The Perfect Dress For A Night On The Town: Historical Fashion

Elsa Schiaparelli, Surrealist Fashion Desiger

Usually when I am selecting a historical costume to present for my Historical Costume blog series, I chose something for centuries ago and presented in a painting, usually a portrait.

This month is different. If you are a reader of my blog then you know that I studied fashion design at F.I.T. (Fashion Institute of Technology). Because of that connection and the fact that the museum is shut down because of this pandemic I decided to show the great fashions the museum possesses.

So for May 2020, the spotlight shines on this stunning red number and the female designer that doesn’t shine as bright on her legacy as it does on Coco Chanel (her biggest rival). That designer is Elsa Schiaparelli.

On September 10, 1890 Elsa Luisa Maria Schiaparelli was born in Rome to Maria Luisa, a Neapolitan aristocrat, and Celestine Schiaparelli, a scholar in the Islamic world and Middle Ages, who was Dean of University of Rome. Raising in this cultural and academic surroundings, Elsa developed a love of ancient cultures, its lore as well as its religious rites. She wrote a book of poems entitled Arethusa based on the ancient Greek myth of the hunt. But she had her wicked moments, which got her sent to a Catholic boarding school. No happy to be there, she held a hunger strike and was permit to leave.

Instead of returning home to Rome, Elsa headed to England for a job a friend arranged for her. Well, that didn’t work out but her life did change. While in England, she attended a lecture on theosophy–a philosophical or religious thought based on a mystical insight into the divine nature. The lecturer was Wilhem de Wendt, who went under various alias, and claimed to have psychic powers and numerous academic credentials. He claimed to be a detective, criminal psychologist, a doctor, lecturer, and even performed in Vaudeville. This man became Elsa’s husband on June 21, 1914. She was twenty-three and Wilhem was thrity.

Elsa began helping with his work, promoting his act. In 1915, the couple was forced to leave London when Wilhelm was convicted for practicing the then illegal fortune-telling. The couple made their way around France before departing for America in 1916.

In New York City, they rented out offices for their Bureau of Psychology, which was the same act they did in England. This caught the eye of the F.B. I. so Elsa and her husband headed to Boston to continue their “work.”

On June 15, 1920, the couple became a trio with the birth of their daughter, Maria Luisa Yvonne Radha was born. Gogo as she was called by her mother. Wilhelm abandoned the ladies. Then in 1921, Togo was diagnosed with polio. That same year, the mother and daughter returned to New York. A year later, mother and daughter sailed to France.

In France, Elsa’s friend, Gabrielle “Gaby” Buffet-Picabia, wife of Dada and Surrealist artist Francis Picabia, would bring her into a circle that would inspire Elsa for the rest of her days and became a major part of her style. She developed friendships with Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Stuckin.

Elsa now began making clothes. Couturier Paul Poiret (a major designer of early 19th century) encouraged her to open her business. Though she received favorable reviews her business closed in 1926.

Not one to give up, Elsa launched her new collection of knitwear in 1927. She used a special double layered stitch that Armenian refugees created and sweaters with surrealist trompe l’oeil images. The Pour le Sport collection expanded in 1928. It included bathing suits, ski-wear and linen dress. The business grew that in 1931 she added evening wear and the shop moved to 21 Placve Vendome.

Then the world changed. In 1939, France declared war against Germany and then a year later on June 14, Paris fell to the Germans. Elsa and her daughter sailed to New York for work and she remained there until the end of the war.

Naturally, the fashion house closed but when the war ended, Elsa returned to Paris and reopened her house where it remained open until 1954. Elsa died at 83 on November 13, 1973 in Paris.

Elsa Schiaparelli changed fashion in a ways you might not be aware of. She first introduced zippers that matched the fabric, brooches like a buttons on clothing and even modern day catwalks are thanks to her. She also introduced a new color called Schiaparelli Pink, a shocking bright pink that you probably have seen hundreds of times.

This evening gown is from circa 1955 and is haute couture, which translates to made to measure. The gown is constructed of red silk faille and pink silk. The vibrant color has not fade or lost its vibrancy. The classic strapless gown appears to be boned or corseted to keep its shape and give support to the lucky lady who might have donned this gown. The hourglass silhouette accentuates a woman’s figure that was popular in the 1950s. A drape sash cuts across the hips for a train lined in the pink silk drapes asymmetrically.

The gown was sewn by hand by Schiarapelli’s fashion house workers and must have taken weeks to construct after being fitted and refitted to the measurements of the woman and model who donned this gown.

As for accessories that a lady would have wore with this, I would have gone with a simple yet refined look. Perhaps, pink strapped shoes that match the pink of gown so with every step, perfectly manicured red toes peeked out from beneath the hem. I would wear my hair swept up to show off the shoulders and perhaps, diamonds or simple necklace to highlight a perfect expanse of flesh. Maybe a shawl to cover up from the evening chill.

Wearing this gown, you can’t help but feel utterly sexy and classy. Perfect to got to the theatre or a ball and dance the night away even to fall in love.

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The Making Of The Tudor Rose: Elizabeth and Henry

The Cousins’ War started in 1399. We know it as The War of the Roses. The House of Lancaster battle the House of York—the red rose and the white rose. By the fifteenth century, Edward Plantagenet claimed the throne from Henry VI. Edward became King Edward IV. 

Edward IV married Elizabeth Wydeville, Lady Grey, an impoverished Lancastarian widow. The king and queen’s first child was born on 11 February 1466 at Westminster. That child was Elizabeth Plantagenet, Princess of England, or Elizabeth of York. She was the first born princess in more than a century.

She grew up in “the most splendid court that could be found in all Christendom.” 

Meanwhile, Margaret Beaufort was born in 1443 to John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, a descendent from King Edward III through the illegitimate blood line. Though the four Beaufort children were legitimated by Richard II, there was an added provision to act that stated the Beauforts could not inherit the crown. At twelve, Margaret who was a very desired heiress was married to Edmund Tudor—a man with royal blood as well. His mother was Queen Katherine of Valois, the widowed French wife of Henry V of England (and Agincourt fame), and a lowly Welsh squire Owen Tudor. Though, Edmund Tudor was fourteen years older than his wife. Such marriages were not uncommon among the nobility. Most bridegrooms waited until the young bride had reached an appropriate age. Not Edmund Tudor. 

Margaret became pregnant and bore her son, Henry, on January 28, 1457. She had a traumatic birth and never bore any more children. As for Edmund Tudor, he died of plague before the birth of this future king. Now, Margaret was thirteen, a mother and a widow for twelve weeks. And a Lancastrian in a Yorkist time. 

While Elizabeth grew up in “the most splendid court that could be found in all Christendom”, Henry, the Earl of Richmond, and his mother, a mother and son on the wrong side, were placed under the guardianship of William Herbert, an equally staunch Yorkist, after their home, Pembroke Castle fell.

In time to come, Margaret married her second husband, Sir Henry Strafford, a Yorkist, in order to have her son’s earldom returned to him especially since Edward IV didn’t like Margaret.   

But in these turmoil times peace never last long. The Earl of Warwick—known as the Kingmaker and the man who helped Edward win the crown—along with the king’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, rebelled against Edward and set the feeble Henry VI back on the throne. With the Yorkist fleeing, Jasper Tudor, Henry’s uncle, claimed custody of his nephew while, Elizabeth, her mother, and siblings sought out sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. 

But the tender peace shatters when Edward VI returns and reclaims his throne. Jasper and Henry flee England and become fugitives. Henry Tudor is fourteen. His life would be one of penury and danger, meanwhile, Elizabeth was reared a Princess. She received an education of a princess, which was lacking, and by our modern eyes not much of an education. Her granddaughter and namesake would receive a better one. 

Elizabeth loved books so she possessed the capability of reading and writing. Yet, the princess struggled to speak French, knew no Latin (that was a male’s subject) and as was schooled to run a household—even a royal household—and entertain. She was raised to be a Queen, wife, and mother.   

During this time, it might appear as if this royal couple would never find their way to each other. Elizabeth’s father saw Henry Tudor as a threat to his throne and wanted Henry to be returned to England, offering a grand amount of gold to Francis II, Duke of Brittany, where Henry was living. Yet, Edward didn’t plan to kill Henry but marry him to his daughter, Elizabeth in order to unite the two rival houses. 

Henry though, not trusting the king, feigned illness and received sanctuary in a church in St. Malo.  

In 1482, the king made one more offer to Henry. He granted the lands of his maternal grandmother, heiress to manors in three English counties, as long as he returned from “exile to be in the grace and favor of the King’s highness.” Henry didn’t sail to England.

With his life as a fugitive, Henry trusted a scant number of people. His mother and his uncle and no more beyond those two. This way of life would increase during his lifetime.

On April 9, 1483, both Henry and Elizabeth’s lives changed. Edward IV died at forty-one with his oldest child aged seventeen and his heir, Edward, a mere boy. Now, Richard III, Elizabeth’s uncle, would claim the throne for himself and take control of Edward (the rightful king— Edward V) and his brother Richard. Elizabeth and her mother and siblings would once again seek sanctuary in Westminster again. 

During this time, Richard III through machinations was able to prove (more like scheme) that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville invalid and his nephews and nieces, including Elizabeth, bastards and legally unable to inherit the throne. 

This acts upset powerful Englishmen who sailed to Henry Tudor’s side. Henry’s opportunity was drawing nearer thanks to Richard’s action and his mother. By this time, she had married Thomas Stanley. Stanley was a rich and powerful man and Richard couldn’t alienate him. So, Margaret waited and plotted with Elizabeth Wydeville to marry their children. Henry Tudor would be king and Elizabeth would be queen. Then the Princes in the Tower disappeared and all accused Richard III of killing the young brothers. Whether Richard killed them or not, I cannot say. That truth is lost to history.

But the accusatory talk ate away at more of Richard’s support. The proposed marriage had much support and brought more people to Henry’s side though his claim was dubious even according to the act impossible. Then Richard’s trust man, the Duke of Buckingham, switched sides. The duke informed Henry that on “St. Luke’s Day, October 18, and that he himself would raise the men of Wales. A proclamation was then made to the confederacies that Buckingham ‘had repented of his former conduct and would be the chief mover’ in the planned risings.”

Henry Tudor joined in with Buckingham’s rebellion. But Richard had already learned of the conspiracy. So when Henry sailed on October 31, the rebellion had failed yet Henry was unaware. Bad weather had blown Henry off course and he was just off Plymouth’s coast when he learned of Buckingham’s death and the army roused by the dead duke had fled. Henry sailed back to Brittany—crownless.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth stepped out of sanctuary and went to her uncle Richard and joined the Queen Anne’s household. In January, Parliament labeled Henry Tudor a traitor and if he returned to England, he would executed. 

Much happened around Elizabeth and Henry. Politics and intrigue that affected this young couple. Both just had to wait for their moment. Richard had control of Elizabeth and hunted for Henry. There is talk about Richard wanting to marry his niece. But two problems stood in his way. She was a bastard as he had declared and was his reason for claiming the English throne. The second was that she was his niece which was a close blood relation and would need a dispensation for a marriage. Richard denied that he wished to marry Elizabeth. And with the reputation that the Tudor concocted of him, it is easy to believe that’s denial was a lie. 

But this was the year were much changed. Charles VIII of France recognized Henry Tudor as King of England “and gave him money, ships and French troops for an invasion, with the aim—as Henry put it—of ‘the just depriving of that homicide and unnatural tyrant.’”

This recognition brought more Englishmen to Henry’s side and Henry had to act soon. 

On August 1, Henry Tudor sail from Harfleur in Normandy. Six days later, he landed at Milford Haven near Pembroke. The Welshman set his foot on Welsh soil and fell to his knees and said, “’Judge me, O God, and plead my cause against an unworthy nation’”—and kissed the ground. Then, calling on the aid of God and St. George, he urged his men onward, marching under a white and green banner proudly displaying the red dragon traditionally attributed to Cadwaladr. He came, as he was at pains to make clear, to reconcile the warring factions.” 

Henry and his army marched eastward and on August 15, he crossed into England. Richard rode to confront him. On August 22, 1485, the two armies met. The Battle of Bosworth raged and at the end of the bloody meeting, the Tudor dynasty was born. 

In the next installment the young couple meet.

Can you please help me? If you enjoyed this post, please share on your social media. I’m trying to grow this feature and I’m so horrible at it. Thank you.