Dolce and Dalí
Back home in warm, sunny Tampa, Florida for winter break, I struggled to find things to occupy my time. The weather was just drab enough to rule out the beach and I was quickly running through my collection of YA novels. Always the enthusiastic art nerd, my back up plan consisted of visiting local museums.
It was a Wednesday morning when I woke up and decided I had to get out of the house, so off to the Dali museum I went. It’s a museum I’ve been to many times, and know well, but it had a surprise in store for me that day. Walking in, the first thing you notice is the white concrete spiral staircase, and the second is the jigsaw glass ceiling. I quickly decided to make my way to the top and briefly check out the visiting exhibit, and then work my way down to my favorites in the house collection. But, when I saw there was a new surrealist fashion exhibit, I knew my visit would be anything but brief.
The exhibit was called Dali and Schiaparelli, the second name unfamiliar to me, but soon I learned exactly how influential it was. Elsa Schiaparelli was the most prominent fashion figure in the 1920’s and 30’s and was also a close cohort of Salvador Dali. Schiaparelli pioneered a brand of avant-garde fashion that utilized surrealistic themes and turned traditional notions of women’s roles and beauty on its head.
The exhibit was strategically displayed so that each Schiaparelli piece was paired with a Dali work that either influenced it or represented the surrealist ideas Schiaparelli was striving to embody. Many of the pairings were even collaborations, created through mutual appreciation and mind melding between Dali and Schiaparelli. A perfect example of this is Elsa Schiaparelli’s Women’s Dinner Dress or better known as the Lobster Dress. Anyone who is familiar with Dali and the surrealist movement probably knows about the Lobster Telephone. Simply put, it is a sculpture made by Dali in which a rotary telephone receiver is replaced by a plaster lobster. It was a classic example of a surrealist object—the conjunction of two items not usually associated with each other—which Dali believed could reveal unconscious desires.
Seeming on the outside to be a silly work of imagination, the sculpture is laden with secret sexual connotation. The tale of the lobster, considered to be quite phallic in nature and biologically holding the reproductive organs of the animal, was placed strategically over the mouthpiece of the telephone. Dali held strong association between food (particularly seafood) and sex which was shown through the lobster phone and through many other pieces during his career. The Lobster Telephone in particular carved its place in surrealist history because of it’s clever and intriguing innuendo and its ability to confuse and completely astound the general public.
Elsa Schiaparelli built on this success and, in collaboration with Dali, created her infamous Lobster Dress. Made out of printed silk organza and synthetic horse hair, the dress sported a cinched empire waist and a vibrantly coral lobster surrounded by sprigs of parsley. Staying with the theme of upsetting eroticism, Schiaparelli chose to place the tail of the lobster square between the legs of the dress wearer.
This show of sexuality juxtaposed with the virginal white of the organza caused quite the stir in the fashion world. It’s controversy was heightened by the woman who ended up wearing the dress, Wallis Simpson.
Simpson wore the dress as part of a collection Schiaparelli designed for her wedding to the Duke of Windsor. Quite the famous couple, the Duke abdicated the British crown in order to be with Simpson who was a non-royal. The dress and the spectacle were immortalized by photographer Cecil Beaton and a multi-page spread in Vogue magazine. It was a love story and a movement that captured the world of fashion, art, and pop culture for the better part of two decades.
Schiaparelli, Dali, and their collaborations continued to be prolific after the scandal of the Lobster Dress. Schiaparelli’s Skeleton Dress was inspired by a sketch of a female skeleton Dali gifted her embodying his fascination with “bones on the outside.” In classic Schiaparelli fashion, Elsa recreated this idea in a black rayon crepe dress with padded ridges creating a sort of exoskeleton look unprecedented in Haute Couture.
It’s clear that Elsa Schiaparelli in collaboration with Salvador Dali brought not only pieces that strayed from normative styles to high fashion, but also a whole new ideology to apply to clothing. But one question still remains, how far into the present does their influence, and that of surrealist thought, truly go?
Throughout the 2000’s, the fashion industry saw many designs reviving Elsa Schiaparelli’s Skeleton Dress. In 2003, nearly 80 years later, Yves Saint Laurent sent pieces down the runway referencing Schiaparelli with subtle slashes on shirts and pants that mimicked a woman’s anatomy. And then again in 2006, Jean Paul Gaultier recreated the Skeleton Dress with his own purple twist, pairing it with a chapeau (a hat or cap) seemingly made of the model’s own hair—very Dali-esque.
In 2009, Dolce and Gabbana created a whole ready-to-wear line called Heart Elsa Schiaparelli where they utilized and married her ideas and signature designs with those of pop artist Andy Warhol and surrealist photographer Man Ray. Schiaparelli’s surrealist influence on their designs can be seen through their use of misplaced gloves and headpieces reminiscent of shoes. Both Schiaparelli and Dali had an interesting fascination with wearing objects meant for feet on the head and vice versa. Turning anything inside out, Schiaparelli had a shoe hat and a pair of gloves with nail polish painted on the outside in her own collection. And, of course, Dolce and Gabbana included Schiaparelli’s signature shocking pink as a focal point.
In 2012, this surrealist fascination with hands and their placement was seen again in Diane von Furstenberg’s show titled Rendezvous. The show’s title, coupled with the placement of many of the Schiaparelli-like hands, exposed the viewer to the sexual connotation associated closely with the surrealist movement. To further cement the suspected influence, many of Furstenberg’s accessories donned lips, eyes, and clocks (Dali motifs).
Though pioneered by the collaboration of two great artistic minds almost a century ago, the movement of surrealist ideology into the fashion world has been continuous and ongoing, with no sign of slowing down. So, when watching your next red carpet event, keep an eye out for the strange—it could be a sign of the unrelenting influence of Dali and Schiaparelli.
Art by: Francisco Guglielmino