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Like many modern artists, Schiaparelli built upon art from the past as well as reacting against it. Her designs follow trends in women's fashion that had been developing for decades. In the late 1800s, the tone of fashion was for the most part set by women of the upper classes. It was these women who had the time, money and reason to pursue high fashion. Clothing mirrored the strict stratification of Victorian society where clothes indicated social position. Full dress functions were an important part of high society protocol. Like society, the acceptable fashion for these events was artificial and rigidly prescribed.
The formal, full dress style did not suit all women however, especially those who led a more active, less opulent life. In 1867, a trainless short skirt was introduced which proved more practical. The lack of embellishment was controversial yet the practicality of the new style could not be denied and the short skirt gained major ground during the next 15 years. In 1885, the trend toward practicality continued with the introduction of the walking suit . The cut of the skirt and jacket combination was modeled upon that of men's suits, which allowed for more freedom of movement. The style was more practical for women as they participated in the outdoor activities which were becoming increasingly popular and acceptable. The austere, unadorned lines of the suit did not appeal to many women at first but the walking suit came to be appreciated for its comfort and convenience. It was universally accepted by the 1900s.
The trend toward practical fashion continued after the outbreak of World War I. Wartime prompted many women to change their roles and adjust their clothing. Society life was suspended during the war and many upper and middle class women spent their time doing charitable work and some even replaced their husbands in trade work. Fashion reflected the greater role women played outside the home. Skirts became shorter and the waist was low and unstructured. In addition, many women were spending time driving and playing sports. And in response to this trend, the first examples of sportswear for women, tennis skirts, sports sweaters and beach pajamas appear. While clothing was becoming more practical, it also became more uniform. Specialized equipment was introduced to manufacture clothing more efficiently but the new technology did not allow for as much variety or refinement. However, these advances in fashion technology allowed for the creation of synthetic fabrics which freed women from bulky woolens.
Many of the major fashion houses were slow to accept the comfort and practicality trend at the beginning of the 20th century and suffered for their lack of foresight. Smaller, more savvy fashion enterprises were able to secure a portion of the market and designers such as Madeleine Vionnet and Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel began to make a name for themselves. These designers showed that mass production did not mean the end for fashion. Vionnet invented the bias cut which is cut at an angle of 45 degrees rather than on the straight grain. It allowed a piece of fabric to hang and drape in sinuous folds and stretch over the round contours of the body. Chanel followed where the walking suit left off. Her version of the three piece suit consisted of a cardigan, pullover sweater and a skirt made out of patterned jersey fabric. Her use of jersey knit exalted the status of knitwear, which had originally been used for undergarments and then as a sportswear.
Schiaparelli followed suit a few years later, presenting practical and comfortable sweaters, wool cardigan jackets, beach pajamas and an array of matching accessories. With her early collections, Schiaparelli readily accepted the idea of comfort and practicality in the design of women's clothing, using suits, sportswear and the evening gown as the basis for her collections. Yet Elsa reacted against the simplicity and muted color palette of Chanel and many other contemporary designers with her use of bold, contrasting colors, including a "shocking" pink of her own invention. She introduced whimsical decorations, patterns and accessories to the world of fashion, showing gowns decorated with lobsters, newsprint or cancelled stamp patterns, buttons in the shape of tiny snails and collars made from feathers and monkey fur. She often exaggerated particular features such as the shoulders by adding padding to her coats and jackets. Schiaparelli was also innovative when it came to both materials and fasteners. Her first sweaters were made from a mixture of metallic and wool yarn and a three piece beach ensemble she designed was crafted from linen with a terrycloth lining. She made great use of the zipper and metal clips as an alternative to buttons, using one on the sleeve of a ski costume to allow for unencumbered movement.
It was Schiaparelli's bold, whimsical approach to fashion which allowed her to differentiate herself from other designers in the 1920s and 30s. Chanel once described her as that "Italian artist who makes clothes" but it was her artful approach that made her distinctive. She built upon fashion trends that had been developing since the late 1800s, branding them with her own unique sensibility. Although many of the designs are over sixty years old, her revolutionary approach continues to influence the fashion world of today.
Paris was awash with revolutionary artistic spirit during the first half of the twentieth century. This spirit manifested itself in a variety of art forms. Picasso and the Cubists abstracted images from the real world, capturing the essence of an object through shape and color. The Surrealists transcended the real world in order to explore the unconscious mind. Elsa Schiaparelli was a part of this Paris. She translated the basic elements of modern art, simplicity, continuity of line, and contrast, into wearable art. She chose to modify the design of a hat or a sweater as other modern artists modified forms of painting, sculpture, and literature. While Marcel Duchamp shocked the public by displaying a urinal in an art gallery, Schiaparelli shook up the fashion world by turning a shoe into a hat. Throughout the twenties, Surrealist ideas provided inspiration for the fashion world and vice versa. Vogue hired surrealist artist Man Ray as a staff photographer and commissioned Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico to design several magazine covers. Schiaparelli, out of all the fashion designers working during this time was most influenced by Surrealism. She was close friends with many of the major Surrealist artists including Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Jean Cocteau. Throughout her career, she frequently collaborated with these artists but it is her collaboration with Salvador Dali which produced some of the most imaginative and unusual results. In1936, Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali presented suits and jackets with bureau-drawer pockets reflecting themes prevalent in Dali's Art.
In that same year, she and Salvador Dali created the "Shoe Hat," a black felt concoction in the shape of a high-heeled shoe with a shocking pink heel. In these designs, Schiaparelli and Dali used the idea of displacement , where an object is selected and then removed from its usual environment. In doing so, they modify the object's original purpose. With the desk suit and the shoe hat, the artist and the designer altered an object's conventional meaning by transforming it into an item of clothing.