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The circus collection of 1937.

Work by Christian Bérard, vogue, April 1, 1938

The circus collection of 1937.

Work by Christian Bérard, vogue, April 1, 1938

Elsa Schiaparelli was many things, but boredom was not one of them. I can confirm this after spending the last few weeks re-reading Elsa Schiaparelli’s memoirs (which are curiously written in the third person, like Christian Dior’s), and combing through archives and biographies to put together a timeline of some of her many accomplishments in fashion before “Shocking! The Surreal World of Elsa Schiaparelli” opens July 6 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. My editor, Nicole Phelps, asked me what I had learned in the process.

1940 battalion flag prints.

Work by Christian Bérard, vogue, March 15, 1940

Well, the answer would be a lot, but what surprised me was biographer Palmer White’s assertion that “after arriving at Place Vendome [in 1935] one of Elsa’s most spectacular innovations was giving each collection a theme,” something we take for granted in today’s fashion. I had never stopped thinking about the origins of this tradition. Viewers, consumers and collectors alike benefit from the way Schiaparelli designs and curates shows around fantasy themes like the circus, commedia dell’arte, astrology, and more. and it seems that these frames also encouraged the creativity of the designer.

Astrology, 1938.

Work by Christian Bérard, vogue, October 15, 1938

“Schiaparelli was the only house that showed its models fully dressed from head to toe, complete with hat, gloves, scarf, jewelry, shoes, and carrying an umbrella and handbag,” White reports. “In many cases, Elsa now refused to sell the elements of a ‘number’: you had to take the whole set or nothing.” Which means that we must also add the concept of “total look” to the list of Schiaparelli innovations. Read about them all here.

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