Hands off: Surrealist art and fashion

As of late, I’ve been thinking more and more about 1920s and 1930s design, and about the fact that many of my favourite fashion designers were the ones to blur the lines between art and fashion. Wearable art is a term that is often thrown around when writing about these people, and it’s one of my favourite ways of thinking about well-designed clothing and creative styling.

Elsa Schiaparelli in Elsa Schiaparelli, autumn 1931. Photograph by Man Ray

Elsa Schiaparelli in Elsa Schiaparelli, autumn 1931. Photograph by Man Ray

Elsa Schiaparelli is well known for having been influenced by surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau and Man Ray, among others. But I would take it even further than to simply state influenced or inspired by – the more I read about her, the more I find these so-called inspirations would more aptly be described as collaborations. The reason these aren’t credited as collaborations I suspect in part has to do with gender, but it is most likely largely due to how much respect fashion vs. art is accorded. Fashion then (and now) is still seen as a lesser  form of art, as a capitalist industry as opposed to one interested in symbolism, deconstruction or self-expression. While Man Ray and Dalí are both respected as some of the 20th century’s most important artistes, Schiaparelli remains a name known mostly in the realm of frivolity and fashion, associated with high society and the colour pink.

A perfect illustration of Schiaparelli’s artistic talents are some of the gloves she designed in the mid-1930s. In Schiaparelli’s collection for winter 1936–37, she produced suede gloves in both black and white, with red snakeskin fingernails to replicate human hands. The black gloves were worn with Surrealist suits with pockets that looked like miniature bureau drawers, designed in collaboration with Salvador Dalí (if you come across a photo of those suits, let me know! I’m dying to see what they look like).

Made in Paris, France, Europe. Winter 1936-37 Designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, French (born Italy), 1890 - 1973  Black suede, red snakeskin 9 3/8 x 3 3/8 inches (23.8 x 8.6 cm)

Gloves by Schiaparelli, Winter 1936-37 collection

These playful gloves were created around the same time as Picasso painted hands to look like gloves for a Man Ray photo. Rumour has it Schiaparelli was inspired to flip-flop the concept and create a pair of gloves to look like hands.

Man Ray, Hands painted by Picasso, 1935

Man Ray, Hands painted by Picasso, 1935

Man Ray,  »Study of Hands », (negative solarization) 1930

Man Ray, »Study of Hands », (negative solarization) 1930

gloves by elsa schiaparelli

A lambskin belt next to suede gloves with gold metal talons, both made by Schiaparelli around 1936

There’s something about these gold talon ones though that I love even more – isn’t there something about them that screams hard femme? “Look, admire, but I can fuck you up if you cross my boundaries?” Perhaps over seventy years later, I’m queering this a bit too much to my own fancy, though.

This was hardly the only time Schiaparelli incorporated hands into her designs: I’m absolutely enamored by this belt, from two years earlier.

Evening belt Elsa Schiaparelli  (Italian, 1890–1973)  Date:     fall 1934 Culture:     French Medium:     silk, plastic Dimensions:     Other: 29 in. (73.7 cm)

Evening belt by Schiaparelli, Fall 1934 (silk, plastic)

The Met describes it as follows:

An ultimate expression of Schiaparelli’s interest in Surrealism, this belt was shown in the fall 1934 collection along with other pieces featuring the hand motif, such as a jacket, cape and handbag with hand-shaped fasteners. The hand was seen in many Surrealist artworks, such as those by Man Ray, and Schiaparelli used it in remarkable ways to accent her clothing designs. The wearer is literally embraced around the waist by the belt, an image echoed in the well-known jacket from the fall 1937 collection, featuring a woman with her golden sequined hair draped down one arm and her arm and hand wrapped across the body and waist, again embracing the wearer. The design was inspired by a drawing by Jean Cocteau for Schiaparelli.

Glove Hat      Object:      Hat with gloves     Place of origin:      Paris, France (gloves, made)     Date:      1936 (made)

Glove Hat designed by Schiaparelli, 1936

Another artist who also happened to be photographed by Man Ray (Kiki de Montparnasse, Lee Miller, Schiap – which badass creative women of the 20s and 30s weren’t?) played with gloves around the very same time is Meret Oppenheim.

Meret Oppenheim  "Fur Gloves with Wooden Fingers" 1936

Meret Oppenheim “Fur Gloves with Wooden Fingers” 1936

Meret Oppenheim Glove (1985) Silk-screen and handstitching on goat suede

Meret Oppenheim Glove (1985) Silk-screen and handstitching on goat suede

While these were created much later in her career, I find them no less interesting!

And since I am a fan of Man Ray’s portraits, here are some solarized portraits of Oppenheim for good measure.

Meret Oppenheim Man Ray (American, 1890–1976)  1932. Gelatin silver print (solarized)

Meret Oppenheim by Man Ray (American, 1890–1976) 1932. Gelatin silver print (solarized)

Now I’m off to daydream more about

recommended reading:


Filed under art, fashion

11 responses to “Hands off: Surrealist art and fashion

  1. What a fantastic piece Julia! I love all of the work and artists you mentioned so it’s a pleasure to see images and read about them together. A nice afternoon treat.

    I really agree with your point about the fashion vs art divide and how it relates to uncritical, superficial and gendered understandings of these realms. Something I think about a lot!


  2. Claire N



  3. Mmmm don’t have any energy or creativity to say something right now but thank you! this was such a great read, i’m recovering from a bad day and your words and schiaparelli made me feel better yay

  4. Excellent point about fashion often (unfortunately) not being considered as art. This spring I visited an exhibit, Women of the Avant Garde, at the Louisiana Art Museum outside Copenhagen – I was pleased to see they included fashion and textiles in the exhibit, rightfully including them as art.

  5. I had no idea fashion was so avant garde that early on – faswcinating! Not to mention the fact I now desperately want the gloves with the veins.
    This sort of thing reminds me of the Lady Gaga-esque approach to fashion – where “beautiful” isn’t nearly as worthwhile a pursuit as “interesting.” No-one complains Picasso’s paintings aren’t pretty enough.

  6. Pingback: The first one | itsnotjusttheshirtonmyback

  7. Thank you for this Julia! I adore Schiaparelli and learned about her surrealist collaborations earlier this fall. I appreciate you addressing the ‘fashion vs. art’ divide which seems to indeed be related to fashion’s utilitarian purpose. I have also been torn, because while I think fashion CAN be art, as these examples demonstrate, to me it is less so when marketed on a mass scale. I for one would appreciate a discussion of whether fashion loses meaning when branded and spit out for consumption (I am about to read a book called “The End of Fashion” that will address that). Are we simply defining fashion’s role as art by whether it is ‘museum-worthy’? These are such interesting questions to me and it would be great to hear get your input! Great work btw 🙂

  8. Dear Mlle. Garçonnière:

    First of all, thank you for your recommendation to my site.

    Onto my other point. Not too many people may recall (& if my own memory serves me correctly), but at some point in his career (most likely in the 1990s), M. Gaultier appropriated (& updated) Mme. Schiaparelli’s (surrealist) take on the “fingernails” gloves; the irony is, nowadays, it’s the “fingerless” gloves that seem to be all the rage – a hark back to the 1980s (& beyond). Fashion is nothing if not cyclical.

    An enjoyable review.

    ₵. Ð.

    • ha! so very true. i love in a very cold part of canada, so i have wristwarmers and fingerless gloves i layer overtop of regular gloves to stay extra warm. not very classic, neither is it very 80s… it’s just warm. 🙂

  9. It’s always a joy to rediscover your blog! 🙂
    Your post reminds me of a top I saw recently with “hand” collars:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s