Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Surreal Inspiration

Dearest Third Cousin,

Her Innovations are some of the most recognised fashion statements ever made. Her colour is adored by millions. Her Anti-Fashion clothing is a sartorial god send. Her designs embody sex and death. She is the quirky mother of the Avant Garde. She is the ever influential Elsa Schiaparelli.

The jumpsuit, shocking pink, synthetic fabrics, Skelton and lobster dresses.  Schiap collaborated with the surrealist art movement by designing Fashion that embraced and realised their Freudian values. Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau both contributed to her dresses and Coco Chanel was her sworn enemy. Her life was almost as colourful and intriguing as her deigns.

In 1927 Schiap made her breakthrough with a handmade jumper that incorporated the illusion of a bow tie neck line. The hand production of the jumper opposed the mechanical manufacturing that was taken place in the 20’s.It also aligned her designs with the surreal movement and incorporated their sense of illusion and wonder. The jumper was the “the must have item” of the late 20’s. Schiap took the unusual step of hiring women to hand make her jumpers to meet the demand.  In an age where this could have been done by machine Schiap wanted to stand out from the crowd, a crowd which included Coco Chanel.

While Coco embraced menswear inspired designs many of Schiap’s designs incorporated exaggerated shoulders and emphases on the waist. This classic feminine silhouette was modernised with many surreal innovations. One of her most striking designs is her Skelton dress. This dress plays with surrealist preoccupation with death. The skin tight dress has protruding skeletal figures. The rib cage is on show and the entire body is encased in black fabric. The dress seems to mimic death, once you try it on it will never come off! Despite the famous Skelton dress Schiap is much better known for embracing humour and fun in her designs.

A lot of the fun her clothes integrate stems from her choice of fabric. She was pioneering in this sense. She used man-made fabrics that nobody else dared to.  One such piece made use of cellophane like fabric that gave the illusion of glass, juxtaposing hard and soft and undoubtedly seducing the customer with this illusion.
Her play on sex did not end with seducing the customer. She produced clothing that emphasised the zipper. A black dress was made novel and sexual by adding a contrasting coloured zip. The zip was the gateway to flesh. The customer of the post war era lapped this up and embraced the novelties that were thrown at them by Schiap.

Some of her most famous designs were the result of her collaboration with Salvador Dali, the infamously sexual lobster dress for example. The lobster was used to represent female sexuality and it position on the dress could be described as compromising to say the least! The tail of the pink and fully cooked crustacean covers the crotch. This feature makes what could be a very ordinary dress something extraordinary and surreal.

Another collaboration with Dali, the Tear Dress evokes violence. The tears appear to be rips on the dress. The visual attack of rips and tears is quite shocking and disturbing for the viewer.  The beauty of the dress is outweighed by the heavy double meaning it portrays. It’s quite a contrast to the playful sexuality of the lobster.

Buttons and hats played an important role in her work. One of my favourite designs is a shocking pink jacket with buttons that look like insects. The piece incorporates what I love most about her work, the sense of fun that something special, even if it’s a bit grotesque.

 Her famous shoe hat was another collaboration with Dali. The idea of putting a shoe on your head was novel, fun and Surreal.  The novelty hat was something that Karl Lagerfeld exploited in the 80’s he designed Pastry hats and an intriguing Chair Hat. It does make you wonder what Coco would have had to say about the Chanel designers foray into the world of the surreal.

Her influence should not be underestimated and has been cited by many designers, Yves San Laurent, Marc Jacobs, Alexander Mc Queen and Thierry Mugler.  Schiaps designs challenged the viewer to look. This I feel is what any great artist should do. Her work is a visual feast filled with layers of violence, death and sex. The surreal movement gave Schiap an endless database of inspiration but it was her imagination and fearless originality that is her legacy.

Your Third Cousin


  1. wonderful post!

  2. Incredible post. Inspired.

  3. I actually learned something ! makes me smile.

  4. I love this post, so much info thanks.


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