Sorry, Dalí. The Boldest Surrealist Was A Fashion Designer Named Elsa Schiaparelli

As a child in the 1890s, the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli was deeply envious of her elder sister’s beauty. In order to enhance her own appearance, she asked the family gardener for the seeds of her favorite flowers. While nobody was looking, she planted some in her mouth and placed the remainder in her nose and ears, hoping, as she explained in her memoirs more than half a century later, that her face would bloom “like a heavenly garden”. Instead, she nearly choked.

Schiaparelli’s story has the sound of a Surrealist caprice. It may even have been the inspiration for Woman With A Head Of Roses, which Salvador Dalí painted in 1935, several years after Schiaparelli met the artist and a year before they began to collaborate on garments with a surreal warp and weft. Celebrated in her own time as one of the most artistic figures in the fashion industry, Schiaparelli is now the subject of a major retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, where her garments look more avant-garde than the paintings of many of her avant-garde contemporaries.

Without question, Schiaparelli benefitted from her creative relationships with Dalí, Jean Cocteau, and Leonor Fini. Dalí especially challenged her to make clothing that defied expectations. Their collaboration began when he gave her a drawing of a woman wearing a suit with drawers instead of pockets. Riffing on a painting of the same year called The Anthropmorphic Cabinet, Dalí specified that the fabric should imitate stripped oak, studded with knobs of genuine wood. His illustration shows a woman opening the drawer aligned with her belly. Innards appear to fall out.

Schiaparelli did not exactly follow Dalí’s instructions, let alone the lascivious design shown in his painting (where the knobs stand in for the woman’s nipples and the drawer just below her waistline is fixed with a lock). Outfitted with just a few drawers where ordinary pockets might otherwise be placed, her garments are less deranged, which makes them stranger, much like a automaton grows more shocking as it traverses the uncanny valley. In contrast to Dalí and most of his fellow travelers, Schiaparelli recognized that surreal effects could be accentuated with restraint.

But what makes her creation even more radical is the change in context from painted canvas to apparel worn in everyday circumstances. Surrealism brought the dreamworld into art. Schiaparelli brought it back to life.

There’s a premonition of Pop Art in this modus operandi (albeit the inverse of Warhol’s placement of ersatz Brillo boxes in a gallery). In fact, the Pop sensibility is foreshadowed in much of Schiaparelli’s work, beginning with her breakthrough garment of 1927.

The garment was made by Armenian women living in her Paris apartment building, applying traditional black-and-white knitting to a pattern unlike anything ever seen in Armenia or France: a sweater smartly embellished with a trompe l’oeil ribbon that appeared to be tied in a bow at the neck. The deadpan quality anticipates visual and conceptual dimensions of Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings and sculptures from the 1960s. It also prefigures some of the ways in which women such as Edie Sedgewick and Twiggy would challenge social norms by destabilizing expectations about femininity with their personal style.

The success of the bow sweater gave Schiaparelli the means to pursue fashion on her own terms, which, anticipating Pop once again, played creatively with notions of celebrity. Certainly, Schiaparelli was not alone in her use of popular media to reinforce her brand. Her rival Coco Chanel was equally accomplished at embroidering the news for commercial advantage. But Schiaparelli had the Pop sensibility to take celebrity to a meta-level: In 1935, she printed news clippings about herself – both positive and negative – onto a Schiaparelli silk scarf.

These artistic innovations are all the more remarkable because Schiaparelli was simultaneously advancing fashion in terms comparable to the Chanel and Christian Dior, making innovations in the relationship between the garment and the wearer. Janet Flanner paid homage to the architecture of her designs, comparing her silhouettes to “square shouldered skyscrapers”. But Schiaparelli summed up her philosophy best in a maxim on the last page of her memoir: “Never fit the dress to the body, but train the body to fit the dress.” More than just a call for sartorial honesty, it was an acknowledgment that fashion is created by the wearer at least as much as by the couturier. (In visual art, Marcel Duchamp held a similar regard for the autonomy of the viewer.)

In the 21st century, we’ve grown accustomed to looking at the foremost fashion designers as artists; the museum seems as appropriate a venue as the runway for Alexander McQueen or Iris van Herpen. The very different circumstances in which Schiaparelli came of age become apparent in her wry tribute to collaborations with figures such as Dalí. “One felt supported and understood beyond the crude and boring reality of merely making a dress to sell,” she wrote.

If only she were still here. To a greater extent than is widely recognized today, Schiaparelli created work that made the distinction between design and art irrelevant.

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