Walking into Elsa Schiaparelli’s fashion exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum is almost like waiting in line for a roller coaster, only a little less nerve-wracking.
Upon entering, everything is quiet and still. The only movements are people walking slowly, stopping and studying each numbered item in the cases of velvet gowns, capes, pants suits, summer dresses and hats.
The elegance of the 175 garments alone can make you feel under-dressed in average casual clothing.
Dresses, along with hats, shoes, accessories and jewelry line the walls in a simple, sophisticated showcase. In between the exhibits are drawings, fashion illustrations, photographs, paintings and sculptures by Man Ray and Salvador Dali.
The dim lights give off a feeling of calm and contentment, with a touch of admiration floating through the air.
One wall features Elsa Schiaparelli’s “12 Commandments for Women.” These are her theories regarding fashion, women, shopping, and inferiority complexes.
Schiaparelli not only had an eye for what fabrics went well together, she also had strong views on people and their insecurities and problems.
Schiaparelli’s commandments state, “They [women] should never shop with another women, who sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously, is apt to be jealous,” and, “Remember: 20 percent of women have inferiority complexes. Seventy percent have illusions.”
These straightforward opinions are a good way to introduce Schiaparelli to the visitors.
Televisions line the walls and play movie clips from previous productions and old interviews to give the audience a glimpse into Schiaparelli’s life.
Pamphlets explain each item and identify each piece by name, season, year and when and where it was worn to help the audience better place the artwork.
An informative biography of Schiaparelli graces the entrance detailing her years in Paris and England, as well as the opening of her own fashion salon in 1927.
Her career took off in the 1930s when she stole the spotlight from Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, the fashion connoisseur from the 1920s. She continued to design clothing for decades after that. Her death in 1973 was a loss for the fashion industry, but she will remain a legend.
The transition into the exhibits is smooth and easy; beginning with a simple piece called “The Sweaters.” There are six different, hand-knitted wool items in vibrant colors and unique designs. Every item has a number in the case and a number and title matching it in the pamphlet.
“The Sweaters” is the first of 17 other categories fitting of their time period and theme. Among them are “Chic Melancholy,” “Return to the Bustle,” “Music in the Air” and “Evening in Paris.”
The third case, Architect of Fashion, Carpenter of Clothing is perfect for Schiaparelli, not only describing the creation of her work but of herself as well. Items 19 through 32 in this category represent the extreme diversity of her designs.
From “The Ice-skating Ensemble” to “The Beach Umbrella,” Schiaparelli created all of her visions. She splashed fashion onto any item she touched, there were no boundaries to her imagination.
Schiaparelli put every day life into clothing. When she opened her first salon, to celebrate, she designed a fabric printed with a collage of her press clippings. She also designed dresses inspired by Salvador Dali. She put the surrealism of his art into fabric form, creating art out of a dress.
Item after item, one gets lost in Schiaparelli’s designs, for each tells a tale of a time period and creates a mental image of an occasion perfect for the outfit.
Schiaparelli’s “Lucky Stars” exhibit, which held personal value to her, is an original and unique exhibit. Created in 1938-1939, each item is detailed and embroidered with precision.
Resembling the Big Dipper, Schiaparelli made these seven star configurations her own personal emblem because it resembled the cluster of beauty marks on her face. Zodiacs, planets and constellations decorated the capes, handbags and necklaces of this time.
The butterfly was another signature that popped up throughout Schiaparelli’s work. She used the butterfly to symbolize a woman’s transition from ugliness to beauty.
She believed she had a hand in the transformation. From a single butterfly embroidered on the front of a jacket to patterns of butterflies all over an entire dress, Schiaparelli put her personality in all of her designs.
Schiaparelli created clothes for more than just a career, she genuinely enjoyed dressing people and making them look better.
Schiaparelli’s 16th exhibit was more than just another shipload of designs for her. Appropriately titled “A Matter of Prestige,” Schiaparelli designed these clothes during the war of France and Britain against Germany.
While many people were unemployed during that time, Schiaparelli wanted to prove that she was still working. This batch reinforces the saying “it’s the quality not the quantity.”
It was one of Schiaparelli’s smallest shipments, but it still contained some wonderful designs. Including a snuff bottle and box, bootees and many dinner jackets, Schiaparelli let no one down.
One of her most useful creations came from this time. Schiaparelli created a dinner jacket with oversized pockets to replace a handbag. The “cash and carry” jackets were resourceful and stylish.
It is hard to grow tired of Schiaparelli’s work. One encounters surprise after surprise with each exhibit. From serious high cut dinner jackets to low back, scoop neck dresses, Schiaparelli covers all areas of the fashion spectrum.
She was clearly a talented designer, and this exhibit is only a glimpse at the amazing pieces of clothing she created during her years as a fashion expert.
Jennifer Hendricksen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org