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“Le Surrealisme, c’est moi”

March 14, 2010

“Le Surrealisme, c’est moi” (Surrealism, it is me!) – Salvador Dali

Elsa Schiaparelli’s iconic Trompe L’oeil, “Bow Knot” knitted sweater, that started her career is now available for free download at School House Press.

Elsa Schiaparelli was the first fashion designer that I became interested in. I loved that she saw fashion AS art and not just clothing. Unlike works by her fellow artists and friends Dali, Magritte and Duchampe that were seen only in art houses, Schiaparelli’s surrealist art made it to the public because it WAS clothing. This blew my mind as to the possibilities of fashion, something i’d tried to avoid as an art student. For the first time for me, fashion was not a dirty word. Schiaparelli’s introduction of the Shoe Hat, or the Chest of Drawers suit (modeled after Dali’s antropomorphic chest of drawers paintings) worn at a high society gala, by a lady of leisure is amazing to me, and truly surreal. (taken from a paper I wrote while at the Surrey Institute of Art & design, UK 1998)

While working in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute in the mid 90’s as more or less a high school drop out, I had the great luck and honor to work under the brilliant Curator Richard Martin. Martin accepted me and taught me more about art in fashion than anyone else could have. He brought respect back to the “red-headed step child” fashion department, tucked away in the basement of the museum, and wrote prolifically on the subject of fashion history. On discussing a vanity mirror suit by Schiaparelli, Martin once wrote:

“The paradoxical and discomforting aspect of the Schiaparelli gesture is that the mirrors reflected the vanity not only of the wearer but also of the spectator. As images of the wearer joined those from the external world, the affect achieved was like that of Surrealist photographic trompe l’oeil.”  -Richard Martin, Fashion & Surrealism

Schiaparelli’s most famous pieces include the lobster dress where the white chiffon gown replaces a white china plate, atop which sits a lobster and garnish, and a pre-tattered trompe l’oeil gown and shawl. However, she got her start making one humble little sweater by hand and marketing it. It was The Bow Knot sweater, a surrealist, trompe l’oeil piece.

“Dress designing…It is to me, not a profession but an art. I found it was a most difficult and unsatisfying art, because as soon as the dress is born it has already become a thing of the past…A dress has no life of it’s own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens, another personality takes over from you and animates it, or tries to, glorifies it or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty. More often it becomes an              indifferent, or even a pitiful caricature of what you wanted it to be…A dream, an expression”

-Elsa Schiaparelli

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