Schiaparelli and Surrealism

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

By The Victoria and Albert Museum

By John PhillipsLIFE Photo Collection

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.

The Skeleton DressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

"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.

ChokerThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

Hat of woven sea-grass with metallic insects Hat of woven sea-grass with metallic insects (1938-01-01/1938-01-01) by Elsa SchiaparelliThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Hat of woven sea-grass with metallic insectsThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The Tears DressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

"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

Evening coatThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

Evening coat RearThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

Evening coat Evening coat (1937) by Elsa SchiaparelliThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

Evening dressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

Evening dressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

Evening dressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

Evening dressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Evening ensemble (1932/1941) by Elsa SchiaparelliThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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).

Shoe HatThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

Shoe HatThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Shoe HatThe Victoria and Albert Museum

CircusThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

CircusThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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

CircusThe Victoria and Albert Museum

Circus Circus (1938) by Elsa SchiaparelliThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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

The Circus Collection (1938-02-01/1938-02-28) by Elsa SchiaparelliThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

CircusThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

The Skeleton DressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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 Skeleton DressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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 Skeleton DressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The Skeleton DressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The Tears Dress The Tears Dress (1938-02-01/1938-02-28) by Elsa SchiaparelliThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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 Tears DressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The Tears DressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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.

The Tears DressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

The Tears DressThe Victoria and Albert Museum

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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