Messy Histories: The Dresses of Sonia Delaunay

For a good while now, I’ve had a particular interest in artists and art projects rooted in textile. There’s something I find fascinating to consider when artists take their practice off the easel and onto cloth, particularly clothing. It’s one of those moves I think should be made with very specific intentions in mind*. I think that particularly with clothing it’s easy not to think about this, but see it as a very different kind of project. We kind of associate making clothes with making ‘fashion’, and in today’s marketplace of fast fashion the artistic quality and intentions of fashion are easy to lose sight of.

A black and white photo of a car and two figures. The car has been decorated by Sonia Delaunay and is unusually decorated in a pattern of coloured rectangles. The pattern matches the dress and coat of the woman standing next to the car. Another woman is sitting inside, but her outfit is white.
Dress and car designed by Delaunay, Paris, 1925

Earlier this year I discovered an artist whose approach to working in textile I was really interested in. I think I hadn’t paid much attention to Sonia Delaunay before because of her husband, Robert Delaunay. I’ve always found his work rather…meh. It neither excites me or disgusts me, it just exists in a place I find of little significance. Some of Sonia’s work is like this too, to be honest.

But I find her motivations and what she achieves by working in textile really interesting. Though to be clear, Sonia Delaunay’s clothing is part art project, part business. Through Casa Sonia (1917-20) in Spain, and and Atelier Simultan√© (1923-34), her designs were a genuine commercial success. The idea for a clothing line emerged when she & Robert needed a new income stream when her family lost all their property in St Petersburg after the 1917 Russian revolution. But being a profitable venture doesn’t make her designs less valid as artistic statements. In fact she always claimed her motivation as primarily artistic. She saw her collections as contributing to the public understanding of modern art, a form they could not only see, but inhabit – that they could understand literally from the inside.

I find what Sonia Delaunay was doing more interesting than many other art-fashion collaborations. One of the most famous of all time is Yves Saint Laurent’s styling of Mondrian paintings onto dresses in 1965. The look was an instant hit, with the minimal lines of Mondrian’s style perfectly aligning with the simple modern cut of the dress. It’s easy to see Saint Laurent’s achievement as the same as Delaunay’s. It’s not.

A colour photograph of a woman with brown hair standing in a doorway. Her dress, designed by Yves Saint Laurent, has am extremely straight cut and is patterned like a Mondrian painting, divided by black lines into squares which are white, blue or yellow. She is wearing white gloves and black pumps.
Yves Saint Laurent “Mondrian Dress”, 1965

Let me explain. Here’s a quote from Robert Delaunay, pushing his wife’s designs:

“Madame S.D. only ever makes a fabric composition with a view to its practical use…this is the first time that a concern with the functional structure of the material has become a part of design, manufacture and fashion”

What he’s describing is design as a kind of gesamtkunstwerk. Sonia oversaw the entire process of production, allocating particular designs to specific items. The totality is considered from the beginning, starting with the artwork, but also how the artwork is going to work on a real human body.

In comparison, Saint Laurent appropriates/ borrows Mondrian because he likes it for his intended design. In fact he borrowed from other artists for this collection, too – including Kandinsky – but those designs have been largely forgotten. You could almost say he got lucky that the synchronicity of art and design worked so well. Sonia saw their objectives as different, too. She was very clear in a letter of 1968 that “the Mondrian dresses…I find all that completely ridiculous. It isn’t a basis for either development or construction: it’s circus”.

A coat, seen from the back with the sides opened out. It's long and the pattern is brown, black, creamy and red geometric patterns.
Coat designed for Gloria Swanson, 1923-4

This thinking about the body in design – that interests me too. What Sonia Delaunay seems to mean by is again artistic. She already followed Robert Delaunay’s principle of Simultanism – experimenting with the ways in which colours change in relation to those around them. She seems to have seen clothing as an opportunity to take this a step further and consider the impact of movement on the artwork (a term I’m using here instead of ‘pattern’ or ‘design’). In Delaunay’s world you could go further than simple wearing a work of art – you could influence it, even become it.

There’s something in that idea which I really like. By seeing art and fashion as intrinsically linked spheres of practice, Sonia Delaunay sets a marker down for a world in which every detail can be aesthetic, artistic, and significant. People like to ask how art can change the world, and having studied several movement which have tried, I’m not entirely convinced it can. But of all the worlds which are has imagined over time, the idea of one filled only with carefully planned aesthetics, planned with intention and totality, is one I can get behind.

*Here’s a piece from last year I wrote on the subject of textiles.


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