115 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011

For Olivia Juliet Rubin


Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli


Author’s Note










Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli

(pronounced Skap-a-rell-ee, although she claimed no one ever said it properly) wanted to invent a new color for fashion. A shade never seen before in women’s clothes. Something exciting. She thought of the illustrations in her father’s books that she had seen as a child and remembered the vivid pink hoods, or chullos, worn by the Incas in Peru. She even recalled the bright pink begonias on the terrace that she had admired from her baby carriage. “The color flashed in front of my eyes,” she wrote. “Like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world put together. A shocking color.”


A shocking-pink taffeta jacket embroidered with jet-black beads that Schiap designed and wore in 1947.


Schiap was about six years old when this photograph was taken.

She called it shocking pink, and it became her signature color—the one she would forever be known for. Fashion magazines soon reported that shocking pink was becoming more popular than red. “Schiap,” for short, or “Skap,” as she was known to everyone, made a shocking-pink collar and leash for her pet dachshund, Nuts, and walked him through the streets of Paris, attracting attention. Her friend, surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, dyed an enormous stuffed polar bear shocking pink to popularize the color, and Schiap put the bear in her boutique.

Just like her artist friends, Schiap delighted the world with her innovations. To her, fashion was art.

From the start, Schiap caused surprises. When she was born, on September 10, 1890, in Rome, Italy, her parents were expecting a boy. They didn’t even have a girl’s name picked out. So, at her baptism at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, her nurse named her after herself: Elsa. “Never was a name less appropriate,” wrote Schiap. As an adult, she insisted on being called by her nickname.

“Schiap was an ugly child,” she wrote about herself in her autobiography. For an Italian girl at that time, she was unfashionably thin and had enormous dark eyes. Her sister, Beatrice, ten years older, was gorgeous. Their mother often made critical remarks about Schiap’s looks and told her that she was “as ugly as her sister was beautiful.” Schiap believed it and, as a little girl, dreamed up a way to make herself pretty.

If she could make flowers sprout all over her face, she thought, she would be the only woman of her kind in the whole world. So Schiap got some seeds from the gardener and “planted” them in her throat, ears, and mouth. Then she sat waiting for the seeds to bloom. She felt they ought to grow faster in her warm body than in the soil outside, but the result was to make her nearly suffocate. Her mother panicked and sent for the doctor, who removed the seeds. For Schiap, “the chief disappointment was that no flowers grew to turn her into a beauty.”

Schiap grew up in the Palazzo (palace) Corsini. Her father, a noted scholar, headed the Lincei Library, located in the palazzo, and the family lived in an elegant apartment there. Surrounded by tapestries and frescoes, Schiap enjoyed art from an early age.

When she was old enough, her father allowed her to look through his rare books. She marveled at the sketches in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. When she saw da Vinci’s drawing of a “flying machine” and heard about the new sport of parachuting, she decided to try it for herself. Schiap opened a large umbrella, climbed onto the sill of a second-floor window in the palazzo, and “threw herself into space.” Luckily, she landed in a soft pile of manure in the garden below. Years later, as a fashion designer, she would create a collection of styles inspired by seeing parachute jumpers on a trip to Russia.

She marveled at the sketches in Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.

Her uncle Giovanni, a famous astronomer who had discovered canals on Mars, encouraged her curiosity. When the family stayed at his villa near Milan, he helped Schiap look through his telescope at the stars. “He would describe Mars for me as if he had just returned from a long visit [there],” wrote Schiap. She confided in him and bemoaned the moles on her face that she thought made her look plain. Uncle Giovanni pointed out that the spots were actually beauty marks forming the shape of the Big Dipper. “He liked me because he used to say that I was born with the constellation of the Great Bear [Big Dipper] on my cheek,” she wrote.


The Big Dipper, which Schiap had adopted as her good-luck charm, was embroidered in silver on a blue velvet jacket for her Zodiac collection in 1938. Her uncle Giovanni had told her that it was good luck to have beauty marks in the shape of the constellation.

Fashion interested Schiap from the time she was a little girl. At home in the palazzo, she climbed a ladder into the attic and discovered a trunk filled with her mother’s wedding gown and old dresses. “I spent long hours up there, emptying the trunk and trying everything on,” she wrote.

On her twelfth birthday, her mother gave her an allowance of fifty lire a month to choose her own clothes. “This was not a great amount even in those days,” wrote Schiap, “but I managed to look very well on it. Planning things out on the principle of what we now call ‘separates,’ I managed to give the impression that I had a lot of clothes.” She chose “fine white blouses edged with lace” and wore them with various skirts, an idea she used later in her designs.

School bored her. “The fact that I was obliged to learn things I did not care about and curb my imagination revolted me,” she wrote. She rebelled by secretly writing romantic poetry. After a while she gave the poems to her older cousin Attilio to read. He was Uncle Giovanni’s son and an art critic. Attilio liked Schiap’s poems so much that he showed them to a publisher in Milan, who asked to meet the poet. According to Schiap, she was only fourteen then. Most likely she was fifteen. Pretending she was going on a family visit, she went to Milan, and her cousin took her to the publisher’s office. Her poems were published in 1911, when she was twenty-one, and critics quoted excerpts in newspapers throughout Italy.

Schiap’s parents, who were very private and traditional, read the poems in manuscript form before they were printed. They were horrified by these poems about love and sorrow and considered the whole thing a disgrace. It was decided that, “as a punishment,” Schiap would be sent to a convent in Switzerland.

She quickly grew to hate the strict rules of the convent. She went on a hunger strike, and her father finally came to take her home.

In those days, the early twentieth century, young women raised in a traditional Italian family like Schiap’s didn’t prepare for a career or trade. Marriage was their only option. But Schiap wasn’t interested in any of the men her parents considered a good match for her. Her sister heard from a friend in England, who was looking for someone to help her take care of orphans in a country house. For Schiap, “this was the golden opportunity.” She took the job of nanny, and in 1913, at the age of twenty-two, she set out for London, escorted by family friends. Their first stop was Paris.

Upon arriving she announced, “This is the place where I am going to live!”

Paris was the center of the art world. Artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and other cubists were painting in a new, revolutionary style, and Schiap read about them in art magazines. And everywhere she heard talk about the innovative fashions of Paul Poiret.

Poiret had started out by working for Charles Frederick Worth, considered the father of high French fashion, or haute couture. Worth was the first to present his designs on live models so that clients could see how the gowns and outfits would look. Then the customers chose their own fabrics, and their clothing was made to order.

At that time, women wore tight corsets and petticoats beneath their dresses to help shape their figures. Poiret had opened his own fashion house in 1904, when Schiap was fourteen. He’d boasted that he would free women from corsets. Inspired by Japanese kimonos and Middle Eastern caftans, he designed clothing that hung from the shoulders in straight lines instead of accentuating curves.


Paul Poiret, 1913.