Most likely upon hearing the word surrealism, Salvador Dalí's great melted clocks immediately come to mind. But why not the great productions of the painter's collaborator and also avant-garde, Elsa Schiaparelli? The reason certainly permeates the same places as the constant indissociation between the name of the Italian designer and her rivalry with Coco Chanel, or even the barriers that so many other powerful women women artists faced with the surrealist movement.
It seems that restricting a woman's enormous success to the universe of fashion and its famous hot pink – the heights of the patriarchal construction of femininity – is easier than recognizing her contributions in a space where competition is mostly male. But the fact is, that Schiaparelli built an undeniable legacy by being a pioneer in blurring the boundaries between art and fashion, and today it is the object of the great retrospective Shocking! Les Mondes Surrealistes D'elsa Schiaparelli at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, where many point out his clothes as more avant-garde than the paintings of his contemporaries.
These days, we've become accustomed to seeing top fashion designers as artists presenting highly conceptual shows. But at the time, his collaborative projects with artists such as Bebe Berard, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Vertes, Van Dongen and with photographers such as Hoyningen Huene, Horst, Cecil Beaton and Man Ray, were liberating and visionary in expanding the creative boundaries beyond of the usual commercial concerns of the fashion world. What's more, while the painters' movement is accused of being an escape and alienation from the context in which it emerged, Schiaparelli brings all that imaginary dream closer to the physical body, returning it to the concrete reality of day-to-day life.
The partnership with Dalí began at the end of 1936 and was very fruitful. One of the famous pieces inherited from this relationship was the hat from the Autumn/Winter 1937–8 collection, inspired by a photograph taken by Gala, the painter's wife, who portrayed him with one shoe on his head and another on his shoulder. Another was the Skeleton, a black dress with quilted representations of human bones, one of the highlights of the 1938 summer collection. The dress was a gift from Edward James, a major sponsor of the Surrealist movement, to actress Ruth Ford.
“But why would the stylist have chosen surrealism among so many art movements that surrounded her?”, you might ask yourself. In addition to the social ties with the Parisian artists of that milieu, the surrealist aesthetic seems to have been born in his unconscious as the best translation of his feelings since he was a child. In her 1954 autobiography, Shocking Life, Schiaparelli tells how she felt very ugly when she was little. So she asked the family gardener to give her the seeds of her favorite flowers and, alone, she planted them in her mouth, nose and ears in the hope that they would bloom and beautify her face. Clearly, instead, she nearly suffocated.
If you're passing through the French capital, be sure to check out this interplay between visual arts and fashion up close, with more than 500 pieces gathered in the Museum of Arts Décoratifs.
Shocking! Les Mondes Surrealistes D'elsa Schiaparelli
Location: Musee des Arts Décoratifs
Address: 107 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, France
Date: Until January 22, 2023
Opening hours: From Friday to Wednesday, from 11 am to 6 pm. On Thursdays, from 11 am to 9 pm. closed on mondays
Admission: €11. Children under 18 and EU citizens between 18 and 25: free entry.