The Perfect Dress For A Night On The Town: Historical Fashion

Elsa Schiaparelli, Surrealist Fashion Desiger

Usually when I am selecting a historical costume to present for my Historical Costume blog series, I chose something for centuries ago and presented in a painting, usually a portrait.

This month is different. If you are a reader of my blog then you know that I studied fashion design at F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology). Because of that connection and the fact that the museum is shut down because of this pandemic I decided to show the great fashions the museum possesses.

So for May 2020, the spotlight shines on this stunning red number and the female designer that doesn’t shine as bright on her legacy as it does on Coco Chanel (her biggest rival). That designer is Elsa Schiaparelli.

On September 10, 1890 Elsa Luisa Maria Schiaparelli was born in Rome to Maria Luisa, a Neapolitan aristocrat, and Celestine Schiaparelli, a scholar in the Islamic world and Middle Ages, who was Dean of University of Rome. Raising in this cultural and academic surroundings, Elsa developed a love of ancient cultures, its lore as well as its religious rites. She wrote a book of poems entitled Arethusa based on the ancient Greek myth of the hunt. But she had her wicked moments, which got her sent to a Catholic boarding school. No happy to be there, she held a hunger strike and was permit to leave.

Instead of returning home to Rome, Elsa headed to England for a job a friend arranged for her. Well, that didn’t work out but her life did change. While in England, she attended a lecture on theosophy–a philosophical or religious thought based on a mystical insight into the divine nature. The lecturer was Wilhem de Wendt, who went under various alias, and claimed to have psychic powers and numerous academic credentials. He claimed to be a detective, criminal psychologist, a doctor, lecturer, and even performed in Vaudeville. This man became Elsa’s husband on June 21, 1914. She was twenty-three and Wilhem was thrity.

Elsa began helping with his work, promoting his act. In 1915, the couple was forced to leave London when Wilhelm was convicted for practicing the then illegal fortune-telling. The couple made their way around France before departing for America in 1916.

In New York City, they rented out offices for their Bureau of Psychology, which was the same act they did in England. This caught the eye of the F.B. I. so Elsa and her husband headed to Boston to continue their “work.”

On June 15, 1920, the couple became a trio with the birth of their daughter, Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha was born. Gogo as she was called by her mother. Wilhelm abandoned the ladies. Then in 1921, Togo was diagnosed with polio. That same year, the mother and daughter returned to New York. A year later, mother and daughter sailed to France.

In France, Elsa’s friend, Gabrielle “Gaby” Buffet-Picabia, wife of Dada and Surrealist artist Francis Picabia, would bring her into a circle that would inspire Elsa for the rest of her days and became a major part of her style. She developed friendships with Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Stuckin.

Elsa now began making clothes. Couturier Paul Poiret (a major designer of early 19th century) encouraged her to open her business. Though she received favorable reviews her business closed in 1926.

Not one to give up, Elsa launched her new collection of knitwear in 1927. She used a special double layered stitch that Armenian refugees created and sweaters with surrealist trompe l’oeil images. The Pour le Sport collection expanded in 1928. It included bathing suits, ski-wear and linen dress. The business grew that in 1931 she added evening wear and the shop moved to 21 Placve Vendome.

Then the world changed. In 1939, France declared war against Germany and then a year later on June 14, Paris fell to the Germans. Elsa and her daughter sailed to New York for work and she remained there until the end of the war.

Naturally, the fashion house closed but when the war ended, Elsa returned to Paris and reopened her house where it remained open until 1954. Elsa died at 83 on November 13, 1973 in Paris.

Elsa Schiaparelli changed fashion in a ways you might not be aware of. She first introduced zippers that matched the fabric, brooches like a buttons on clothing and even modern day catwalks are thanks to her. She also introduced a new color called Schiaparelli Pink, a shocking bright pink that you probably have seen hundreds of times.

This evening gown is from circa 1955 and is haute couture, which translates to made to measure. The gown is constructed of red silk faille and pink silk. The vibrant color has not fade or lost its vibrancy. The classic strapless gown appears to be boned or corseted to keep its shape and give support to the lucky lady who might have donned this gown. The hourglass silhouette accentuates a woman’s figure that was popular in the 1950s. A drape sash cuts across the hips for a train lined in the pink silk drapes asymmetrically.

The gown was sewn by hand by Schiarapelli’s fashion house workers and must have taken weeks to construct after being fitted and refitted to the measurements of the woman and model who donned this gown.

As for accessories that a lady would have wore with this, I would have gone with a simple yet refined look. Perhaps, pink strapped shoes that match the pink of gown so with every step, perfectly manicured red toes peeked out from beneath the hem. I would wear my hair swept up to show off the shoulders and perhaps, diamonds or simple necklace to highlight a perfect expanse of flesh. Maybe a shawl to cover up from the evening chill.

Wearing this gown, you can’t help but feel utterly sexy and classy. Perfect to got to the theatre or a ball and dance the night away even to fall in love.

Female Friday

In honor of the Haute Couture shows in Paris, I decided to honor female fashion designers.

Madame Gres

MADAME GRES

This woman invented the bias dress, which means the fabric is cut at a diagonal or 45 degree angle.  Cutting fabric that way wastes a great deal but it falls oh-so-lovely over the body.  Today the bias dress is a designer staple and when done right like John Galliano [designer for his own line as well as Dior] does, the dress is utter perfection and gossamer light.

A bias dress by Madame Gres

ELSA SCHIAPARELLI

ELSA’S DESIGN

How many out there owned or still own anything in a hot pink?  Well you have Elsa to thank. An Italian by birth but working in Paris as many do today.  Her designs took inspiration from surreal artists since she considered herself one as well.   She had talent and dressed some of the wonderful women alive in the era between the World Wars even the Duchess of Windsor.  Elsa and Chanel were enemies.  Imagine being in a party when these two ladies entered, the tension, catty wit.  Paris must have been entertained by these two smart talented ladies.  After the war, sadly, her line closed but if it were around today, Lady Gaga to Madonna would wear her designs. 

                         

                              

Claire on Time

CLAIRE McCARDELL

Claire is the mother of American Sportswear and most likely you are wearing or have an item that is inspired by her.  She believed in everyday relaxed dress.  Ballet slippers as everyday footwear.   Cynthia Rowley, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs and Annie Sui each have been inspired by her.    How many would purchase this outfit or own something like it already? 

CLAIRE’S JUMPER

EDITH HEAD

Edith and her Oscars

Edith Head was a costumer designer for both Paramount and Universal.  She dressed everyone from Mae West to Steve Martin.  Countless designers are inspired by her costume for flicks that starred Hollywood icons.  No doubt you’ve seen movies featuring her creations.  Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief and Bette Davis in All About Eve.  Few have that many Oscars.  I have none.

Many women fashion designers run wonderful lines, Donna Karan, Stella McCartney, Diane Von Furstenberg, one of my idols, Betsey Johnson, Carolina Herrera, Annie Sui, Sonia Reykeil, Tory Burch, and Stella McCartney.  And more will come and share their vision for what will be the modern woman.  I can’t wait to see the beautiful design and how it fits in the perception of womanhood and what it means to be a lady.