Fashion icon Elsa Schiaparelli is remembered and reborn at the Dali Museum

A silk velvet dress by Schiaparelli entitled "La vie est si courte...," Fall/Winter 2016  at the "In Daring Fashion: Dali and Schiaparelli" exhibition at the Dali Museum. CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times
A silk velvet dress by Schiaparelli entitled "La vie est si courte...," Fall/Winter 2016 at the "In Daring Fashion: Dali and Schiaparelli" exhibition at the Dali Museum. CHERIE DIEZ | Times
Published Nov. 3, 2017

The lines of art and fashion have long been blurred, but at the new "In Daring Fashion: Dalí and Schiaparelli" exhibition at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, the lines can completely disappear.

The Italian-born Elsa Schiaparelli was a prominent couture designer in Paris during the 1920s and '30s whose chief rival was Coco Chanel. Her design house was so successful that she was the first businesswoman to appear on the cover of Time magazine. She was a costume designer for Hollywood productions and dressed many stars, including Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. Her designs were inspired by the Surrealists, particularly Dalí, and the exhibition explores their collaborative relationship and exposes the partners-in-crime nature of their friendship.

The Schiaparelli fashion house closed in 1954, but was revived in 2012, and in 2015 Bertrand Guyon was appointed creative director. A little less than half of the exhibition features contemporary designs from Maison Schiaparelli, so it's part retrospective, part rebirth of an icon.

The exhibition takes you through creations from the two visionaries using garments, jewelry, paintings, sculptures, prints and photographs. From the beginning, it's plain to see they were kindred spirits. They moved in the same social circles, which is mapped out in a display that includes Jean Cocteau, Mae West and Peggy Guggenheim.

To illustrate the like-mindedness, the exhibit is organized into themes that bind their creations. In Daring, one finds Dalí's Aphrodisiac Jacket, a men's dress jacket adorned with many shot glasses with a green resin (perhaps to resemble absinthe?). Underneath lies a men's shirt and vest, and a bra. It's shown with a shag ombre coat and dress by Schiaparelli, which would have raised eyebrows in 1953.

In Classicism, Schiaparelli's evening dress circa 1931 is flanked by Dalí's Architectural Figurines and Beatrice (Madonna). Under Finesse lies Schiaparelli and Jean Cocteau's Women's Evening Coat, which features a couple in profile kissing, echoed by Dalí's brooch of Tristan and Isolde, also kissing in profile. In Inversions, a giant image of Dalí with shoes on his head and shoulder peers down on Schiaparelli's shoe-shaped hat.

One of Dalí's most famous sculptures, the Venus de Milo With Drawers (and Pom Poms) is shown, along with The Anthropomorphic Cabinet and a collection of drawings exploring drawers. Schiaparelli explores the concept with her Woman's Dinner Jacket, with velvet appliques that function as pockets, or compartments.

Another concept, perhaps the most important to both artists, was that of freedom. For Schiaparelli, butterflies were the ultimate symbol of freedom, and she uses them as a motif on her stunning evening dress from 1937. Hanging to its left is Dalí's Illustration for Tres Picos, a lovely drawing of a figure covered in butterflies.

Dalí and Schiaparelli were also frequent collaborators. He illustrated her Tear Dress (as in rip, not cry), and also the Lobster Dress, which is key to the spirit of the exhibit. Dalí had a fascination with lobsters, particularly of their sexuality. In a moment true to his surrealist nature, he pondered why it was that when he ordered a lobster he wasn't handed a telephone. This led him to create the Lobster Telephone sculpture, in which the receiver is a lobster. When he and Schiaparelli designed the Lobster Dress for Wallis Simpson (whose betrothal to England's King Edward VIII caused him to give up his throne), they naughtily placed the lobster's tail between the wearer's legs.

To this day, Schiaparelli's influence is pervasive. Among many innovations, she was the first to use shoulder pads and animal prints, and she invented the color Shocking Pink. She created the color for the ad for her fragrance, Shocking, which was drawn by Dalí and is included in the show. The story goes that she used a true-to-form mannequin of Mae West's body for the shape of the bottle, and upon its arrival, Schiaparelli exclaimed, "Shocking!" The ad, which appeared in Vogue magazine, is displayed in the exhibition with the sofa that Dalí and Edward James created in the form of Mae West's lips.

Dalí drew many ads for Schiaparelli, and also many Vogue magazine covers, which is indicative of how the two pushed Surrealism into the mainstream. Many of these are displayed amid two large-scale photos of department store windows that the artists were given for display. In each case, rebellion ensued. Dalí, upset by how the window had been set, re-arranged things so frantically he shattered the window's glass. As for Schiaparelli, when told she must use the store's mannequins, she provocatively posed them naked and draped her dress over a chair.

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In the same room is the first introduction to the contemporary Schiaparelli haute couture designs: a wedding dress and train designed for and with Sabine Getty. The train is a grand hooded cloak, with a golden sunburst, which was one of Schiaparelli's favorite symbols, emblazoned on the back. Golden suns also appear on the dress.

From here, you'll enter the realm of the contemporary Maison Schiaparelli. Creative director Guyon has done an impeccable job with the fashion house. Truly haute couture, the designs have retained Schiaparelli's edginess, whimsy and elegance, and are made with the finest of craftsmanship.

There's a beautiful update of the Lobster Dress, with an applique that's likely to start a design trend of the crustacean. Butterflies also re-appear, with an exquisite dress made of bronze butterfly brocade and layered with midnight butterfly silk chiffon.

All of the clothes are lovely and drool-worthy, many incorporating unexpected elements like porcelain, or motifs, like a table setting made of leather appliques. There's also wonderful jewelry that offers design with a keen sense of humor. It isn't often one gets to be in the presence of real couture, and it feels magical.

Beyond the clothing is the Dressing Room, a mirrored room with quotes by Schiaparelli, some in Shocking Pink, inscribed on the glass. My favorite is, "To what point am I real?"

Contact Maggie Duffy at