FrouFrou 4 YouYou

Chicago Millinery History: Elsa Schiaparelli February 23, 2016


Fabulous books on Elsa Schiaparelli add to the allure of all things ELSA. Especially when the person with the largest collection of her creations has put that story into words. BillyBoy is a fashion geru of this day. His first encounter with “Schiap” creations was a hat he found in a Paris flea market when he was 14. The book comes out July, 2016.



Books of the 21st century written on Elsa have totaled 8 since the 2007 reissue of the 1954 Shocking Life: the autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli by Elsa Schiaparelli.

My “book report” could never cover all the fine tidbits from those, so the following is just to wet you appetite for more. Besides the soon to be released book, Frocking Life: Searching for Elsa Schiaparelli, by BillyBoy, there was a charming one released in 2015, written for youth, Hot Pink. Susan Goldman Rubin brings out the best of the story, without the hot tidbits of a sometimes off color life. When the term Shocking Pink was coined to describe her signature color, there was also plenty shocking about her life as well.


It is also nice to read an adult biography with many fine qualities established from the life of one of the worlds most successful fashion designers. Meryle Secrest brings out plenty in her 2014 book, Elsa Schiaparelli: a biography.


Also out in 2014 was a collection of unseen family photos, by Schiap’s granddaughter, model, Marisa Berenson. Elsa Schiaparelli’s Album adds new meaning to her love of family.

Who was this woman we revere as a fashion icon between the two world wars?

Born 1890-1973 she left Rome for a life spent back and forth from New York to Paris. In Paris she won the fashion world attention with her sweaters, then moved along the fashion continuum to sportswear to all manner of apparel, including hats and other museum worthy designs.

A fascination with Surealism led to oft references as an artist who worked in fabric. She was the leading designer who based inspiration from Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali on the backs and heads of women. The Chicago History Museum exhibit in 2008-09, CHIC CHICAGO featured one simple beige dress with the well know jacket of a woman’s hair cascading down the sleeve and profile across the chest.


Schiaparelli made hats to draw attention to herself, as well as others. It is said the lamb chop hat with a white frill at the bone was the first of her hats to gain attention for the absurd.

Famous women wore her hats. Marlene Deitrich is known for a photo among hats with a cigarette and legs outstretched. Mrs. Daisy Fellows, former Harper Bazaar editor, was the one who wore the shoe hat and brought Americans to their knees in awe over her Schiaparelli look. The shoe hat was originally inspired by Salvadore Dali, a Surrealist artist who collaborated on her fashion design.



Elsa did animal skin hats, with the face of a big cat looking on as she wore this on her own head. Rather distracting, if I say so myself. Mostly Elsa favored wearing turbans.


She had one design that was the most copied. It was a knit tube with one end closed, called a MadCap. This was copied by Madcaps company founder Mr. Soloman, who retired a millionaire to Florida. Schiap came to despise the design as she came to see it everywhere. Imitations were sold finally at the five and dime and perhaps those worn on the head of each newborn was the tipping point for her dismay. She then had her staff dispose of any of their design and prohibited talking of it again. The part where imitation is the greatest form of flattery did not work for Schiaparelli.

Top Ten Tidbits on Schiaparelli
#1 Born 9/10/1890, died 11/13/1973.
Born in Italy to a mother of aristocracy ( and some Scottish background), and father a professor and scholar of old coins. Her uncle, was an astronomer who found the canals of Mars. Elsa had an older beautiful sister, but Elsa had “beauty marks” on her face referred to as the Big Dipper, by her uncle.

#2 Hated name Elsa, called herself Schiap.
Even in youth the name Elsa was not acceptable to her, and insisted everyone call her Schiap. Her parent were hoping for a boy, and had no name for a girl. At her christening they chose Elsa, the name of her nurse, not your typical choice. Her youth was anything but dull. She was sent by her family to a Swiss boarding convent school, but her wild side did not fit well with expectations. She went on a hunger strike, which resulted in her father coming to bring her back home, ending the 3 month education. Some near miss marriages occurred, one with a much older man, an Arab while she was 13 and visiting in Tunisia, which her father would not allow. An arranged marriage to a wealthy Russian would not be acceptable to Elsa no matter how hard she was persuaded by her family. She may have been enamored by a lower class fellow, who may have really been the love of her life, as she called out his name several times upon her deathbed.
Once on her own she went to attend a fancy event in Paris, but without a suitable gown she was left to create an emergency outfit. She did not know how to sew, but purchased many yards of fabric and kept it together with pins. While dancing a tango the pins were falling out at an astonishing rate to the point she had to be shielded by her escort to depart before a total unveiling.

#3 Moved to NYC in 1922 but divorced when deserted, age 31.
In 1914 she married a man of questionable repute, a “Count” de Kerlor. She had attended a lecture by him on theosophy, but she did not leave the audience when other attendees left. By morning they were engaged. He, tho, was lured away during their marriage by the charms of Isadore Duncan. Isadore died when her long scarf caught in her car’s axle in 1927 and was strangled. He sought fame in some manner as a psychic detective, and writer. Fortune did not follow. He ended up murdered in Mexico at the age of 39.

#4 One daughter, Gogo. Born Maria Luisa, but then her father deserted mother and child, who had Polio. Some felt Schiap was not close to her daughter, but some thought her ingenious with what she did to support her. The blow that led to speculation was when Gogo married in NY while her mother was in Paris, unaware of the marriage.

#5 Initial success was a knit sweater done in 1927, in Paris. She had left NYC in 1922 and found rejection in Paris, closing in 1926. The sweater was of a knit she had seen made by Armenians. She commissioned them to create for her, which became wildly successful.

#6 Long standing disdain for Coco Chanel.
Chanel was established when Schiap came back to Paris. Very different styles. After WWII there was a downward spiral for Schiap, while Chanel reopened in 1954 with ongoing success, heavily based upon American appreciation.

#7 Signature color legacy Shocking Pink.
It embodied her overall philosophy of shocking people with her actions. Her erotic poetry as a teenager is said to have essentially brought her much criticism from family. Accounts vary if this was when she was 14 or 21. Her fashion designs could be just as provocative, as in the Lobster dress for the trousseau of Wallis Simpson, soon to be Mrs. Windsor.
There was a lamb chop hat worn by Gala Dali, Mrs. Salvatore Dali, with a suit of drawers for pockets.
Daisy Fellows, of Harpers Bazaar, wore the shoe hat, based upon the inspiration of Salvatore Dali.

#8 Autobiography “Shocking Life.”
This 1954 book did not receive critical acclaim, mostly based on the manner in which it was written. Some felt if she would have allowed for a collaboration with a writer, things would have been better.
The 2014 biography, Elsa Schiaparelli by M. Secrest also focused on the speculation that Schiap was a WWII German collaborator. Records are reviewed which were kept monthly by the FBI on her for two and a half years.
In 2013 there was an exhibit of designs by Prada and Schiaparelli in NY.That book is a wonderful review of her work; ” Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations.”

#9 Business bankrupt and closed 1954.
Returned from the US after the war to find her business intact, and reopened. The upswing of the Dior New Look in 1947 was the fashion world favorite, leaving the Hard Chic Schiap designs out cold. Closed in 1954, but licensing was an area in which she excelled. Perfume, lingerie, eyewear, and hats seem to be the likely best fit. Endorsements of other companies became an important aspect as well.

#10 Two granddaughters. Berry Berenson Perkins, (Mrs. Tony Perkins, wife of the actor who died in 1996 of AIDS), had two sons, Oz Perkins and Elvis Perkins. Berry had been a photographer who died in 9/11 when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the Twin Towers. The other granddaughter is Marisa Berenson, actress and model, supportive of the revived Schiaparelli label. Marisa lived with Schiap and had a closeness that may have been greater than she had with her own daughter, Gogo. Marisa faced criticism in the 1970s at her short mini skirt wardrobe from Schiap, even tho Schiap was most known for her controversial designs. Marisa was with her till the end. Her legacy? Beyond the designs, there are others who worked for her early in their careers, such as Hubert Givency, and Pierre Cardin. In 2006 Diego Della Villa bought the company name, and in August 2013 brought on Marco Zanini. The first collection appeared in 2014.The revival of the company has pleased Marisa, and it seems the legacy of fashion may live on.

Hats:Lamb chop, Shoe, Hens Nest, Ink Pot, Telephone, Lobster



Hats in Chicago?

In April 1946 Marshall Field, and Co held a month long event, Forum of International Fashion. They brought in  seventeen designers from the US and abroad. Elsa Schiaparelli was the first designer to present, on April 8, 1946. The ad for the Forum was an entire page, sure to catch the eye of every female reader.



For an overview of the entire Forum, the Chicgao Tribune started off with a full page to  introduce the daily stars:

(For more information on the Forum, see blog entry of Feb. 24, 2016)

It certainly would be wonderful to have seen those fashions, and the hats made for each ensemble.

Back to the present. Some of the books mentioned are in local libraries, but having those photos to savor again and again is easily accomplished. Visit your local independent bookseller and have them order it, if it is not already in stock. Chicagoans can head to Bookends and Beginning, in Evanston. They are more than willing to order, just call, then visit.





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