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Frock Shock

Elsa Schiaparelli's first retrospective

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When Elsa Schiaparelli launched her first fashion craze in 1927—sweaters with whimsical trompe l'oeil bows—she hadn't had any training in clothing design. Two years later, she was outfitting the world's most glamorous women—and upsetting the establishment with her bold colors and liberating, body-conscious designs. "She is responsible for the feeling of spontaneous youth that has crept into everything," Vogue raved in 1935.

Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Katharine Hepburn wore her form-fitting suits, mannish trousers, and cocky hats. Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau collaborated on designs with her; Cecil Beaton and Man Ray photographed them. All considered her a friend and equal. The first retrospective of her work, Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, opens September 28 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to which the designer donated the bulk of her personal collection in 1969.

Cristóbal Balenciaga called Schiaparelli "the only true artist in fashion," and her accessories alone prove that: velvet pumps worn upside down on the head; spike-heeled ankle boots draped in monkey fur that look hip even now. The surrealist Dalí "tear"—as in rip—dress was a punk statement 50 years before its time. Among the many innovations she pioneered were designer logos, wrap-around dresses, culottes, reversible coats, plunging backs, and richly embroidered evening jackets. "The moment people stop copying you," Schiaparelli once said, "you have ceased to be news."


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