Fashionably great

Seldom does a fashion designer achieve the status of avant-garde artist. Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian-born designer who held sway over the worlds of fashion and art in the 1920s and ’30s in Paris, is one such woman. Her work is being exhibited in her first major retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Jan. 4.

The major difference in this show is that it is neither fashion nor art. It is, in fact, objects that are so compelling that one is forced to consider them art. This is altogether different from artists creating "wearable art."

Museum officials are calling "Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli" a display of the person who "fueled the artistic dialogue of the avant-garde in Paris but also extended its creative impulses to include fashion, infusing a sense of the marvelous into everyday life in ways that transformed the image of womanhood in the 20th century." Strong words, indeed.

Museum director Anne d’Harnoncourt puts an even sharper point on the exhibition: "We could compare Elsa Schiaparelli to the painters Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo as one of the important artists of the last century who broke important boundaries for women.

"For Schiaparelli, fashion design was the ultimate art form and through the most improbable leaps of her imagination, she became an astonishing innovator whose brilliance and impact can at last be fully understood in terms of the art and culture of her times."

The exhibit is the creation of Dilys Blum, the museum’s curator of costumes and textiles, who organized the show and wrote the book that accompanies it. She was able to draw from the museum’s own collection and loans from private and public collections around the world. There are more than 200 works, including examples from all phases of Schiaparelli’s career.

The designer was born in Rome in 1890 into a family of intellectuals who exposed her to the arts and literature. She studied painting and poetry before her marriage to theosophist Wilhelm Went de Kerlor in 1914. That marriage broke up in New York, at least partially due to Kerlor’s affair with dancer Isadora Duncan.

As a single mother, Schiaparelli turned toward fashion design to make a living and in 1927, her famous hand-knitted sweaters were featured in Vogue and she soon surpassed rival Coco Chanel. Those sweaters featured a fool-the-eye bow tie and were put together in such a way that they maintained their shape far better than other designs.

Her association with leading artists of the time crossed a number of media. Schiaparelli worked with Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Albert Giacometti, Leonor Fini and Meret Oppenheim in designs for clothing, fabric, embroidery, jewelry and advertising. She used unconventional materials such as tree bark, glass-like fabrics, clip fastenings rather than buttons, and colorful plastic zippers designed to be seen, not concealed. It’s hardly surprising that the exhibit demonstrates how the Surrealists adapted Schiaparelli’s innovations.

The designer also had a fine hand for promotion and merchandising. She made "divided skirts" or culottes for tennis champion Lily d’Alvarez at the 193l Wimbledon matches. She also designed a wardrobe for aviator Amy Johnson’s solo flight to Cape Town in 1936. The show includes several movie costumes — a black sequined Mae West dress and the famous "snake" dress worn by Zsa Zsa Gabor in Moulin Rouge. That kind of presence did much to spread Schiaparelli’s fame.

Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli
Through Jan. 4
Philadelphia Museum of Art
26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Adults, $10; seniors (62+), $7; students with valid ID, $7; ages 13-18, $7; 12 and under, free; Sundays, pay what you wish

Elsa Schiaparelli’s Twelve Commandments for Women

From Elsa Schiaparelli: Shocking Life, New York, 1954

Since most women do not know themselves, they should try to do so.

A woman who buys an expensive dress and changes it, often with disastrous results, is extravagant and foolish.

Most women (and men) are color-blind. They should ask for suggestions.

Remember — 20 percent of women have inferiority complexes. Seventy percent have illusions.

Ninety percent are afraid of being conspicuous, and of what people will say. So they buy a gray suit. They should dare to be different.

Women should listen and ask for competent criticism and advice.

They should choose their clothes alone or in the company of a man.

They should never shop with another woman, who sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously, is apt to be jealous.

She should buy little and only of the best or the cheapest.

Never fit a dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress.

A woman should buy mostly in one place where she is known and respected, and not rush around trying every new fad.

And she should pay her bills.