The Millicent Rogers Collection of Schiaparelli at the Brooklyn Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Italian-born couturière Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) is best known for the iconoclastic bravado and at times brazen originality of her work. While her contemporaries Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet set the period's standards of taste and beauty in fashion design, Schiaparelli flouted convention in the pursuit of a more idiosyncratic style. A repertoire of inventive devices—experimental fabrics with pronounced textures, bold prints with unorthodox imagery and colors, opulent embroideries, outsized and exposed zippers, and distinctive buttons and ornaments ranging from the whimsical to the bizarre—was her medium of creative expression.The Brooklyn Museum's extensive holdings of her works, transferred to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009, were formed primarily through the patronage of mid-twentieth-century arbiter of style, philanthropist, and artisan Millicent Rogers and her heirs.

Suit, fall 1938

Elsa Schiaparelli was influenced by the Surrealist art scene of Paris in the 1930s, and references to that movement frequently materialize in her designs. Artists were using collage, photography and paint as their medium; Schiaparelli was using clothing.

Here, in a suit from her fall 1938 Pagan collection, she incorporates three elements that have become hallmarks of her career: interesting fabric, Surrealist elements, and unconventional buttons. Schiaparelli scoured fabric houses to find fabrics that perfectly translated her artistic ideas. The crepe used for this jacket and dress is highly textured, adding a rough dimension to the overall design.

The Surrealist elements here, the plastic bug ornaments, are shockingly realistic and in juxtaposition to the delicate pink silk of the collar where they rest. As Dilys Blum states in Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, many designs from this collection featured earthy decorations inspired by Botticelli's paintings, like flowers, fruits, animals, and insects.

Buttons were another form of expression for Schiaparelli. In this case, the leaf-shaped buttons represent foliate forms, another common motif seen throughout the Pagan collection. This unusual ensemble would require a certain level of fashion bravado, and the previous owner, Millicent Rogers, definitely possessed that.

Dress, 1939-41
In her 1954 autobiography, Shocking Life, Schiaparelli recounts a childhood episode in which she plants flower seeds in her mouth so that they will grow into a garden on her face.  Evoking that early fantasy, she cut designs from a fabric custom-printed with flower seed packets and applied them in scattershot fashion on this simple summer dress. One appliqué functions as a pocket on the right side. A conspicuous plastic zipper runs the full length of the back.
Evening ensemble, winter 1937-38
A characteristic Schiaparelli often employed in her designs is the use of unique and often intriguing textiles. This sleek dress, with matching shoes by famed shoe designer André Perugia, is a striking example of that design distinction. The many layers and shades of green in the print, similar in feel to ikat weave, produces depth and the additional metallic threads woven throughout lend a luminous quality, making the overall effect like sunlight shining over a mysterious forest. 

Throughout the almost two hundred examples of Schiaparelli's work from Millicent Rogers's collection, this ensemble best illustrates Schiaparelli's love of unique fabrics as well as the close working relationship Schiaparelli enjoyed with Perugia, which lasted throughout her career.

Evening dress, fall 1939
Music was the theme of Elsa Schiaparelli's fall 1939 collection. Correspondingly, she designed this white organza dress and gloves embroidered in metallic threads with musical-score notes and accessorized with a belt containing a working music box in the buckle.

Cutout scrollwork shapes on the buckle top relate to those on a violin, forms immortalized in Man Ray's 1924 photograph Le Violin d'Ingres. An elaboration of the Surrealist notion of woman's body as musical instrument, the wholly integrated creation captures the visual, audible, and transcendent essence of music in the person of the wearer.

Evening blouse, winter 1938-39
Schiaparelli's zodiac collection of winter 1938-39, while obviously rotating around a celestial theme, also made reference to the Sun King Louis XIV and Apollo, the god of mythology who emerged from the sea and drove his four-horse chariot daily across the sky to represent the rising sun. A black velvet cape designed for Lady Mendl featuring gold sequin and bead embroidery based on the Apollo Fountain in the Parc de Versailles is one of her most iconic designs. Rays of golden sequins shoot out from behind Apollo and his horses, similar to the rays of gold beadwork on this blouse, also from the zodiac collection. 

As noted by fashion historian Dilys Blum in Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, the colors and materials used for the collection "rotated around the sun." Evocative of sun rays emerging from behind clouds against a stormy sky, the fuschia, pink and violet sequin embroidery worked on blue-gray silk shot with glittering gold is an exemplar. Visible zippers used as decorative devices as well as functioning closures, a Schiaparelli halllmark, here are placed on the shoulders like epaulets.

Schiaparelli's work is characterized by an overall artistic quality that transcends a strictly fashionable vibe. This blouse, with its dense embroidery, sophisticated coloration and asymmetric details, beautifully illustrates that concept.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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