Elsa Schiaparelli: Jackets

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) was the most famous purveyor of the cocktail-appropriate dinner suit. Her suit consisted of a bolero or flared jacket that could be removed for the evening, and a sleeveless sheath dress. Unlike the previous decade, the 1930s dictated different skirt lengths for different hours: the silk, rayon, or wool crepe sheath of the dinner suit was steadfastly ankle or "cocktail" length.  Schiaparelli's dinner jackets changed the outline of women's fashion from soft to hard, from feminine to masculine during the mid- to late 1930s. The basic silhouette, which comprised wide shoulders and a narrow waist, first appeared in her autumn/winter 1931–32 collection entitled "Wooden Soldiers," which was inspired by the Indo-Chinese costumes featured in the 1931 Exposition Coloniale in Paris. The extended shoulders, achieved through padding, became hugely influential in Hollywood, helped along by international café society darlings like Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe), Mrs. Reginald (Daisy) Fellowes, and the Duchess of Windsor.

The elaborate embroidery on this jacket, which pays homage to the style of Art Nouveau, is designed to frame the face of the wearer. Even the decorative buttons, a Schiaparelli trademark, were intended to draw the gaze from the waist to the face, a function not dissimilar to a man's necktie. Since women were usually seated in the theatre or restaurant, Schiaparelli felt that decoration on the lower body was redundant.

Schiaparelli's lavishly embroidered jackets, in the tradition of 18th century dressmaking, served to denote the social status of their wearers. During the mid- to late-1930s, her dinner suit became the badge of the well-dressed woman. Her well-heeled clients included the Duchess of Windsor and the Honorable Mrs. Reginald Fellowes. Known to her friends as "Daisy," the Honorable Mrs. Reginald Fellowes was the granddaughter of Isaac Singer, inventor of the sewing machine. Dressed by Schiaparelli à l'oeil, she was one of the most talked-about and well-dressed women of the period.

The Duchess of Windsor, then Mrs. Simpson, wore a model of this jacket in a photograph taken by Cecil Beaton at the Château de Candé. With its appliquéd baroque decoration, it epitomizes the Duchess's witty, playful sense of style. The Duchess was at her most elegant in smart, impeccably tailored suits, a look that Cecil Beaton referred to as her "trim messenger-boy's suits." This particular jacket bears the original basting stitches establishing the grain-lines of the sleeve and back of the jacket. As it would have been rare for an unfinished garment to have been given to a client, it is likely that the client may have planned and insisted upon alterations outside the house of Schiaparelli.

Schiaparelli developed a lifelong interest in the heavens from her uncle, Giovanni Schiaparelli, a prominent astronomer. Typically mining her childhood experiences as source material for her creative life, she used celestial iconography in several collections between 1935 and 1940.

In crafting this jacket, a collaboration with master embroiderers Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage, she designed her ultimate personal and artistic expression of the theme. Surrounded by a midnight blue galaxy sprinkled with beadwork stardust, silver and gold planets, rhinestone crescent moons, swirling comets, and shooting stars, twelve glyphs representing the signs of the zodiac are embroidered in gold at center front. Ursa Major, the constellation known as the Big Dipper, which Schiaparelli adopted as her personal emblem in childhood, illuminates the left shoulder.

Schiaparelli's interest in neoclassicism and the eighteenth century is evident in her jacket with embroidered hand mirrors bracketing buttons cast as Hellenic deities. But even in this elegant consideration of rococo style, a surrealist provocation intrudes in the fractured surface of the "shattered" mirrors. Schiaparelli's mirrors are both of art-historical heritage and of a contemporary sensibility responding to a world on the verge of war.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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