Elsa Schiaparelli: Tear Dress, 1938. Images from the Victoria & Albert Museum.
I enjoyed Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, the Costume Institute’s current exhibition at the Met, much more the second time around. Yes, I still had problems with it, but I could ignore the exhibition’s faults — its business, its ridiculous, cheesy videos, its reductive categorization of these two designers’ complex work — this time around and just really enjoy the clothes, which are beautiful and exuberant and funny.
The best of these garments is Schiaparelli’s “tear dress” and veil. This trompe l’oeil ice-blue ensemble, which she designed in collaboration with her friend Salvador Dali, almost didn’t make it into the exhibition: the V&A in London, which owns the dress, had initially deemed it too fragile to travel. But thank God it’s here, because it is, I believe, one of the greatest creations in the history of fashion. Not only is it exquisite; it is also shocking, perverse, political, sad, poetic. This is fashion attaining the highest standards of great art.
Judith Thurman (aka my personal writing-hero) writes about the dress in an article for The New Yorker:
The last of Schiaparelli’s duets with Dali is also the most troubling, and it is hard not to read it as a work of protest art. The women who could afford her couture, and the men who paid their bills, had ridden out the Depression in Paris, Saint-Tropez, or New York, but, wherever they lived, it was a Shangri-La, sealed off from the blizzards of violence and misery howling around them. The masterpiece in question—a simple sheath known as “the tear dress,” from 1938—was a warning salvo from the outside world, meant, perhaps, to breach their sense of inviolability. Trompe-l’oeil incisions on the pale-blue silk (a print by Dali) represent wounds inflicted on the skin of a living creature. The cuts have been folded back to reveal bloody sinews. Appliqués on a matching mantilla reproduce the incisions. In 1940, Schiaparelli fled Paris for New York, and spent the war years volunteering for the Red Cross and raising money for pro-Allied French charities.
Doesn’t just send chills up and down your spine? Schiaparelli’s previous collaborations with Dali, of course, were great: they gleefully subverted social norms of decorum and taste, particularly in the fashion world. But the “tear dress”, as well as their other collaboration from that same collection, the “skeleton dress,” had a kind of gravitas that was more fitting for the dark and gloomy times.