Schiaparelli, Surrealism and the Society Woman

Draped closely over its wearer, Elsa Schiaparelli’s Tears Dress is the quintessence of couture. The bias-cut gown, now an off-white, was originally pale blue and clings to the body like a second, otherworldly, skin. The accompanying veil, cascading over the fitted form, invokes an almost religious modesty. In stark contrast is a network of tears slashed through the dress, revealing flashes of shocking pink and implying the scandalous revelation of flesh beneath. More than just the dress that has been ripped, the appearance is of torn skin, the pink tones violent in their brashness. 

The Tears Dress, Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí, 1938, V&A Museum

Designed in 1938 in the Circus collection, it is one several collaborations with Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. The dress’ design is playful – on the veil, applique patches of pink fabric have been sewn on only to peel away from the fabric. On the dress itself, the fabric is cleverly printed with the appearance of hanging shreds. This trompe l’oeil effect is what brought Schiaparelli her fame, when she commissioned a knitted jumper with false collar and tie that was in high in demand following its debut a society outing. Such material innovations were her hallmark – both outlandish and ever practical, she was the first to include zips and fitted bras in womenswear, whilst the Tears Dress was an early adoption of viscose-rayon. The particular trick of the eye found on the Tears fabric was designed by Dalí and recalls his work Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra (1936), which features a floral-faced woman with torn flesh. The dress’ silhouette recalls his Printemps Nécrophilique (1936), which Schiaparelli then owned.

Three Young Surrealist Women Holding in their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra, Salvador Dalí, 1936, The Dalí Museum

Schiaparelli was no stranger to incorporating Surrealism into her work. Though known today mostly through collaborations with its proponents, her work always had a distinctly Surrealist element, parading motifs such as hands and insects that feature heavily in Surrealist painting. Her collaborations with Dali include the whimsical Shoe Hat and Lobster dress, as well as the Skeleton dress, the latter of which also featured in the Circus collection. Other Surrealists counted amongst her collaborators are Jean Cocteau, whose drawings of faces adorn two pieces of outerwear, Man Ray, who photographed Schiaparelli’s designs, and Meret Oppenheim, with whom she created fantastic gloves featuring ruffles, veins and painted nails. Schiaparelli claimed that working with these artists allowed her to be ‘understood beyond the crude and boring reality of merely making a dress to sell.’ It was this dedication to creativity beyond commercialism that led gallery owner Julien Levi to declare Schiaparelli the only designer to correctly interpret Surrealism.

Dora Maar photographed by Man Ray in 1936, © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Surrealism eroded boundaries between masculine and feminine, reality and the imaginary, horror and fantasy, and the body – its combined cultural, social and sexual connotations. Surrealism was the site upon which these transgressions acquired meaning. The Surrealist Manifesto, penned by André Breton in 1924, lauded Freud’s theory of the unconscious. Its attendant concepts of female castration and feminine hysteria were a major influence on Surrealism’s protagonists, so it is perhaps no surprise that Breton later declared woman ‘the most marvelous and disturbing problem in the world.’ Surrealism’s women figure alternately as sexual objects, à la Man Ray’s nude portraits of Kiki de Montparnasse and Lee Miller, or desexualized and dehumanized, as in Hans Bellmer’s The Doll. The slashed skin in Three Young Women takes on a new significance when you learn that Dali defined a fantasy woman by ‘the disarticulation and distortion of her anatomy’ in a 1934 essay. Such fragmentation of the female body is a common trope in Surrealist works, particularly in photography where collage was used to disjointing effect. Far more violent than Schiaparelli’s other designs, the Tears dress is situated within this Surrealist obsession with women, sex and violence. More than in Dali’s painting, fantasies of deconstruction play out on the female body. 

The Doll, Hans Bellmer, c 1936, Tate Collection

The association of women with the production of clothing and the consumption of fashion perhaps made the latter fertile ground for these gynocentric explorations of fantasy, fetish, and phobia. The Surrealist approach was readily adopted by the industry – magazines hired photographers such as Man Ray and Cecil Beaton, for whom clothing contributed to their construction of femininity. In fashion photographer Horst P Horst’s Girl with Mainbocher Corset, said corset is not just a compositional device but the last bastion of woman’s mystery, a constraining and tantalizing force. Art historian Ghislane Wood attributed the kinship to the fact that ‘in both Surrealism and fashion the body was woven in fantasy and literally reimagined.’ Man Ray’s Cadaeu – literally an iron fitted with a row of nails, which he used to rip his model’s dress to shreds – hints at the nature this fantasy took for male Surrealists. Yet many women Surrealists engaged with ideas surrounding the female body in a very different tone. Lee Miller’s photograph of a plated breast removed during mastectomy, for example, mocks the artifice of photographic editing and prosthetics, trumping it with real dismemberment.

Untitled (Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy), Lee Miller, 1929, Lee Miller Archive

Similarly, Schiaparelli’s Tears Dress doesn’t fit neatly into the masculine ideal of Surrealism. Emblazoning a woman’s dress with Dali’s imagined violence, her tears invert his necrophiliac vision in the crude fabric of her signature shocking pink. Schiaparelli serves up the male fantasy and the illusion is laid bare – the ‘problem of woman’ is found to be as flimsy as the appliqué veil. By appropriating Dali’s motifs and wearing them with pride, the society woman for whom the dress was designed became an active participant in Surrealism. As with so much of Schiaparelli’s work, she turns a laughing gaze on the Surrealist fascination with death and sex; she is making it clear that women are in on the joke.  

Words: Olivia Bailey

Biography: Olivia is Assistant Producer of Public Programmes at the Design Museum in London. She also co-runs the skills sharing group Craft Collective, and is helping to organise the emerging Feminist Library book club. She has an MA in History of Art and a BA in Ancient History from the University of Bristol, and her research interests span cultural history from antiquity to the present day. Find her on Instagram @_livb and LinkedIn