The floor-length, body-hugging black evening gown is made of silk crêpe and has a subtle matte sheen. The gown features a high neckline, plastic zippers on the shoulder seams and right side, and covers the wearer from her fingertips to her ankles (V&A). The garment’s full coverage and apparent constriction contribute to its surrealistic quality, making the user feel as though they are wearing a “second skin. Large bones, such as the rib cage, vertebrae, hip, and leg bones, are quilted into the Skeleton Dress. To create the skeleton framework and create the illusion of three-dimensionality, cotton wadding is used in an overdone trapunto quilting technique.
WHAT THE CONTEXT IS
World events were particularly tumultuous in 1938; the United States was still suffering from the Great Depression and World War II was looming over Europe (Shim). As witnessed in vintage Hollywood movies, there was a shared sense of gloom that gave rise to a need for escape. The “Golden Age of Hollywood” began in the 1930s, when glitzy actresses, dapper performers, and massive studios created fantasy movies and a burgeoning celebrity society. Wallace Simpson, an American who notably became the Duchess of Windsor and was renowned for her elegant yet free-spirited style, was a rising fashion hero at the time. She was a devoted Schiaparelli consumer who valued the designer’s aesthetic, which is why she was frequently seen wearing his creations.
The dress has the straight, elegant design with slightly broad shoulders that was common for the majority of the 1930s. In style at the time were Schiaparelli’s unique surrealist themes (Shim).
In contrast to the 1920s, the ideal figure of the 1930s favoured delicate curves, high waistlines, and long, beautiful postures (Fig. 3/ “Features: Good Form” 82). The Skeleton Dress was the epitome of the ideal silhouette of the 1930s, but by 1938, the year it was introduced, there was already talk of a different silhouette for the 1940s, with the hourglass body ideal taking centre stage over a decade before Dior’s 1947 New Look.
LIFE AFTER IT
The “Spine Corset,” created by Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen in the Spring/Summer 1998 collection (Fig. 9/ “Spine Corset”), was inspired by the Skeleton Dress. The “Spine Corset,” which is made of metal and leather and has ribs and vertebrae, was cast using a real human skeleton. Schiaparelli’s impact on the corset’s design was expressly acknowledged by having the item displayed on top of a glittering black garment.
The Skeleton Dress was on display at the 2007 “Surreal Things” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which focused on the fashion-related surrealists. The body and the dressing of the body are very interwoven for surrealists, according to Alexander Klar, the assistant curator of the exhibition (Jones 9). Schiaparelli and Dal met in the midst of this conflict, producing the Skeleton Dress the ideal reflection of the surreal qualities of fashion and of our own bodies. Surrealist artists delighted in “promot[ing] the clash between the bohemian and the bourgeoisie in fashion” (Jones 9).