THE MOMENT: Schiaparelli’s Skeleton Dress

Introducing The Moment, a new column about fashion iconography. Every week, writer Mishal Cazmi will highlight an iconic piece and explore its influence on style and pop culture.

In 1938, Elsa Schiaparelli unveiled an unusual dress. Not unusual by her standards, of course. By then, the designer was already known for her avant-garde approach to fashion and her friendships with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, the A-list Dadaists and Surrealists of her time. The creation, an affront to many and loved by few, was named the Skeleton Dress.

It was a collaboration (the first of many) with surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, and appeared as part of Schiaparelli’s Circus Collection. Most likely inspired by the Surrealist preoccupation with the human body, the aptly named dress was made of black crepe, with trapunto quilting underneath to give it the anatomically appropriate effect of a spine, ribcage and leg bones.

Since then, the skeleton motif has been reincarnated in countless forms on the runway by designers such as Alexander McQueen, Christian Lacroix and the Mulleavy sisters at Rodarte, who featured it in their Spring 2009 collection and again in their diffusion line for Target. And then came Lady Gaga.

The singer has sported several skeletal creations on stage—a glittering skeleton corset and a bone pleather dress—courtesy of the Haus of Gaga, her creative team. But the outfit most kindred in spirit to Schiaparelli’s skeleton dress was the white bodysuit Gaga donned in the video for “Bad Romance.”

With her audacious experiments in art and fashion, Gaga is helping to revive Schiaparelli’s surreal spirit. A shock and awe kind of woman herself, it’s no wonder that pop music’s enfant terrible would appreciate the designer’s bold aesthetic.

Below, the skeleton in fashion (models not included). First up, Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2009 shoe.

McQueen’s skeleton-inspired dress.

Rodarte for Target.

Karen Elson in Rodarte’s “skeleton dress” at the 2009 CFDA Awards.

Two shades of Christian Lacroix’s ribcage neckpiece.

Elsa Schiaparelli is also the star of The Show that Smells, Derek McCormack’s excellent novel about “hillbillies, high fashion, and horror!” Schiaparelli appears as a vampire (the Vogue vampire, no less), who can turn her pupils into pink pailettes. Her arch rival Coco Chanel shows up on page 26; the Skeleton Dress plays an ominous role on page 52. Type Books and Book City usually have copies, and you can also buy it here.

NEXT WEEK’s The Moment: The power and beauty of the Hermès scarf.

3 thoughts on “THE MOMENT: Schiaparelli’s Skeleton Dress

  1. Discovered this great article while surfing the internet and by no means uncovered any fascinating write-up like yours. Truly loved the way you wrote this and I just love the dress.

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