated a musical theme and many dresses and ensembles were embellished with music insignia.

Not only was Schiaparelli artistically innovative, she was economically clever as well. The declaration of war on Germany in 1939 created some financial pressure in the French fashion world. In 1940, when there was a lack of fabric in France, the designer used the flags of the Royal des Vaisseaux to make a silk evening dress. Schiaparelli noted the collection “as a matter of prestige to prove to oneself that one was still at work.”

The exhibit is thoroughly detailed and a feast for the eyes. Schiaparelli was an early fashion icon and her influences can still be seen in today fashions. For anyone who is an art admirer, fashion fanatic, or has an hour or two to spare, “Shocking!” is surely an exhibit that should not be missed!