“Shocking! The Surreal World of Elsa Schiaparelli” opens with hundreds of the couturière’s detailed fashion drawings printed like wallpaper, plus several originals—including a lithe figure wearing the famous lobster dress—mounted in glass cases. The exhibition’s final room showcases drawings by Daniel Roseberry, whose first haute couture collection as artistic director for the Maison in 2019 began with him at a drafting table, sketching from the runway.
For some, the most shocking aspect of this enthralling retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris will be the incomparable level of artistry; that her body of work is both indebted to and imagined as art. “The idea was to pay homage to Elsa’s relationship with artists, but also with visual culture,” explained curator Olivier Gabet, the museum’s outgoing director (he will begin a newly created role at the Louvre in September). “It’s very interesting for us to show she has this visual and literary culture that very few people had at the time.”
Schiaparelli, who came from an intellectual, artistic background and grew up in a Roman palazzo, considered herself an artist, above all. While she considered Paul Poiret her greatest mentor, she drew inspiration from some of the most significant artists of her day: the surrealists Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Meret Oppenheim, and Elsa Triolet—that is, when she wasn’t referencing a wing from Fra Angelico or interpreting Botticelli. When Cocteau contributed illustrations that were rendered in embroidery, he signed his name. A photo of Dalí with a shoe on his head is presented alongside Schiaparelli’s shoe hat from 1937.
Across the two floors of the Christine & Stephen A. Schwarzman fashion galleries and amidst striking, often whimsical, scenography by Nathalie Crinière, the exhibition does not attempt to offer a fresh perspective on the eternal and tedious question of whether fashion and art are mutually exclusive. Rather, it illustrates how Schiaparelli never seemed to make the distinction.