Cover image for Elsa Schiaparelli : a biography
Elsa Schiaparelli : a biography
Secrest, Meryle, author.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
Physical Description:
xx, 377 pages, 24 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm
"The first biography of the grand couturier, surrealist, and embattled figure (her medium was apparel), whose extraordinary work has stood the test of time"--
The orphan -- The Piccadilly faker -- Themes of love and death -- Murder and mayhem -- Coq feathers -- Comet -- The boutique fantasque -- Shock in pink -- Scandalous schiap -- The "collabo" -- Wearing two hats -- Picking up the arrow -- A bird in the cage.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
TT505.S3 S43 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Her name was Elsa Schiaparelli. She was known as the Queen of Fashion; a headline attraction in the international glitter-glamour show of the late twenties and thirties, feted in Rome (where she was born), Paris, New York, London, Moscow, Hollywood . . .

Her style was a social revolution through clothing--luxurious, eccentric, ironic, sexy . Her fashions, inspired, from the whimsical to the most practical--from a Venetian cape of the commedia dell''arte to the Soviet parachute. She collaborated with some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century: on jewelry designs with Jean Schlumberger; on clothes with Salvador Dalí (his lobster dress for her, a lobster garnished with parsley painted on the skirt of an organdy dress, was instantly bought by Wallis Simpson for her honeymoon with the Duke of Windsor); with Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacometti, Christian Bérard, photographers Baron Adolph de Meyer, Horst, Cecil Beaton, and the young Richard Avedon.

She was the first designer to use rayon and latex, thick velvets, transparent and waterproof, and cellophane. Her perfume--Shocking!--was a bottle in the shape of a bust sculpted by Léonor Fini, inspired by the body of Mae West. Her boutique at an eighteenth-century palace at 21 Place Vendôme opened into a cage designed by Jean-Michel Frank. American Vogue , in 1927, presented her entire collection as Works of Art. A decade later, she was the first European to win the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award.
Here is the never-before-told story of this most extraordinary fashion designer, perhaps the most extraordinary fashion designer of the twentieth century, in her day more famous than Chanel. Meryle Secrest, acclaimed biographer, who has captured the lives of many of the twentieth century''s most iconic cultural figures, among them: Frank Lloyd Wright, Bernard Berenson, and Modigliani, gives us the first full life of the grand couturier--surrealist and embattled figure--whose medium was apparel.

"Dare to be different," Schiaparelli advised women, and she lived it to the height; a rebel against convention--social as well as fashion. She designed an otter-fur bathing suit and a hat inspired by a lamb chop. ("I like to amuse myself," she said. "If I didn''t, I would die.") Chanel, her arch rival, called her, "that Italian woman who makes dresses."

Here is the story of Schiaparelli''s rise to fame (as brazen and unique as any of the artistic creations that emerged from her Paris workrooms before World War II); her emotionally starved upbringing in Rome (her mother was part Scottish, part Neapolitan; her father, a prominent medieval scholar specializing in Islamic manuscripts, dean of the faculty of Rome; her uncle, an astronomer famous for his description in 1877 of "canals" on Mars); her years overshadowed by a prettier sister; her elopement with a Swiss-born man who claimed to be a count, disciple of mysticism and the occult--who managed to get himself and his young bride deported from Britain . . . her struggle to care for her polio-stricken daughter, Gogo, as a single and financially destitute mother living in Greenwich Village.

Secrest writes of Schiaparelli''s keen instincts--an astute businesswoman, she launched herself into hats, hose, soaps, shoes, handbags, in the space of a few years. By 1930, her company was grossing millions of francs a year.

Secrest chronicles her exploits during World War II (she managed to escape from Europe to the United States) and, using FBI files, shows that during Schiaparelli''s stay in New York, her whereabouts were documented almost week by week; she was never explicitly charged, but the cloud of collaboration lingered long after her return to Paris.

As Secrest traces the unfolding of this dazzling career, she reveals the spirit that gave shape to this large and extravagant life, a woman--a force--whose artistic vision forever changed the face of fashion and redefined the boundaries of art.

Author Notes

Meryle Secrest was born and educated in Bath, England, and lives in Washington, D.C. She is the author of eleven biographies and was awarded the 2006 Presidential National Humanities Medal.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Ever-curious and wonderfully adept biographer Secrest (Modigliani, 2011) presents the first full portrait of dynamic couturier Schiaparelli. Bookish and rebellious while growing up in Rome, Schiaparelli landed in New York, wed to a con man whose stunts as a psychic investigator got them both in trouble. Left on her own to care for her ill daughter, dark-eyed and determined Schiaparelli, with her lithe physique and dragonfly mind, arrived in Paris like a mighty little tempest in 1922. An artist and by nature in sync with the surrealists she and Salvador Dali became close friends Schiaparelli created arresting trompe l'oeil knits depicting sailor's tattoos and x-rays and ingeniously used lobster, butterfly, newsprint, and circus motifs, exquisite embroidery, and wildly imaginative buttons to achieve a nonchalant chic. Secrest chronicles perfectionist Schiaparelli's business deals, A-list social network, gift for celebrity, arch wit, and ardor for new fabrics and saturated colors, especially the pink she named Shocking. Secrest also reveals the darker side of Schiaparelli's fame, from her FBI file to persistent but unsubstantiated suspicions of collaboration and espionage during the German occupation, her rivalry with Chanel, and the role fashion played in Parisian society during and after the world wars. Richly illustrated and endlessly intriguing, Secrest's biography illuminates the daredevil swagger of Schiaparelli's clothes and the oft-besieged couturier's inexhaustible tenacity and dazzling creativity.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

"This book had its start when I began to wonder why nobody dressed up any more, even for evenings out,"¿ writes Secrest. Although she never answers her question, this consummate biographer (Leonard Bernstein: A Life) does take readers on a breathless, madcap ride across the early 20th century. The book follows Schiaparelli from her meteoric rise to couture queen of 1930s Paris to her fizzling postwar descent into bankruptcy. It begins with the image of the child Schiaparelli running through the Italian palazzo where she grew up, and ends, no less evocatively, by musing on what passed through the designer's mind as she sat on the terrace of her Tunisian getaway in her later years. In between, Secrest draws on the interviews and writings of Schiaparelli's friends, family, and colleagues; biographers and historians of the period; public records from ship manifests and visas to FBI documents; Schiaparelli's 1954 memoir, Shocking Life; and Secrest's own speculative imagination. The result paints an alternately exhilarating, sympathetic, slyly humorous, and poignant portrait, not only of the surrealism-influenced, innovative fashion designer who invented wraparound dresses, built-in bras, falsies, and shocking pink, but also of the creative cauldron of Paris in its golden age between the two world wars. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) was the queen of the fashion world in the years between World War I and World War II, at the time eclipsing even Coco Chanel. She collaborated with such artists as Salvador Dali, Man Ray, and Jean Cocteau on her designs for jewelry, clothing, and accessories, many of which had surreal influences or presented trompe l'oeil effects. She threw and attended glittering parties and lived in glamorous locales around the world. She had a signature color, the so-called "shocking pink," and a talent for self-invention and telling outrageous stories about herself. Secrest (Modligliani) does a solid job of placing Schiaparelli's work in historical context and considering others' opinions of her. Unfortunately, since the designer left few letters and no diaries-her 1954 autobiography, Shocking Life, said less about the woman herself than how she wanted other people to be; her "12 Commandments for Women" include such pronouncements as "A woman who buys an expensive dress and changes it, often with disastrous result, is extravagant and foolish"-there's little insight into Schiaparelli's interior life. Copious photographs enhance the narrative. VERDICT Recommended for those interested in fashion history. [See Prepub Alert, 4/21/14.]-Stephanie Klose, Library Journal (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The most extraordinary fashion designer of the twentieth century is now just a name on a perfume bottle. She is Elsa Schiaparelli, like Gabrielle Chanel a successful woman in the hierarchy of male Paris couturiers. But she was much more than a dress designer. Schiaparelli was an integral part of the whole artistic movement of the times. Her groundbreaking collaborations with such artists as Kees van Dongen, Salvador Dalí, Christian Bérard, Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacometti, and Man Ray took the field of women's wear from a business into an art form. In the years between World Wars I and II, Schiaparelli, like Chanel, created clothes that were attuned to new freedoms for women and the reality of the role they were playing in the workplace. Skirts left the ankle and stayed close to the knee. Crippling corsets disappeared. Silhouettes were practical and wearable; fabrics could be washed. She was as much inventor as designer of style. Realizing that putting on a dress over the head could be a nuisance, she came up with a dress that could be wrapped around the body, an idea that is still with us. Split skirts were practical; she would show them even though it took decades for the idea of wide-legged pants to be socially acceptable, and even longer for the pantsuit. She patented swimsuits with built-in bras and went on to design similar shortcuts for dresses. The zipper arrived and she used it with panache. The Depression arrived, and along with it the idea of clothes that had a multiplicity of uses, such as reversible coats, the all-purpose dress with sets of accessories, skirts that came apart to make capes or shrugs that could be zipped onto evening gowns, and, during World War II, pockets that looked like purses and vice versa. Some of the most obvious things, like matching jackets for dinner dresses, had eluded everyone until she thought of them, and the idea of adding feathers to an outfit was exploited by Hollywood for years. Had Schiaparelli done only this, she would have secured a place in fashion history. But she did much more. It is fair to say that she took the underlying concepts of surrealism, its emphasis on the unconscious, the irrational and daring, and translated them into items of fashion. She made hats look like lamb cutlets, high-heeled shoes, or clown's cones. Pockets were made to look like drawers, necklaces became collections of insect specimens, handbags were shaped like balloons, and buttons could be anything: lips, eyes, or carrots. The exquisite embroidery from Lesage adorned evening jackets that took their inspiration from musical instruments, vegetables, circus acrobats, or the solar system. Her clothes were smart, wearable, and sexy and marked the wearer as an individualist as well as someone with a sense of humor--the Duchess of Windsor, after all, chose a diaphanous evening gown for her honeymoon that featured a huge pink lobster on its skirt, surrounded by some tastefully sprinkled parsley. Schiaparelli had a kind of instinct, not just for what American buyers liked--and despite her impeccable Parisian credentials, her biggest audiences were Americans. The styles she launched: for padded shoulders, split skirts, mesh chenille snoods, shirttail jackets, bowler hats, fur shoes, and her own vivid shade of pink, called "shocking"--were reproduced in the thousands. Then there were all her Shocking perfumes, each named with a word beginning with S. An astute businesswoman, she launched herself into hats, hose, soaps, shoes, handbags, and cosmetics in the space of a few years. By 1930, her company was grossing millions of francs a year. She had twenty-six workrooms and employed more than two thousand people. Schiaparelli, like Dalí, wanted to shake people out of their torpor and make them look at themselves and the world afresh. She wanted to shock, and she did shock. Then World War II arrived, and she clung on. Her workrooms on the Place Vendôme continued to function, her perfume went on being sold, and her mansion on the Right Bank stayed intact, one of the facts that led, in the end, to deep suspicions from spy agencies from Berlin and London to New York. She had shaken off the baleful influence of a self-destructive husband and fought to give their only child, Gogo, a better life after she was stricken with infantile paralysis. She had battled everything and survived, but the one thing she could not conquer was changing tastes. Women no longer wanted to be self-assertive and different, as Dior discovered in 1947 when he launched his New Look. They wanted full skirts, tight waists, a bosom, a very large hat, and high heels. Schiaparelli had lost her most vital source of inspiration--surrealism--and the impulse went with it. Her postwar clothes lack the inner conviction that had inspired them, and her sales dwindled away. The triumphant return of Chanel--her clothes, for all their practicality, were always ladylike--coincided almost to the day with the moment when Schiaparelli closed her doors. She was finished. In the decades that followed, along with the arrival of T‑shirts, blue jeans, sneakers, and baseball caps, the idea of a distinctive look has, for most women, disappeared. What most women want is not to look different, as a wry cartoon in The New Yorker recently made clear. That may be true, but the allure of a beautifully made, exquisitely imagined look has not completely disappeared either, if the popularity of several recent exhibitions of haute couture is any guide. Such examples transcend mere fashion, because they speak to a deep human need. They have become works of art in themselves. This, then, is the legacy of Schiaparelli. Excerpted from Elsa Schiaparelli by Meryle Secrest Copyright © 2014 by Meryle Secrest. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpted from Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography by Meryle Secrest All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. x
Preface and Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Chapter 1 The Orphanp. 3
Chapter 2 The Piccadilly Fakerp. 21
Chapter 3 Themes of Love and Deathp. 49
Chapter 4 Murder and Mayhemp. 63
Chapter 5 Coq Feathersp. 87
Chapter 6 Cometp. 117
Chapter 7 The Boutique Fantasquep. 141
Chapter 8 Shock in Pinkp. 169
Chapter 9 Scandalous Schiapp. 209
Chapter 10 The "Collabo"p. 243
Chapter 11 Wearing Two Hatsp. 267
Chapter 12 Picking up the Arrowp. 291
Chapter 13 A Bird in the Cagep. 313
Notesp. 343
Indexp. 361