Elsa Schiaparelli and Her Surprising Ties to Show Business

Elsa Schiaparelli by Man Ray

I am the fashion equivalent of tone deaf, so I toss this one over to Carolyn Raship, instigator and author of this piece. Schiap’s life overlapped with the usual themes of this blog in a surprising number of ways. 

Elsa Schiaparelli remains famous for her relentlessly innovative and witty fashion design influenced by the surrealists with whom she often collaborated. She thrived among the artists and innovators in Paris during the 20s and 30s and unlike her rival Coco Chanel, she has the benefit of NOT being a Nazi. However, it may surprise most people that prior to settling in Paris in 1922 she spent some time performing in vaudeville in the United States.

She was born in the Palazzo Corsini, Rome in 1890 on today’s date to an aristocratic and intensely scholarly family.  Her father was an authority on the Islamic World during the Middle Ages. An astronomer uncle discovered the canals of Mars. A cousin was the Egyptologist who discovered Nefertiti’s tomb. On the face of it, this sounds like the ideal family for the brilliant, easily bored Schiap (as she would later call herself), but she suffered from the same inequities as most girls of her generation and class. She was well educated and bright, but her family still expected her to put her ambitions and studies aside and marry the wealthy, older Russian man her parents favored. To escape her family and their expectations she agreed to spend a few months in England, looking after orphaned children in a country house. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t work out so Schiap headed home, stopping over briefly in Paris en route to Rome and defeat.

It was during that stopover that Schiap attended a lecture in theosophy by William De Wendt De Kerlor, then posing as a Polish count (he was actually Swiss and very much not a count). The two were immediately smitten, becoming engaged within 24 hours of their first meeting, and after a whirlwind courtship, they married. De Kerlor was a man of many aliases, nationalities and professions, most of them centering on his claims to psychic abilities. They lived first in England until De Kerlor was ejected from the country after being convicted of a charge of “fortune telling”. He and Schiap bounced around the resorts of southern France, conning gullible aristocrats while he posed as paranormal consultant but mostly living off the dowry given to him by Schiap’s wealthy parents. In 1916, they sailed to New York.

As always, Der Kerlor was full of schemes, simultaneously embracing radical politics (he and Schiap befriended John Reed and Louise Bryant) and setting up a “Bureau of Psychology” through which he hoped to gain fame and fortune as a psychic consultant and “psychic detective”. It was around this time Der Kerlor started receiving vaudeville bookings as  “The World Famous Dr. W. Der Kerlor” with Schiap as his assistant, at one point appearing on the same bill with the great Nazimova. There’s an extraordinary story from around this time of Der Kerlor and Schiap showing up in some small New England town where a murder had recently been committed and himself offering his services as a “psychic detective”.

In 1920 Schiap gave birth to a daughter, always called by her nickname “Gogo”. Shortly afterwards she left Der Kerlor, tired of his unreliability and infidelities. Soon after the split, Gogo was diagnosed with polio. In 1922, Schiap left New York and sailed to Paris, telling Gogo that her father was dead. As it turned out, she wasn’t too far ahead of events as her ex-husband was murdered in Mexico in 1928 under mysterious (but not terribly surprising) circumstances.

Schiap’s Leonor Fini designed perfume bottle modeled on Mae West’s torso and Mae wearing Schiaparelli in Every Day’s A Holiday (1937)

Arriving in Paris, Schiap embraced and was embraced by the surrealists. Picking up from where her mentor Paul Poiret left off, she became the artistic genius of French Couturiers, collaborating with artists such as (most frequently and famously) Salvador Dali, Meret Oppenheim, Leonor Fini (who designed the iconic bottle for her “Shocking” perfume, possibly modeled on Mae West’s dressmaker’s mannequin) and Jean Cocteau. Her genius lay in her ability to make clothes that managed to be witty and strange and creative while still being wearable. Famously, Paris fashion had nothing but contempt for Hollywood style in the 1930, but the Surrealists liked Mae West and the feeling was apparently mutual. Prior to filming Every Day’s A Holiday West reached out to Schiap and hired her to create her gowns for her role (hilariously, as the wife of a con artist, something Schiap certainly understood).

The war and the changes in post-war fashion killed Schiap’s business and her house closed. He daughter Gogo survived her childhood bout of polio, grew up and married diplomat Robert Berenson (himself a cousin of art historian Bernard Berenson), having two daughters, Marisa and Berry. Marisa started modeling at the urging of family friend Diana Vreeland — something which Schiap never forgave the Vogue editor for. Marisa went on the be one of the iconic faces of the ‘60s and ‘70s, transitioning into acting, appearing in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Berry modeled and acted for a while and married her costar, Anthony Perkins, later focusing on photography. Their son Osgood Perkins directs brainy horror movies. The anniversary of Berry’s death is this week as well: she was a passenger on Flight 93 on September 11 and her name is inscribed in the memorial on panel N-76 is you would like to visit.

After her house closed, Schiap lived on in her art-filled Paris apartment, writing her memoirs. She died in her sleep in 1973.