Schiaparelli and Surrealism

The Victoria and Albert Museum

Discover the artistic genius of Elsa Schiaparelli and how she transformed fashion

The fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli was a provocateur who took pleasure in challenging typical notions of dress
She worked within the confines of traditional tailoring but played with classic silhouettes through the addition of subversive details, be it print, embroidery, embellishment or unusual materials, which transformed her garments into unique fashion statements. These details which appear as bizarre, often humorous, interventions invite the viewer to look and look again.
"In both Surrealism and fashion the body was woven in fantasy and literally reimagined."  Ghislane Wood, The Surreal Body: Fetish and Fashion
Schiaparelli was drawn to the imaginative freedom in the work of the Surrealist artists whom she befriended on the Paris social scene, leading to numerous collaborative designs. Surrealism’s fixation with the corporeal and depictions of the body created natural tangents with the world of fashion.

Schiaparelli’s collaborative projects with these artists varied from photography to designing accessories, perfume bottles, fabrics and garments. They stretched her creative boundaries beyond the commercial concerns of the fashion world and excited her.

"Working with artists like Bebe Berard, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, Vertes, Van Dongen; and with photographers like Hoyningen Huene, Horst, Cecil Beaton and Man Ray gave one a sense of exhilaration. One felt supported and understood beyond the crude and boring reality of merely making a dress to sell."
Elsa Schiaparelli

This dark blue silk jersey coat was a collaborative design between Schiaparelli and artist Jean Cocteau. In her autobiography Schiaparelli recalled: "Jean Cocteau made some drawings of heads for me. I reproduced some of these on the back of an evening coat and one, with long yellow hair reaching to the waist, on a grey linen suit".

The coat was worn by Doris Castlerosse, a great client of Schiaparelli. She bought many of her pieces from Schiaparelli’s London store which opened in Mayfair in 1934.

The back of this evening coat features profiles of two faces which form a rose filled vase standing atop a central column. The coat was embroidered by the house of Lesage, one of the top Parisian embroidery houses of the haute couture industry. Gold metal threads demarcate the thin outlines of Cocteau’s drawing. Red lips are worked in flat metallic ribbon and blue eyes of satin stitch silk thread topped with blue paste jewels complete the simple features of the faces.

The roses which spill over the shoulders of the garment are made from ribbon in gradations of pink, interspersed with pale green leaves of satin-stitched silk thread.

The front of the coat is completely plain, with simple lapels, fastening to one side with a Schiaparelli signature – the novelty ceramic button which conceals a metal hook fastening below.

This particular button takes the shape of a raised frilled petticoat from the centre of which protrudes a female leg with pointed toe.

Schiaparelli’s ‘Etruscan’ dress of 1936 was inspired by ancient sculpture. With a high neckline and full length skirt it is demure yet blatant in its emphasis of the breasts beneath the garment.

The slimline evening dress in brown crepe has two circular roundels worked in trapunto quilting over the bust mirroring the high divided breasts of Etruscan female sculptures.

At the back of the garment an open v shaped neckline is crossed by a simple band at the neck fastened with a button of gilt metal, cast with a naïve relief of a horse like an Etruscan coin.

This evening ensemble of 1937 consists of a long evening coat and a stole made entirely of plaited gilt braid. It is a prime example of Schiaparelli's experimentation with unusual fabrics and substances. Evoking the Surrealist interest in alchemy, this coat is transformed into a golden garment, "the weight of which must have provided the sensation of being literally encased in gold" (Ghislaine Wood).

One of Schiaparelli’s most fruitful partnerships began in late 1936 with the painter Salvador Dali. Schiaparelli’s felt and velvet shoe hat of A/W 1937–8 was designed to sit upon the head like an upturned shoe. It was inspired by an image of Dali with his wife Gala’s shoe placed on his shoulder.

Schiapareli’s love of placing ‘found objects’ on the head, even extended to a hat in the shape of a lamb chop. This chop motif reappeared on a cocktail jacket of Summer 1938.

Lavishly marked out in coloured mirrored fragments, four lamb chops adorn the front of the garment.

Schiaparelli collaborated with Dali on designs for her Summer 1938 collection which took inspiration from the circus.

Dali designed the fabric of this woven pink silk jacket, featuring prancing, plumed horses. Fastened with ceramic buttons in the shape of swooping acrobats, the jacket was worn over a deep purple, silk crepe evening dress with a draped culotte hemline.

Dali’s prancing horse motif appears again on another cocktail jacket from the same collection, this time as decorative cast metal buttons on the front of a deep red wool crêpe jacket. The garment is decorated with coloured metal and glass bead appliqués down the centre front and along the top of the pockets.

One of the most significant pieces from the Summer 1938 collection was the ‘Skeleton’ dress. A long black crêpe sheath dress embellished with a raised skeletal form, worked on the surface in trapunto quilting.

The design was sketched out by Dali, the leg ‘bones’ linked to the ‘pelvis’ with elegant hooks in the style of jewellery links. It was presented with a black veil topped with a swirling golden shell headpiece. The dress belonged to actress Ruth Ford, sister of the Surrealist poet Charles-Henri Ford. The garment was a gift to her from Dali’s patron, Edward James, a great supporter of the Surrealist movement.

The ‘Tear’ dress, also from the Summer 1938 collection, takes the form of an elegant bias-cut evening gown which is transformed with a trompe l’oeil print of rips and tears, mimicking torn flesh.

The matching veil uses the same motif, yet instead of a print it is created in appliquéd strips which hang down to reveal a dark pink layer beneath.

Salvador Dali’s painting of 1936, 'Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra' features a female figure dressed in a white gown with similar rents and tears covering the surface of her dress.

Credits: Story

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