Schiaparelli and Thirties Fashion, review: A time capsule wardrobe at the Gallery of Costume

Sarah-Clare Conlon, Literature Editor

The thirties are back in fashion – as this small but decadent exhibition of designs by Elsa Schiaparelli at the Gallery of Costume proves.

Legendary couturier from the 1930s Elsa Schiaparelli is the focus of the latest temporary exhibition across two floors at the Gallery of Costume – but not Schiaparelli alone. Her works are put nicely vis-à-vis other designers, drawn from the gallery’s permanent collection. “The exhibition looks to contextualise the iconic work of Schiaparelli by comparing her pieces with other high fashion from the period,” says curator Miles Lambert. What he might not have expected was visitors throwing some moves to the Charleston soundtrack in the upstairs part of the exhibition.

We reckon that Schiaparelli – or Schiap, as she was known to her friends, including artistic collaborators Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau – would have approved. Happily we didn’t get chucked out, and so can report back; we even discovered that there’s one further piece set to join the collection on show. Currently being restored is a rare ‘Rococo’ scrollwork trimmed evening jacked from the summer of 1937, and of the model worn by Wallis Simpson in her trousseau as the Duchess of Windsor. On our visit, however, our eye was drawn first to a short black wool evening jacket from 1936 in the downstairs bit of the exhibiton: embroidered in gold, and embellished with sequins and seed pearls, with an exquisite palm tree detail, it was worn by Marlene Dietrich and Schiaparelli herself.

“It is the first time that Schiaparelli has ever been on show in Manchester”

“I love Schiaparelli’s boldness,” says Lambert, “especially in her love of embroidery and embellishment, and also her artistic approach as she was of course an artist in her own right.” This was an approach that set Schiaparelli apart from her biggest rival, Coco Chanel. “I feel very excited about this new show as it is the first time, as far as I am aware, that Schiaparelli has ever been on show in Manchester,” Lambert adds.

Opposite is a similar design: a gold embroidered tunic, described in Vogue in 1937 as ‘a Persian Prince dinner suit,’ with the specially-commissioned gold ribbon a theme in the designer’s oeuvre in the late 1930s. This particular piece was worn by Doris Delevigne, later Viscountess Castlerosse (and Cara Delevigne’s great aunt), who was renowned for her Schiaparelli wardrobe as well as her high society dalliances. Doris also owned the absolutely stunning blue floral-print silk crepe floor-length dress on the next plinth, with a statement zip that’s back in fashion now.

Upstairs, and on the scene of our small, spontaneous Charleston, there are more classic, fashionable-again works on show, including a plain black silk crepe floor-length evening dress – dated 1930-33. Schiaparelli was, then, remarkably prescient; if this exhibition is anything to go by, then ‘old rose’ pink silk numbers with a crossover bodice and short puff sleeves will be the thing on the catwalks next year. Perhaps not…but these are, nonetheless, clothes that are beautiful in a timeless way. God rest ye Schiaparelli!

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