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Elsa Schiaparelli and the power of shocking pink

The surrealist Italian designer turned heads with her passion for this seriously head-turning colour

hungarian born american actress zsa zsa gabor as she appears in the film 'moulin rouge', 1952 she is wearing a dress designed by elsa schiaparelli
Archive Photos

In 1954, the author of a book about Elsa Schiaparelli wrote that: ‘As a child Schiap was definitely difficult. She still is.’ Since the author was Schiaparelli herself, she probably knew what she was talking about.

‘Definitely difficult’, in this case, was an elastic term. It encompassed everything from, as a child, trying to plant flowers all over her face (ears, eyebrows, hair…) to, when older, her avant-garde designs.

A contemporary of Coco Chanel, Schiaparelli’s style could not have been more different. Where the former was a byword for chic restraint, her Italian rival let her imagination run wild: hats that looked like high heels; sweaters embroidered with sailor-tattoo motifs; skirts printed with dog-sized lobsters. Her aesthetic was liberally seasoned with surrealism and daring.

Such exuberance needed a signature colour to match and Schiaparelli found it in pink.

elsa schiaparelli studying the charts of her new collection
John Phillips/Getty Images

Not just any pink, naturally. This was not the pallid tint of 18th-century art. No, this was a full-blooded, decidedly brash hue – it was soon called ‘Shocking Pink’, after all – and it became her signature. She dressed Zsa Zsa Gabor in it for the 1952 film Moulin Rouge; used it all over the packaging for her perfume (called ‘Shocking de Schiaparelli’, of course); even smoked cigarettes with hot-pink-dyed tips.

Where Schiaparelli led, others followed. With her backing, it was adopted by a generation of fearless, passionate women. Diana Vreeland, doyenne of bold mid-century taste, liked pairing it with tangerine and crimson. Daisy Fellowes, a socialite of international bad-girl repute, loved it, too. And when Marilyn Monroe played the role that sealed her reputation as a sex symbol in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it was a shocking-pink strapless gown she wore for the big musical number.

Such exuberance needed a signature colour to match and Schiaparelli found it in pink

Pinks now may have a reputation for being somewhat sweet, but that wasn’t the case for Schiaparelli and her peers. For them, pink was a colour of potent power wielded by those who knew what they wanted and were not afraid to go after it. A colour for those who knew their own minds. A colour, perhaps, for the definitely difficult.

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration September 2020

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