Elsa Schiaparelli & Salvador Dali, Together Again

For fashion people, Elsa Schiaparelli, the designer credited with what we know to be couture, is one of the most influential, period. “I think Schiaparelli was much more inventive than Chanel — there were many more silhouettes,” Dilys Blum, senior curator of costumes and textiles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said of the designer, who was best known for her collaboration with Surrealists, especially Salvador Dali. The pair’s lobster print dress was worn by Wallis Simpson, the future Duchess of Windsor, which, with its sheer paneling and the barnacle reaching toward her nether regions was considered quite scandalous at the time. Now, the artist and the designer are together once again, with their friendship and shared admiration currently on display at the Dali Museum in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

The exhibition pays tribute to a place where both designers spent a part of their lives, and comes at a very special time for the Schiaparelli label; in January, it was awarded the official Haute Couture label by the French Ministry of Industry and the French Couture Federation, and, as a representative for Schiaparelli Paris tells Refinery29: “The House of Schiaparelli is having its 90th anniversary this year; this exhibition felt to be the right platform to celebrate the unique bond between fashion and art that Elsa Schiaparelli pioneered. Her relationship with Salvador Dalí — as a friend and as a collaborator — paved the way to iconic creations for both of them. They inspired each other and pushed boundaries in so many forms of expression: garments, hats, jewelry, accessories, paintings, prints, fragrances, etc. Regardless of their ‘job titles’ (a fashion designer and an artist), their origins, their gender, or their nationalities, they let their creative minds explore without limitations.”

The Dali Museum has wanted to do some sort of fashion exhibition for the last five years, according to its chief operating officer, Kathy Greif, it two took two years to create this exhibit specifically, “in terms of solidifying the vision for it, collaborating with our partners at Schiaparelli Paris and securing key loans from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Met and private collectors.” And as Schiaparelli Paris' creative director Bertrand Guyon says: “Seeing [the pieces] close up allows for a certain appreciation of details. It helped me to get inspired in a modern way.”

If you can’t make it to Saint Petersburg before the exhibit closes on January 14, 2018, click on for a virtual walk-through.

Disclosure: Travel and expenses for the author were provided by The Dali Museum St. Petersburg for the purpose of writing this story.

Photo: Courtesy of Channing Hargrove.
The exhibit is organized into themes that show the parallels between the two artists, all the way down to their social circles. As the Dali Museum’s curator, Hank Hine explains: “[Both Dali and Schiaparelli] had nearly congruent circles of support that they moved in, an incredible atmosphere of privilege and aspiration in Paris.”
Photo: Courtesy of Channing Hargrove.
Hine also says that both artists are best characterized in their daringness. For instance, Schiapparelli’s shag pink coat made of shag rayon —“Can you imagine in the 1930s, in that color?”— is placed next to Dali’s aphrodisiac dinner jacket made of shot glasses. Instead of a cummerbund, he used a brassiere.
The surrealist impulse to bring things from one place and put them in another penetrated both Dali and Schiaparelli’s work. Like Dali’s Venus de Milo with Drawers, it was embraced by Schiapparelli, who did it in a more utilitarian way with a drawer suit. "It wasn't nearly as provocative, but much more wearable,” as Hine says.
Schiaparelli made a shoe hat inspired by a photograph of Dali posing with shoes on his shoulder and his head. A similar is the conversion is a pair of Schiaparelli gloves with the fingernails on the outside.
But one of the pairings’ most notable works, is the lobster dress. Schiaparelli asked Dali to design this bold image of the lobster over the crotch, a dress made for socialite Wallis Simpson, a woman who was so desired physically the prince of Wales abdicated the throne to marry her.
You can see that there are two pairs of shoes on display, monkey skin and leopard shoes, the latter which was clearly Elsa’s favorite, you can see the back of the shoes are scuffed slightly, from going down narrow stairs.
One person Dali and Schiap had in common was actress Mae West, whose figure both inspired Dali (with a lip couch) and Schiap (with her measurements that became the designer’s Shocking perfume bottle in the shape of a bust.)
Both Dali and Schiapparelli expressed feeling caged in their bodies. “We put clothing on them, we can reveal parts of our bodies, we can reveal parts of our bodies, we have the power to be selective in what we express, but we’re always caged by our own flesh,” Hine said. And both addressed that emotion: Dali with a painting showing off a Japanese mannequin he dedicated to the designer and together, he and Schiap designed the vertebrae dress. Schiaparelli Paris had this dress made because the original cannot be moved.
Dali was commissioned to decorate a Bonwit Teller window, but the department store took it upon themselves to rearrange things. When Dali found out, he “rearranged the window”so violently that he shattered the glass and fell out onto the street where he was arrested.

A similar situation happened to Schiapparelli: She was invited to present her line in a store window in 1938, but when the department store told her that she had to use their mannequins, she said absolutely not, left them unclothed, and draped her dresses over the backs of chairs.
The final segment features pieces from Schiaparelli Paris' present day collections, which are a balance of the heritage of the brand, Dali’s influences, and current creative director Bertrand Guyon’s vision (including his take on the infamous lobster dress).
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