Visual Culture

Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli Made Dalí’s Art Wearable

Abigail Cain
Dec 7, 2017 7:02PM

Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí, ca. 1949.  Image rights of Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2017.  

Salvador Dalí, Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra, 1936. Worldwide rights © Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017 / In the USA © Salvador Dalí Museum, Inc. St. Petersburg, FL 2017.  

Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli had no shortage of artist collaborators in the 1930s and ’40s. Alberto Giacometti fashioned her one-of-a-kind buttons out of bronze. Man Ray often asked her to model for his photographs. Meret Oppenheim designed a fur bracelet in 1936 that Schiaparelli included in her winter collection (reputedly the piece was the precursor to the artist’s iconic fur-covered teacup).

But Schiaparelli’s most celebrated working relationship may be the one she developed with famed Surrealist Salvador Dalí. An ongoing show at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, centers on their creative partnership, which resulted in such radical, flamboyant designs as a high heel-shaped “shoe hat” and a dress sporting printed-on rips.

It’s not certain when the pair first laid eyes on each other, says Dalí Museum executive director Hank Hine, although their social circles at that time had significant overlap. “I imagine them meeting at a party, at one of these famous palaces just outside of Paris that belonged to a count or countess,” he says. We can, however, date their first collaboration to 1935: a powder compact cleverly designed to look like a rotary phone dial.

Salvador Dalí, Aphrodisiac Telephone (Lobster Telephone), 1938. Worldwide rights © Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017 / In the USA © Salvador Dalí Museum, Inc. St. Petersburg, FL 2017.  


By that point, Schiaparelli was well on her way to becoming the most influential fashion designer of the period. A trompe l’oeil design for a hand-knit sweater, which mimicked a square collar and red bow, had kickstarted her career in 1927 when it was picked up by an American buyer from Macy’s. By 1932, she was managing 400 employees who churned out as many as 8,000 garments per year.

Dalí and Schiaparelli’s partnership was a natural one, according to Hine. “On the artistic side, they shared real daring,” he notes. “They shared this sense of doing astonishing things that would shock and amaze.”

The artist was so impressed by the designer’s work that, in his book The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942), he opined that the second half of the 1930s was defined “not by the surrealist polemics in the café on Place Blanche, or by the suicide of my great friend René Crevel, but by the dressmaking establishment, which Elsa Schiaparelli was about to open on the Place Vendôme.” With characteristic humility, he continued: “Here new morphological phenomena occurred; here the essence of things was to become; transubstantiated; here the tongues of fire of the Holy Ghost of Dalí were going to descend.”

Woman's Dinner Dress. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mme Elsa Schiaparelli.

Schiaparelli Haute Couture, Spring/Summer 2017.

These so-called “tongues of fire” sparked a number of marvelously strange garments. In August 1936, the pair worked together to design a Surrealist-influenced line of suits and coats. Dalí had just painted The Anthropomorphic Cabinet (1936), in which a woman's body becomes a chest of drawers; Schiaparelli’s designs responded with drawer-like pockets featuring plastic drop handles. Inspiration for the “shoe hat” of winter 1937–38 came from a photograph of Dalí, taken by his wife Gala in 1933, in which he had one shoe perched on his head and another on his shoulder. Schiaparelli would later note that only socialite Daisy Fellowes, “the most-talked about well-dressed woman, the supreme word in elegance at that time, had the courage to wear it.”

But Hine’s favorite design is the Skeleton Dress (1938), based on a Dalí drawing of a woman in a sheer, clingy dress that reveals her rib cage and hip bones. Schiaparelli’s real-life version was made from a black rayon, with tucks of fabric sewn on to resemble ribs. “To me it embodies the whole issue of fashion and why it's so serious and so interesting to us,” Hine says. “That is, whatever we wear on the outside always expresses to some degree what we feel on the inside—the sense of externalizing the interior.” Although only one version of the this dress was ever made, its striking silhouette inspired later designers including Alexander McQueen.

Evening Dress (Skeleton Dress), 1938. Collection of the Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2017. Courtesy of © Schiaparelli archives.

Study of figures for Skeleton Dress, 1938. Collection of the Schiaparelli archives, Paris; © Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017.

Like the skeleton dress, the Tear Dress of 1938 is rather macabre, printed to look as though the “skin of the dress had been ripped by an animal's claws,” explains Hine. “That was done just before Europe fell into warfare and chaos. There was this sense of impending violence.”

In 1941, with the war encroaching, Schiaparelli departed Paris for New York. There, rather than designing, she volunteered for the war relief efforts. When World War II ended, fashion wasn’t the same—her place had been usurped by the femininity of designers such as Christian Dior and Coco Chanel. Schiaparelli continued to operate her business until 1954, when it declared bankruptcy.

Chanel, actually, despised her fellow designer, contemptuously referring to her “that Italian artist.” And certainly, Schiaparelli was electrified by her circle of fine artist friends. “One felt supported and understood beyond the crude and boring reality of merely making a dress to sell,” she wrote in her autobiography.  

“Le Roy Soleil” magazine advertisement. ©Salvador Dali. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2017/ Collection of the Salvador Dali Museum, Inc., St. Petersburg, FL, 2017.

“Le Roy Soleil” perfume bottle by Schiaparelli, 1946. ©Salvador Dali. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dali, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2017; Courtesy of © Schiaparelli archives.

But Schiaparelli’s connection with the arts went even deeper. “Dress designing is to me not a profession but an art. I found it was a most difficult and unsatisfying art, because as soon as the dress is born it has already become a thing of the past,” she wrote. “A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens another personality takes over from you and animates it, or tries to, glorifies it or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty. More often it becomes an indifferent object, or even a pitiful caricature of what you wanted it to be—a dream, an expression.”

Abigail Cain