Middle Eastern fashion has always been a great source of inspiration for Western designers. The rich textiles, the elegant layering of garments, and the allure of the veil are all elements that captivate and delight any fashionable person. As a young girl, I remember being fascinated with the ways in which the Syrian women near my home would wind beautiful scarves around their faces, covering their hair, and framing their large almond-shaped eyes. One of the greatest Western designers to reference and incorporate Middle Eastern style to her collections was Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 – 1973).
Italian-born Schiaparelli started designing clothes in Paris in 1927. Her early designs were hand knit trompe l’oeil sweaters, but she quickly expanded into a full line of clothing. Her styles were always unique and quirky in comparison to the more conservative designs of her contemporaries, like Coco Chanel. As time progressed, she allied herself with the Surrealist movement. From 1935 to 1940, Schiaparelli collaborated with Surrealist artists Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, and Leonor Fini (source). It was also during this time period that Schiaparelli designed elaborate veils to match each ensemble.
Most of the veils were very long, elegant, and inspired by North African and Middle Eastern cultures. Paired with Schiaparelli’s Surrealist influence, the veils are so unusual. The “Tears” dress and veil were designed in collaboration with Salvidor Dali. It is the illusion of flesh being torn away from the body. Despite the jarring illusion, you can see how carefully the magenta and pink pieces of fabric were affixed to the delicate white veil.
Another beautiful example of Schiaparelli’s veils is from 1935, Blue glass beads were carefully stitched to the white fabric, forming sunlike rays.
These undulating waves radiate from the top of the head, down the back, terminating in squiggly lines. The shimmer and reflective quality of the beads makes the veil, and wearer, sparkle.
While these veils may seem a bit traditional for Westerners, Schiaparelli also created veils that could be used for “double-duty”. This ensemble could be styled with a matching veil, or it could be draped across the shoulders like a bolero.