Elsa Schiaparelli’s Wonderland: Fantastic Fashions of the Late 1930s and Early 1940s

A Designer of Dreams

Elsa Schiaparelli Butterfly Evening dress, circa 1937
With a matching parasol!

The iconic Elsa Schiaparelli butterfly dress is the perfect introduction to one of the most ingenious designers of the 20th century. Elsa was a butterfly herself: a metamorphosis out of the fashion conventions of the past and into a new, colorful world of her own fearless design.

Elsa Schiaparelli Seed Packet Dress, circa 1939-41

Elsa’s designs are playful. Always one to lighten the mood, Elsa’s collections often have distinct themes, often involving butterflies, mythology, the zodiac, and natural curiosities.

Elsa Schiaparelli Evening Dress with Plastic Flowers, circa 1938

The flowers adorning this dress are made of plastic. Elsa embraced new materials and loved to play with texture.

Elsa Schiaparelli Musical Evening Dress, circa 1939

This lyrical creation was worn by Millicent Rogers who was a big admirer of Schiaparelli’s imaginative fashions. Besides the bright musical notes applied to the dress itself, the belt buckle provided more music from a working music box built inside. Elsa’s belts are some of my favorite pieces. They are cheeky and very modern looking. Many of them would still be considered on the cutting edge of fashion today.

Elsa Schiaparelli Sequined Evening Blouse, circa 1938-39

Feeling a little bit of a 1980s flashback coming on? Elsa’s brilliant and over-the-top fashion designs featured padded shoulders, layers of embellishment, and the decorative use of zippers, studs, and buckles 50 years before “Power Dressing” for women became fashionable; she was like the Vivian Westwood of the 1930s and 1940s! Her fashions were considered quite daring–shocking even–and she collaborated with many surreal and dadaist artists throughout her career. For example, she collaborated with Salvador Dali to create the Circus Collection, which even by modern standards is considered avant-garde.

Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí Skeleton Dress, circa 1938

Elsa Schiaparelli Clasped Hands Belt, circa 1934

Elsa Schiaparelli High Heel Hat, circa 1937-38

Elsa played both sides of the fashion card: she would design swoon-worthy, romantic pieces, then mix in pieces with modernist angles and experimental shapes. Many people would find this seesaw rather jarring, but Elsa always struck a balance between old and new. She enjoyed change and was always looking for the next fashion adventure without abandoning what she already knew was beautiful.

Two Schiaparelli Pieces from the same Year and Season:

Elsa Schiaparelli Ivy Necklace, fall 1938

Elsa Schiaparelli Rhodoid Insect Necklace, fall 1938

What is truly wonderful about Elsa’s designs, however, is that as couture and over-the-top they are, they are still wearable. She doesn’t reach so far into surreality that function disappears. Many of her pieces would still be considered chic–even comfortable–by the women of today.

Elsa Schiaparelli Sweater, circa 1932-38

Elsa Schiaparelli Taurus Belt, circa 1938

Elsa Schiaparelli Jacket for Millicent Rogers, circa 1938-39

Sadly, the austerity of 1940s wartime and post-war fashion did not meld well with Elsa’s vision and she closed her fashion house in 1954 as Christian Dior’s “New Look” became the favored style. However, the beauty of her work has not diminished and her collections continue to inspire fashion designers, costumers, and artists around the globe.

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