The Story of Shocking Pink, and the Designer Who Made the Color Famous
Shocking Pink is not just any “hot pink” shade – it’s a very specific color, popularized in the mid-1930s by the surrealist Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. The pulsating retro “warrior pink,” as Yves St. Laurent dubbed it, is a hint more of an intense magenta than a true candy color, just a vibration away from neon.
Over the decades the iconic hue has danced in and out of trendy circles, most recently slipping back into the pret-a-porter stores and haute collections in late 2012, when both US First Lady Michelle Obama and her would-be successor Ann Romney turned up in Schiaparelli pink outfits to the same presidential election debate.
Meanwhile the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Impossible Conversations exhibition of the same year, contrasting the visions of Prada and “Schiap,” still vivid in our memory, introduced a new generation of fashionistas (too young to recall when the vibrant hue was all the rage of Carnaby Street) to this latest iteration of Shocking Pink.
Take a look and see if this color is for you, as you learn more about the remarkable woman who brought it into the fashion palette.
Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973)
Birth of a Surrealist Fashion Designer
Elsa Luisa Maria Schiaparelli was born in Rome, Italy, on September 10, 1890. Her parents were the aristocratic Celestino Schiaparelli (Sanskrit scholar and Dean at the University of Rome) and his wife, the equally aristocratic Maria Luisa Domenitis.
It was an accomplished clan as well as a socially prominent one. Elsa was a niece of the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, he who is best-known for mapping the canals of Mars. The illustrious family also included Ernesto Schiaparelli, the renowned Egyptologist who was credited with the 1906 discovery of the tomb of Queen Nefertiti as well as Kha’s tomb.
According to all reports, young Elsa was a high-spirited and creatively inclined young rebel from her earliest years. It was a character that stood her in good stead in her career, where she broke all the established rules for fashion and approached the design field with a whimsical flair. She must surely, however, have been the subject of some concern for her parents! Or perhaps not: there are indications that young Elsa did not receive much in the way of overt affection, and her mother is said to have taught her that she was “ugly” in comparison to her older sister.
Who knows what lasting impact her early years may have had on Schiaparelli’s drive to “skirt the edge of ridicule” and propel herself into the forefront of Paris fashion…
From Family Life to Fashion World
In 1919, having removed herself to Paris from her family’s “lap of luxury,” which she believed was stifling her creativity, twenty-two-year-old Elsa married (in some haste) the French theosophist Comte William de Wendt de Kerlor.
A daughter, Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha de Wendt de Kerlor – known as “Gogo” – was born in 1920. The following year, the de Kerlors moved from Europe to New York, where Elsa worked as a translator and scriptwriter, mingled with an artistic crowd so forward-thinking as to be radical, and sold a few French fashions to some of her rich American friends.
The marriage ended in 1922, perhaps due in part to William’s affair with the infamous dancer Isadora Duncan, perhaps due to Elsa’s urge to carve her own path, or perhaps because the couple were simply unsuited – who knows? In any case, Elsa returned to Europe with her daughter.
There she dived into her fashion career with all the serious concentration of a single mother with a daughter to support – and a child who had developed polio, no less – living the hard life of an impoverished dressmaker as she struggled to make her place in the world.
However, although it was undoubtedly a difficult time for “Schiap,” as her friends called her, the brave image of a hard-working young woman bending over her needle and thread in a cold rat-run attic may owe as much to romance as reality. According to Patricia Volk’s memoir, Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me, daughter Gogo spend very little time living with her mother, between nurses and doctors and boarding schools in Switzerland.
Schiap and Surrealist Fashion
When, on the dissolution of her marriage, Elsa relocated to Paris and set up her design atelier, she soon made influential connections in the salons of the surrealist art world, collaborating on various designs with such artists as Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali.
Her first important garment, in 1927 – the same year she became a French citizen – was a trompe l’oeil sweater, knitted in black with the image of a bow worked into the stitches at the neckline. I has the pleasure of viewing it in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, some years ago; but alas, it is not currently on public view. Even this clever design – an immediate (and much copied) sensation – now pales in comparison with her many fashion innovations.
Knit a Schiap Sweater
The lines of a Schiaparelli gown were unmistakeable, and she is widely credited with introducing the broad shoulder to women’s garments that dominated fashion through the Second World War, the use of colorful zippers as a design element, unusual use of textured fabrics, as well as the Lobster Dress, Shoe Hat, and other surrealist fashion creations – not least of which is the Shocking Pink color for which she is now best remembered.
Shocking by Schiaparelli – Perfume for Women
The package design for Shocking de Schiaparelli Eau de Parfum, designed in 1937 by Leonor Fini for Elsa’s label, gave its name to the color Shocking Pink, the surrealist designer’s signature color that had been introduced in the previous year.
The hourglass torso shape of the perfume bottle was modeled on Mae West – or, rather, on the curvy dressmaker’s form that the designer had used in costuming the buxom Miss West for her leading role in the movie Every Day’s a Holiday (1937).
The Fall and Rise (and Rise) of the Maison Schiaparelli
Schiaparelli lived in the United States during World War II – and of course had a hand in dressing the Hollywood crowd – but returned to Paris after the war years and reopened her design business.
Her closest competition – and most bitter rival – was the remarkable Coco Chanel. Schiap derisively called Chanel “that milliner,” while Coco returned the favor by describing Elsa as an “artist who makes clothes,” and probably worse.
But where Chanel prospered, and her name is today far better known that that of her Italian-born rival, Schiaperelli’s fortunes declined into the 1950s.
Perhaps it was that her time had passed.
Perhaps it was because her innovative use of fabrics and clarity of vision was at times overshadowed by the eccentricity of her character and the company she kept.
Equally likely, however, according to many fashion historians, the cause of the label’s demise was the ease with which the designs could be copied by off-brand manufacturers and sold on the high street for a fraction of the cost of designer clothing.
In 1954 the House of Schiaparelli closed its doors, and “Schiap” retired to write her autobiography, Shocking Life. She died in Paris on November 13, 1973.
But was that the end of her legacy to the fashion world, or of her memorable brand?
Legacy and influence are intact, it seems.
The occasion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s major 2012 exhibition on Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada was an appropriately momentous cue for the return of the Schiaparelli brand – with the re-opening of the Maison at its same venerable Paris quarters at 21 Place Vendome, and in 2013 a tribute collection by Christian Lacroix, himself something of a landmark in the haute couture universe.
But can the daring, shocking, Schiap style survive in a new century, more than 40 years after the death of its founder?
Yes, the House of Schiaparelli was back on the runways for Paris Fashion Week in January 2015, but an in-house design team has been at the helm for some months, awaiting the appointment of a new creative director. Elsa Schiaparelli’s shoes – or Shoe Hat – may prove to be challenging to fill.
Learn More about Elsa Schiaparelli’s Life and Designs
“Madder and more original than most of her contemporaries, Mme Schiaparelli is the one to whom the word ‘genius’ is applied most often,” Time magazine wrote of its cover subject in 1934.
- TIME Magazine
Elsa Schiaparelli appeared on the cover of TIME Magazine on August 13, 1934.
- Life in Italy – Fashion
Elsa Schiaparelli, the “shocking Italian who conquered Paris,” was one of the pioneers of Italian fashion, and contributed towards the country’s leadership in haute couture.
- Schiaparelli: The Shocking, Shadowed Life Of A Fashion Icon
National Public Radio (NPR) October 2014 feature based on an interview with Meryle Secrest, author of Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met’s Spring 2012 Costume Institute exhibition, Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, explores the striking affinities between Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, two Italian designers from different eras.
Top photo: Shocking Pink Schiaparelli (tag inside lingerie case) by JoulesVintage