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June 02, 2010

The Dream State Fashion of Salvador Dalí

Mae West lips sofa, Salvador Dalí, 1937


I wrote this article last week for Models and Moguls and I'm quite surprised it's taken me this long to do so. I was a full-on freak for Surrealism when I discovered it in high school, the idea of this collective of European adults doing things that seemed juvenile but were actually challenging conventional notions of what is art, what is good taste, what is reality, how long and stiff can one guy's moustache get before it pokes another's eye out, validated me as the 16 year-old who fit in but never felt like it. There was something more to things than meets the eye, I knew and they knew it. But no around me seemed to care about that and they wondered why I did. The synaesthesia must have played a major role in this but at the end of the day we all need to connect with something. I don't know exactly why strange juxtapositions are so intriguing, maybe some of us want to live in a perpetual dream state, but if university dorm room walls are any indication, people love a melting clock. 

The following article is a superficial rundown of Salvador Dalí's contribution to fashion. Dalí is a favourite of mine (though the teenage thrill is now gone), as he is a favourite of many for his incredible technical ability with painting and his intriguing dreamscapes. And undoubtedly he is loved for his larger-than-life personality and his other ventures - artistic and commercial pursuits for which the scope became increasingly broad, as hilariously illustrated by his appearance on What's My Line? in the 1950s:


The Eye of Time brooch, Salvador DaliThe most notorious, prolific and ultimately commercial of the Surrealists – that revolutionary group of artists, poets and provocateurs that grew out of Dadaism in 1920s Paris – was undoubtedly Salvador Dalí. The Spanish Catalan best known for his masterly technical skill as a painter and perversely sexualized subjects had his hand in just about anything he could put his name on, due in part to the push from his wife Gala who was keen to collect a paycheck and not so bothered by the virtue of integrity. However, the signed blank lithographs and commercials for Alka Seltzer aside, most of Dalí’s forays into ventures outside of his main discipline were inspired, original, and hugely influential.

Case in point: anything we see with lips these days could be considered a direct reference to Dali’s iconic Mae West Lips Sofa from 1937 and his Ruby Lips brooch, created in 1949, also based on the sexy actress’ famous bouche. British designer Lulu Guinness is one who owes him her trademark padded lips clutch.

Dali-Lips The wildly eccentric artist brought his most famous, Freudian-inspired and dreamlike motifs to life as three dimensional objects through sculpture, furniture, jewellery and fashion. Dali loved fashion and displayed his flamboyant style in his dress and the way he wore his moustache – long, black, waxed straight out to the sides and curled at the ends. He was friends with two of fashion’s most legendary designers, Paris-based rivals Coco Chanel, who inspired him to design clothes, and the avant-garde Elsa Schiaparelli. It was even rumoured that Chanel had an affair with the young Dali, in the days when his facial hair was still neat and understated (one couldn’t imagine the fuss-free designer dealing with the impractical thing that moustache was to become).

The Italian Schiaparelli was hugely influenced by Dada and Surrealism and incorporated the bizarre juxtapositions that were characteristic of these movements into her designs. One can see why Chanel referred to her as ‘that Italian artist who makes clothes’, though this was likely not meant to be a complement from the outspoken and fiercely competitive designer. Dali’s influence has been identified in Schiaparelli designs such as the lamb-cutlet hat and a 1936 day suit with pockets simulating a chest of drawers, based on his painting The Anthropomorphic Chest of Drawers, which was later referenced in a dress he created with Christian Dior in 1950.


Skeleton dress. Elsa Schiaparelli collaboration with Salvador Dalí, 1938.

Collaborations between Schiaparelli and Dali produced four iconic pieces that were clearly influenced by the artist:

Lobster Dress, 1937. This simple white silk evening dress with a crimson waistband featured a large lobster painted by Dali onto the skirt. The lobster is one of Dali’s best known motifs which he began incorporating into works from 1934, most notably New York Dream-Man Finds Lobster in Place of Phone, 1935,  and the mixed-media Lobster Telephone, 1936. His design for Schiaparelli was interpreted into a fabric print by the leading silk designer Sache. It was famously worn by Wallis Simpson in series of photographs by Cecil Beaton before her marriage to Edward VIII.

Schiaparelli_-_Tear_Dress_1 Tears Dress, 1938. A slender pale blue evening gown printed with a Dali design of trompe l’oeil rips and tears was worn with a thigh-length veil with real tears carefully cut out and lined in pink and magenta. The print was intended to give the illusion of torn animal flesh, the tears printed to represent fur on the reverse of the fabric and suggest that the dress was made of animal pelts turned inside out. Figures in ripped, skin-tight clothing suggesting flayed flesh appeared in three of Dali’s 1936 paintings. This puts to rest any notion that the ‘ripped' trend is a relatively recent innovation.

Skeleton Dress, 1938. Designed for the Circus Collection, this stark black crepe dress used trapunto quilting to create padded ribs, spine and leg bones. Many designers today have referenced this dress in their designs.

Shoe Hat, 1937. In 1933, Dali was photographed by his wife Gala with one of her slippers balanced on his head. In 1937 he sketched designs for a shoe hat for Schiaparelli which she featured in her Fall-Winter 1937-38 collection. The hat, shaped like a woman’s high heeled shoe, had the heel standing straight up and the toe tilted over the wearer’s forehead. This hat was worn by Gala, Schiaparelli herself, and by the Franco-American editor of the French Harpers Bazaar, heiress Daisy Fellowes, who was one of Schiaparelli’s best clients.

Dali also designed the Aphrodisiac Jacket of 1936 and several pieces of jewellery for women. In 1981 he drew upon his painting Apparition of the Face of the Aphrodite of Knidos in a Landscape to create bottles for the perfume Salvador Dali Homme et Femme. Dali had evolved (for lack of a better word) from artist to one of the most intriguing and influential brands of the 20th century, and the reverberations of his work will likely continue indefinitely – if our endless fascination with melting clocks is any indication.


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Yes, erratic and eccentric, but then have a look at his Girl at the Window, one of his early works. It is the most beautiful thing painted in all of the 20th century if artauty is meant as defined by Nietzsche as a work of thankfulness. In that painting everything is just olé: the curtain, the girl's legs, the landscape, the little towel beside her, and you see it once and never again forget any of it, nor its colours and not even the reflections of the landscape in the window panes. But he became a prankster, a clown dragged along by a hurrah audience.

I was the same, I loved Dali as a teenager. He's amazingly inspirational. You can certainly see his influence on edgier designers like Gaultier and McQueen as well.

Didn't love trying to analyse Un Chien Andalou as a film student though. How do you write about something that conciously makes little sense?

This is seriously the best blog post I have seen EVER! I was an art history major in college and you taught me something new about one of my favorite artists! How cool that Dali collaborated with Schiaparelli! Exquisitely sublime fashion-meets-art surrealist pieces!


I really enjoyed the Surrealist exhibit at the V&A a while ago...was it a couple of years ago now?

You can imagine how much I love any and all red lips things.

GREAT, GREAT post, loved it, I love surrealism and obviously Dali, but I wasn't really aware of his collabs with Elsa (I've googled all the frocks already :)

Cantueso - you just brought me back to what I loved most about Dali, those details that seem impossible for any human to create. I used to sit and stare at the details in his paintings and wish so hard that I could watch him do it so see how it was done. It's a shame he needed the constant attention, but then again, I suspect the part of him that manifested as prankster is the same part that gave him an appreciation for the more elusive things. He indulged it rather than repressed it - which for a surrealist would be an impossible task!

Retro Chick - I have always closed my eyes in the eyeball scene in Un Chien Andalou! Yes, better to not think too hard about that one...

CC - Aw, thank you, that's so nice! Very happy to have shared!

Wendy - if Dali was alive today you could have been his inspiration for Wendy B lips sofa!

Wicked Halo - Thank you! Doesn't the lobster dress look like a lobster bib from a seafood house? Blasphemous, I know, but that's what it reminds me of!

Denise ♥

you should check out the surreal work of Meret Oppeinheim. She defied Brenton's boy's club of Parisian surrealism. She started out as a muse to the boys but once she lost her youthful prettiness they found other girls for subjects. In the end her artistic talent and wit surpassed most surrealists.


Lauren, thanks for nice addition to the conversation. I can never hear the name Meret Oppenheim without tasting fur because of the association with her fur teacup. But of course she was much more than that!

Denise ♥

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