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The Surreal Provocateur Who Forever Altered Fashion

Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli made a big splash in the 1920s and ’30s by marrying art and fashion. But she also developed practical, modern wearables like culottes and swimsuits with bras inside. Her avant-garde side grabbed attention from celebrities and the press, while her innovations were mass-produced for everyday consumers. And even the strangest of her designs seem tame today compared with the runway collections that make the press but and then never worn by anyone you know.

Some of Schiaparelli’s best ideas came out of collaborations with established artists like Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. Elements that appeared in Dali’s paintings were translated to her garments, like a dress with drawer-like pockets along its front or the dress featuring a bright-red lobster print. In 1937, they created the Shoe Hat, whose crown pointed upward like the heel of an overturned pump. The following year, Dali and Schiaparelli designed the Skeleton Dress, a black crepe gown with cotton wadding used to imitate protruding bones.

Designs like these were intentionally subversive, using elements normally deemed unattractive and elevating them to the pinnacle of style. One of the duo’s most startling illusions was executed for the Tear Dress, a bluish-purple sheath printed with a pattern of torn fabric pieces falling open to reveal a rich, pink lining underneath. The trompe-l’oeil design was punctuated by a matching veil with pieces of cut fabric hanging loosely to resemble the tears printed onto the dress. Inspired by the ripped clothing and decomposing flesh in paintings like Dali’s “Nechrophiliac Springtime” from 1936, Schiaparelli’s finished garment playfully balanced the extremes of perfected couture and its inevitable disintegration.

Read about Schiaparelli’s work, and see those innovations, including the shoe hat and the skeleton dress, at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

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