‘Fashion became the Surrealism’s most compelling friction between the ordinary and extraordinary, between disfigurement and embellishment, body and concept, artifice and real’.’ - Richard Martin, Fashion and Surrealism (1987)
According to Richard Martin in his book Fashion and Surrealism, Elsa Schiaparelli is the designer most influenced by Surrealism. He pinpoints how especially the clothes and accessories she created between the mid-1930s to 1940, when closely collaborating with Surrealist artists represent the apotheosis of her creativity.
Martin refers to artists such as Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Leonor Fini, Man Ray and Marcel Vertes.
Although the direct collaboration with some of these artists was limited to singular pieces, the influence of Surrealism on Schiaparelli’s creations and of Schiaparelli on Surrealism was long-lasting and widespread.
Curator Dilys Blum in her authoritative catalogue Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, reconstruct the network of collaborations, inspirations and mutual influence amongst Schiaparelli and the Surrealist group. She contextualises the more celebrated collaborations of the mid-1930s with her friend Salvador Dali such as the Lobster dress, the Shoe Hat, the Tears dress and The skeleton dress. Here, the involvement of many artists with the world of fashion, textile and photography resulted in partnerships and reminiscences that go beyond the punctual collaboration between couturier and artist.
'The Shoe Hat' (made 1937-1938). Photo from the collection of V&A museum.
This is the case of the hands, a recurring theme in the Surrealist vocabulary. Schiaparelli designed miniature hands to be made as belt fastening, buttons, and lapels clips as early as 1934 and many of them were also used as objets trouvés in photographs and drawings by Man Ray.
Furthermore, often Schiaparelli’s designs were used as illustrations in artist essays such as the case of Tristan Tzara, who in his article ‘D’un certain automatisme du gout' (Regarding a Certain Automatism of Taste) incorporated photographs of Schiaparelli’s hats by Man Ray.
In conclusion, I would not consider the collaboration between Schiaparelli and Surrealism short-term, in fact, it needs to be analysed in a wider perspective and considered as an imprint of Schiaparelli’s work with accessories, dresses, perfumes packaging and in the decoration of her atelier and shop till the early 1950s. We cannot forget that since the beginning of her career, she used the trompe-l'oeil, a language in common with Surrealists, in the design of her knitted jumpers featuring ties and handkerchiefs which made her name in the late 1920s.