At the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Schiaparelli’s Unsung Surrealist Legacy Gets Its Due

A new exhibition examines the Elsa Schiaparelli's creative history and the house's present under creative director Daniel Roseberry.

Exhibition scenography of "Shocking! The Surreal World of Elsa Schiaparelli" © Photo : Les Arts Décoratifs / Christophe Dellière

Before 33 year-old Daniel Roseberry took the reins of Maison Schiaparelli as creative director in 2019, the storied house and its founder had fallen into relative obscurity. During her life, Elsa Schiaparelli was immersed in Paris’s avant-garde scene. Many of her male contemporaries would go on to become household names, but she did not. A new exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris examines the Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli in the context of her Surrealist contemporaries and collaborators like Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalì, and Leonor Fini. It also considers the unlikely star turn of Roseberry, whose present haute couture strategy is carving out a thoroughly modern future for the formerly struggling house.

During her lifetime, Schiaparelli made significant contributions to the worlds of fashion and product design. Her use of newspaper as fabric and the perfume bottle (modeled after Schiaparelli’s own dress form for Hollywood starlet Mae West) she commissioned from friend and artist Leonor Fini are two of the best-known examples of her imagination and foresight. These milestones of hers came to be defined by how male designers later co-opted them.

Detail shot of works included in the exhibtion. L: George Platt Lynes — Salvador Dalí 1939 Photograph © Estate of George Platt LynesGeorge Platt Lynes — Salvador Dalí 1939 Photograph © Estate of George Platt Lynes; R:  Elsa Schiaparelli in collaboration with Salvador Dalí — Evening gown 1937 Silk © Philadelphia Museum of Art

An exhaustive article from the New York Times examines Schiaparelli’s legacy in the context of both the Musée des Arts Décoratifs exhibition, called “Shocking! The Surreal World of Elsa Schiaparelli,” and its place in the hands of contemporary fashion designers. In it, Moschino creative director Jeremy Scott—a spiritual successor to Schiaparelli with his playful, unconventional point of view—posits that the current moment lends itself well to Schiaparelli’s second coming.

The maison’s 1938 Circus collection, for example, debuted at a “jubilant and riotous” themed fashion show replete with clowns amid rising tensions in Europe. Schiaparelli and Dalí’s shared contribution to the show, a black skeleton dress, functions, in retrospect, as a deeply impactful memento mori. With the advent of World War II, Surrealism expanded beyond Europe as many of the movement’s defining artists, and Schiaparelli herself, fled the continent.

Scott, whose fall 2022 show for Moschino took place on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, offered the Times his perspective on the enduring power of Surrealist fashion against a backdrop of tumult and unpredictability: “We’re always in need of joy and whimsy. We’re in need of the way that fashion can transport us emotionally.” In addition to its delightfully transportive element, Scott also noted the power of such garments to satiate the contemporary “hunger to stand out.”

It’s fitting, then, that under Roseberry, Schiaparelli’s haute couture creations have captivated at nearly every significant cultural event for the past two years. Since Lady Gaga wore a custom Schiaparelli gown to her performance at President Biden’s inauguration in 2021, Roseberry has also dressed the likes of Beyoncé and Zendaya, both cultural and fashion icons in their own right.

L: Beyonce wears Schiaparelli Haute Couture in ‘British Vogue’. Photo by Rafael Pavarotti; R: Zendaya wears Schiaparelli Haute Couture in ‘W’. Photo by Jack Davinson.

For their ensembles in British Vogue and W, respectively, Roseberry’s use of gilded elements and his command of volume and drape elevates the two women’s images to near-artwork. In addition to re-establishing the maison’s status as a preeminent couturier, Roseberry has also put it on the radar of a rising generation that’s likely more familiar with of-the-moment celebrities than early-20th-century fashion and art history.

The importance of this demographic can’t be understated: 25 percent of Musée des Arts Décoratifs visitors are younger than 26. Though the retrospective of Schiaparelli’s own designs was planned before Roseberry’s tenure, the exhibition acknowledges his outsize impact on the house’s present by placing his designs throughout. Museum director Olivier Gabet summed it up succinctly for the Financial Times: “Now, if the name [Schaparelli] is known at all, it’s less to do with Elsa, and more to do with what we see of Daniel.”

As talented a designer as she was, Elsa Schiaparelli’s work was also rooted in fine art and was never solely about making clothes. “Being able to work with artists such as Bébé Bérard, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Vertès and Van Dongen, with photographers like Hoyningen-Huene, Horst, Cecil Beaton, and Man Ray was thrilling,” she wrote in her 1954 autobiography, Shocking Life. “We felt helped, encouraged, way beyond the material and dull reality of the making of a dress to sell.”

While other fashion houses may have had a clearer rise to household-name status, Schiaparelli’s role in Surrealism make her a veritable godmother of the bold fashion statements needed to stand out from the noise of luxury brands clamoring for attention.

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