Elsa Schiaparelli, a fashion designer and the most daring surrealist.


Elsa Schiaparelli, the fashion designer, was envious of her older sister’s good looks as a kid in the 1890s. She asked the family gardener for the seeds of her favorite flowers so she might improve her appearance. When no one was watching, she snuck some into her mouth and put the rest in her nose and ears, thinking that her face would “bloom like a wonderful garden,” as she put it later in her memoirs. So she almost choked on her bile.

Schiaparelli’s narrative seems like a surrealist notion to me. Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali collaborated on a fantastical warp and weft in 1935, a year before Dali produced Woman with a Head of Roses, which Schiaparelli may have been inspired by. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris is hosting a major retrospective of Schiaparelli, a fashion designer widely regarded as one of the most creative individuals in the business during her lifetime.

Her connections with artists like Salvador Dal, Jean Cocteau, and Leonor Fini helped Schiaparelli tremendously as a designer. Dali, in particular, pushed her to create garments that broke the norms of the time period. They began working together when he presented her with a sketch of a lady in a suit with drawers instead of pockets. A work of the same year, The Anthropomorphic Cabinet, inspired Dali to specify that a cloth-like stripped oak with natural wood knobs should be used. It shows a lady opening a drawer with her belly aligned with it. Outer parts of the body look to be falling out of the body.

To say nothing of the carnal design depicted in Schiaparelli’s picture (in which the knobs substitute for a woman’s nipples and the drawer below her waist is secured with a lock), Schiaparelli did not follow Dali’s directions to the letter. A few drawers replace the usual pockets in her clothing, making it less bizarre. This is similar to how an automaton becomes more bizarre as it moves into the uncanny valley. Unlike Dali and most of his fellow travelers, Schiaparelli realized that Surrealist effects might be enhanced with restraint.

In addition, the context shift from painted canvas to clothing worn in everyday situations makes her art even more radical. Surrealism incorporated the dream world into the art form. Schiaparelli revived it.

Although Warhol didn’t display ersatz Brillo boxes in galleries as he did, this method has an air of Pop Art. In 1927, Schiaparelli’s breakthrough garment predicted Schiaparelli’s Pop sensibility.

Traditional black and white knitting were used in a style that had never before been seen in Armenia or France: a stylishly decorated sweater with a trompe-l’oeil ribbon that looked to be tied in a bow at the neck of the garment. When it comes to aesthetic and intellectual aspects, it is a forerunner to the work of Roy Lichtenstein. It also hints at how women like Edie Sedgewick and Twiggy destabilize preconceptions about femininity through their style.