Long before visitors lined up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Alexander McQueen retrospective, the worlds of fashion and art collided in the Surrealist designs of Elsa Schiaparelli. The Italian-born couturier—as famed in her heyday as Coco Chanel—is the subject of Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography (Knopf), in which author Meryle Secrest investigates the designer’s ties with Salvador Dalí, Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau, and other members of the Parisian avant-garde in the 1920s and ’30s.
Schiaparelli was particularly close with Dalí, with whom she made the memorable “Lobster Dress,” “Shoe Hat,” and “Tears Dress.” The last is a slender gown and veil patterned with Dalí’s trompe l’oeil rips and tears to give the illusion of lacerated flesh. “Dalí had some pretty crazy ideas,” Secrest tells ARTnews, “and one of them revolved around the necrophiliac fantasy of the corpse who comes back to life with all the skin torn off,” as seen in his 1936 painting Necrophiliac Springtime. Yet the fabric Schiaparelli concocted “isn’t macabre at all,” Secrest adds. “In her hands, the concept becomes something unusual and strange, but not sadistic.”