A woman wears a long thermometer on a hook hanging from her ear, her chin upturned and eyes gently closed, in a photograph taken by artist Man Ray around 1920, not long after the influenza pandemic of 1918.
One hundred years later, another woman hangs on her ear a negative Covid-19 rapid test, decorated with rhinestones and a dangling gold heart. This photo was taken in late 2021.
These are the images – which have nothing and everything to do with the designer Elsa Schiaparelli – that came to mind while walking through a new exhibition dedicated to the Italian-born couturière, who founded her label in 1927.
Schiaparelli was a designer who put things where they should not have been: hands on belts, aspirin on necklaces, cicadas on buttons, claws on the fingertips of gloves. But these “little jokes,” as The New Yorker wrote of her style in 1932, “turned out to be big influences”. (The jokes were also, at times, so practical that they became less funny: during Prohibition, Schiaparelli sold an evening coat with a bustle able to conceal a flask; later, she made a jumpsuit to wear in air raid shelters.)
But the designer has also developed a reputation for being “underrated,” says Olivier Gabet, director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which is presenting Shocking! The Surreal World of Elsa Schiaparelli. It opened last month and continues until 22 January 2023.
“You understand the invisibility of women artists with the case of Schiaparelli,” Gabet says. Though a handful of museums have devoted major fashion exhibitions to her in the past 20 years, Schiaparelli is less recognised within the