A new biography documents the exchange between art and fashion
ong before visitors lined up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Alexander McQueen retrospective, the worlds of fashion and art collided in the Surrealist designs of Elsa Schiaparelli. The Italian-born couturier—as famed in her heyday as Coco Chanel—is the subject of Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography (Knopf), in which author Meryle Secrest investigates the designer’s ties with Salvador Dalí, Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau, and other members of the Parisian avant-garde in the 1920s and ’30s.
Schiaparelli was particularly close with Dalí, with whom she made the memorable “Lobster Dress,” “Shoe Hat,” and “Tears Dress.” The last is a slender gown and veil patterned with Dalí’s trompe l’oeil rips and tears to give the illusion of lacerated flesh. “Dalí had some pretty crazy ideas,” Secrest tells ARTnews, “and one of them revolved around the necrophiliac fantasy of the corpse who comes back to life with all the skin torn off,” as seen in his 1936 painting Necrophiliac Springtime. Yet the fabric Schiaparelli concocted “isn’t macabre at all,” Secrest adds. “In her hands, the concept becomes something unusual and strange, but not sadistic.”
The multitalented Cocteau collaborated on two designs with Schiaparelli. One is an evening coat appliquéd on the back with a vase of flowers, whose contours also describe a couple puckering up for a kiss. The other is a jacket and skirt adorned with a woman’s tresses down one sleeve and an arm clutching a knot of ribbons across the front. “It makes you think of Cocteau’s heroine in La Belle et la Bête,” says Secrest.
The author notes that as a young woman, Schiaparelli had married “a ghastly man” who was into the occult. “She was taken up by the philosophy and psychic underpinnings of the clothes she was making,” Secrest says. “To me, it makes perfect sense that Surrealism influenced her greatest period as a designer.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 42 under the title “Schiaparelli and the Surrealists.”