Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Portrait: Elsa Schiaparelli 1937

My husband's grandfather, John Phillips, was a photographer for LIFE magazine in the 1930s and 1940s, when he photographed one of the iconic images of Elsa Schiaparelli in 1937.

In John's memoirs, It Happened In Our Lifetime he writes about the Café Society (le tout Paris) of Paris in the late 1930s:

By the time I got to the Riviera I had already become addicted to a way of life I could only afford on expenses.  I swam with the celebrities I had photographed at Eden Roc and at dusk had an aperitif on the veranda of the Carlton with them.  There I ran into the pretty switchboard operator I had photographed at Schiaparelli's.

"Where are you staying?" she asked.

"Here at le Carlton" I said, feeling very nouveau riche.

She made a face.  "Moi, I'm staying with my lover at a chateau."

In the spring of 1937 LIFE picked Schiaparelli for its Paris fashion story.  I was given complete freedom to photograph whatever I wanted in her luxurious five-story building on the Place Vendome.  Schiap herself remained elusive that first week.  

One day she appeared in a wide-brimmed hat of her own design obviously inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte's famous bicorne.

"The shadow of Napoleon" I remarked as she went by.

Mme Schiaparelli wheeled around.  "I understand Mr. Phillips, that you go out with my mannequin Christiane."

"Aren't you fortunate?" I replied.

"Fortunate?" she demanded.

"Why yes.  What would people say if the LIFE photographer doing a story on Schiaparelli was going out with one of Chanel's models?"

"You may take my picture after lunch" Schiap said before she swept on.

Excerpted from John Phillip's memoir, It Happened In Our Lifetime.

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