Schiaparelli’s Past is Present


Vintage Schiaparelli label.






  By Stuart Mesires


On December 16, 2016, I was excited to learn that the fashion house, Schiaparelli had once again been granted the label of ‘haute couture’ by the French Couture Federation. Schiaparelli was founded in 1927 by Elsa Schiaparelli and became famous in the 1930s for its collaborations with Surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau. The house closed in 1954 and was relaunched in 2013 by Italian entrepreneur Diego Della Valle. Since 2015 Schiaparelli’s collections have been designed by Bertrand Guyon

On January 23 of this year, Schiaparelli’s spring 2017 line was presented at its headquarters on Place Vendôme. It is appropriate that having regained its haute couture status, this collection looked to its haute couture past and reinterpreted some of its most iconic symbols and styles. Examples of these are the image of the birdcage – an important symbol to Elsa Schiaparelli, and Schiaparelli’s zodiac jacket from 1938 and lobster dress from 1937.



Elsa Schiaparelli in her salon with one of her birdcages.

The birdcage is a symbol that appeared repeatedly in Schiaparelli’s collections in the form of hats, handbags and even perfume bottles. She was noted to have said that she sometimes felt as if she herself was a bird trapped in a cage. 



Pablo Picasso’s painting, Birds in a Cage, is used as a frontispiece of Schiaparelli’s biography, Shocking Life.

In 1937 Pablo Picasso painted a picture for Schiaparelli called Birds in Cage. Schiaparelli claimed that it was her favorite painting and used it as the frontispiece for her autobiography, Shocking Life with the following description: “There is a cage. Below it are some playing cards on a green carpet. Inside the cage a poor, half-smothered white dove looks dejectedly at a brilliantly polished pink apple; outside the cage an angry black bird with flapping wings challenges the sky.” Schiaparelli’s friends claimed that the painting was a portrait of her that represented her dual nature.


Schiaparelli’s perfume shop with Jean Michael Frank’s Birdcage.

In Schiaparelli’s Place Vendôme store, the perfume shop was entered through a black and gold bamboo birdcage designed by Jean Michel Frank in 1937. The birdcage has survived and is now located on the fourth floor of the Schiaparelli atelier where the collections are shown.  

Model on the catwalk, necklace detail

Schiaparelli birdcage pendant necklace from the Spring 2017 collection.

For the Schiaparelli Spring 2017 collection, Guyon paid homage to the birdcage symbol by designing golden birdcage pendant necklaces.



Photo of Elsa Schiaparelli showing her Ursa Major shaped beauty marks on her left cheek.

The Ursa Major constellation and the zodiac were also important symbols to Elsa Schiaparelli. As a child she felt a deep affection for and was fascinated by her uncle, Giovanni Schiaparelli who was a renowned astronomer. In her autobiography, Shocking Life, Schiaparelli recounts that her uncle told her that the beauty marks on her cheek were arranged like the stars forming the Ursa Major constellation (or Big Dipper) and would bring her luck. This meant a lot to her as she was often belittled and told that she was an unattractive child by her mother. Subsequently Ursa Major became one of the symbols that Schiaparelli used throughout her collections. 


Detail of Schiaparelli’s1938 zodiac jacket.

Schiaparelli’s Fall 1938 Zodiac collection included what was to become one of its iconic pieces – the zodiac jacket. It was made out of a midnight blue velvet and embroidered by the House of Lesage with gold and silver embroidery featuring the 12 signs of the zodiac, the planets and the constellations. Schiaparelli’s Ursa Major symbol was prominently featured on the left shoulder of the jacket. 


Sabine Getty wears the updated Schiaparelli zodiac jacket from the Spring 2017 collection.

For Schiaparelli’s Spring 2017 collection, Guyon revived the zodiac jacket. It was updated by giving it a modern cut, fabric and proportions but the embroidery remains the same. This was possible because the original sample of the embroidery that was created by Lesage in 1938 still exists. This allowed Lesage to use the exact same techniques and elements that had used on the original jacket.


Schiaparelli lobster dress from 1937.

Another iconic piece that was revived for the Spring 2017 line is the lobster dress. This dress was originally designed in 1937 as a collaboration between Schiaparelli and the surrealist artist, Salvador Dali. It is a white silk organdy gown with a large lobster painted on the front. 


Lobster phone by Salvador Dali, 1936.

At the time, Dali had been using lobsters in a lot of his artwork. One specific example is, ‘Lobster Telephone’ which was created in 1936 and consisted of a lobster placed on top of a telephone. To Dali the lobster and the telephone both had strong sexual connotations. In ‘Lobster Telephone’, Dali purposefully placed the lobster’s tail (where the sexual organs are located) on the telephone’s mouthpiece. Dali was also responsible for the placement of the lobster on the Schiaparelli lobster dress. It was in part the placement of the lobster on the dress that caused the design to be charged with erotic tension. 


1937 portrait of Wallis Simpson taken by Cecil Beaton for Vogue.

When the gown was worn by Wallis Simpson for a Vogue photo shoot in 1937, shortly before her wedding to the Duke of Windsor, it caused a huge uproar. 


Schiaparelli lobster dress from the Spring 2017 collection.

Guyon recreated the lobster dress for the Spring 2017 line by updating its silhouette and by using a featherweight crepe fabric. This time the lobster is placed more to the side of the gown and it has been embroidered instead of printed. In an article for Vogue Guyon says that the lobster appliqué was sewn by hand onto the bias-cut skirt and that it took six people 250 hours to complete the dress. 

There were other iconic Schiaparelli images that reappeared from the past for the Spring 2017 collection. These included hands, a lock, Schiaparelli’s signature shocking pink color and hearts. It will be interesting to see where Schiaparelli goes from here as they build on the past and move into the future.