'Shocking Life' by Elsa Schiaparelli

In this extract from her autobiography, fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 – 1973) recalls the making of her very first design: a simple knitted sweater with a surreal twist.

In Paris life for me was rather dull, with a great deal of solitude. If ever I wished to be a man it was then. The possibility of going out alone at any time, anywhere, has always excited my envy. To wander aimlessly through the night, to sit in cafés and do nothing, are privileges that seem to be unimportant, but in reality they make the taste of living so much more pungent and complete. Real youth and gaiety had not yet been mine. I was to know both, curiously enough, in later years.

Schiap had arrived at a turning-point in her life where she wondered what it was all about and what life was for. But though things were dark and mysterious she was nearly happy – with the happiness of the tramp who, having found a room for the night, watches the winds and the rain raging outside.

She knew that she would not marry again. Her marriage had struck her like a blow on the head, wiping out any desire to make a second attempt. From now on her life would become a series of friendships, sometimes tender, sometimes detached, witty and sharp and short, full always of the same anxiety for privacy and freedom, battling incessantly for small liberties, and though she was helped mostly by other women she got along better with men, but no man could ever get hold of her completely. Perhaps being very demanding, because of her ability to give freely, she never found the man she needed.

Hat,The Pagan Collection, designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, 1938, Paris, France. Museum number: T.427-1974. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

More and more she enclosed herself in a circle, not yet guessing how the terrific accumulation of energy and will-power would find a way to express itself. It was by pure chance that she began along a path that nobody in his senses would have chosen for her.

Once or twice I had thought that instead of painting or sculpture, both of which I did fairly well, I could invent dresses or costumes. Dress designing, incidentally, is to me not a profession but an art. I found that it was a most difficult and unsatisfying art, because as soon as a dress is born it has already become a thing of the past. As often as not too many elements are required to allow one to realise the actual vision one had in mind. The interpretation of a dress, the means of making it, and the surprising way in which some materials react – all these factors, no matter how good an interpreter you have, invariably reserve a slight if not bitter disappointment for you. In a way it is even worse if you are satisfied, because once you have created it the dress no longer belongs to you. A dress cannot just hang like a painting on the wall, or like a book remain intact and live a long and sheltered life.

A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens another personality takes over from you and animates it, or tries to, glorifies or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty. More often it becomes an indifferent object, or even a pitiful caricature of what you wanted it to be – a dream, an expression.

Summer evening dress, The Parachute Collection, designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, 1936, France. Museum no. T.42:1 to 3-2010. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

With my head full of wild ideas I approached one or two people. One was the house of Maggy Rouff. I was told by a charming gentleman who was very polite that I would do better to plant potatoes than to try to make dresses – that I had neither talent nor métier (profession). Not that I had many illusions myself on the matter.

A woman friend, an American, came to see me one day. She was always very smart, and on this occasion wore a sweater that though plain was different from any I had yet seen.

I myself had never been able to wear sweaters or sports clothes. When I dressed for the country I was sure to look my worst, so much of a scarecrow, in fact, that I expected even the birds of the fields to fly away from me.

The sweater my friend was wearing intrigued me. It was hand-knitted and had what I might call a steady look. Many people have said and written that I started in business sitting in a window in Montmartre and knitting. In fact I hardly knew Montmartre and I have never been able to knit. The art of holding and clicking those two little metal needles and making them produce something has always been a mystery to me, and indeed remains so. I did not try to learn, being convinced that the result of anything I did along those lines would strangely and vividly resemble a piece of Swiss cheese.

This sweater which intrigued me was definitely ugly in colour and shape, and though it was a bit elastic it did not stretch like other sweaters.

"Where did you get it?" I asked. "A little woman..."

The little woman turned out to be an Armenian peasant who lived with her husband. I went to see them, became friends, and have remained so ever since. I visit them occasionally at their small factory where they make knitted goods for the wholesale trade.

"If I make a design will you try to copy it?" I asked. "We will try."

So I drew a large butterfly bow in front, like a scarf round the neck – the primitive drawing of a child in prehistoric times. I said: "The bow must be white against a black ground, and there will be white underneath."

The poor darlings, not at all disturbed by such a mad idea, struggled to work it out. Indeed, this was something I was to discover throughout my career, that people would always follow my ideas enthusiastically, and try without discussion to do what I told them.

The first sweater was not a success. It came out lop-sided and not at all attractive. It could have fitted Gogo [Schiaparelli's daughter]. The second was better. The third I thought sensational.

Cravat jumper, designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, 1927, France. Museum number: T.388-1974. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Trying courageously not to feel self-conscious, convinced deep within me that I was nearly glamorous, I wore it at a smart lunch – and created a furore. Women at that time were very sweater-minded. Chanel had, for quite a few years, made machine-knitted dresses and jumpers. This was different. All the women wanted one, immediately.

They fell on me like birds of prey, but the woman from whom I accepted the first order was a New York buyer for Strauss. She asked me for forty sweaters and – forty skirts. Remembering the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in the Thousand and One Nights in my father's library, I impudently said: "Yes!"

I had no idea how they were going to be made within a fortnight, as I had promised them, by this Armenian peasant and her husband. Nor did I know where the skirts would come from and what they would look like.

My Armenian woman and I held a council and we scouted through Paris for Armenian volunteers. The colony must have been unexpectedly large because we gathered quite a number together in no time. They learned quickly, and as long as I paid for the wool they did not mind waiting for their wages.

Evening coat, designed by Elsa Schiaparelli and Jean Cocteau, 1937, London, England. Museum number: T.59-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The large bow was repeated in many colours but mostly in black and white. The skirts were the big problem. What were they to be made of? And who would make them?

A young French girl in the neighbourhood had sometimes helped me with my dress problems. We talked it over and decided to make the skirts absolutely plain, no fantasy at all, but a trifle longer than fashion demanded, that was just to the knees.

But where should we find the material? And how should we pay for it?

I went again to the Galeries Lafayette and chose some good and cheap material at the bargain counter.

The order was completed, shipped, and paid for within three weeks. Pouff!

I became very daring.

The large bow was followed by gay woven handkerchiefs round the throat, by men's ties in gay colours, by handkerchiefs round the hips. Anita Loos, at the height of her career with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was my first private customer, and I was boosted, with her help, to fame. Soon the restaurant of the Paris Ritz was filled with women from all over the world in black-and-white sweaters.

Text © Schiaparelli SA

The complete Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli is now available in the V&A Fashion Perspectives e-book series from online retailers.

Header image:

Cravat jumper, designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, 1927, France. Museum number: T.388-1974. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London