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Prada SS00 campaignPhotography Robert Wyatt

Seven times fashion paid tribute to Dalí’s red lips sofa

Following the oral fixation that seems to be dominating the Paris SS18 shows, we explore all the odes to the surreal artist over the years

In 1936, Salvador Dalí was in London for the International Surrealist exhibition. At the time he was dead broke and signed a deal with Edward James, poet and furniture obsessive, promising a whole year’s worth of Dalí’s output go straight to James. Doing some redecorating, James asked Dalí to design and make him some furniture – and what was born was the first ever “Mae West” lip sofa.

Based on his earlier works, ‘Face of Mae West’, which saw the Hollywood actress’s facial features hung in different locations across a painting, this lip sofa was the first time the lips, detached from the face, had been used in such a standalone way. In 2017, we have lip emojis, lip kits, lip fillers, lip phone-cases: this symbol, which became somewhat synonymous with the unnerving, illogical, dreamlike output of surrealism’s super-reality, has become a reference point for many fashion designers that, despite fashion’s fickleness, has never gone out of style.

Surrealism’s influence on fashion was sparked by the genius Elsa Schiaparelli, who wasn’t referencing the movement but was, instead, in it. In constant collaboration with avant-garde artists such as Dalí and Jean Cocteau, Schiaparelli was fashion’s first, and perhaps only, true surrealist designer.

Over Paris Fashion Week, the surrealist lip motif seems to have appeared once again. Dancing across printed dresses and scarves at Dries Van Noten, big and bejewelled on a baby blue dress at Undercover or in gold at Clare Waight Keller’s Givenchy debut, there seems to be an underlying trend for odes to Dalí. Of course, these are not the first, and won’t be the last. Here, we look back at the times fashion’s greats paid lip-service to surrealist lips.


Schiaparelli was fashion’s answer to art, and perhaps her longest-lasting legacy is her lips. These lips, much like the Mae West sofa, found their way onto brooches, embroidered into dresses, as hat pins, as earrings, a prized motif across Schiaparelli’s body of work. Much like Dalí’s Mae West sofa, these lips changed the world: the surrealists bringing the erotic, the sexual, the strange, the mysterious from the world of art into wearable, or sit-able, manifestations. Hands on bras, lobsters or shoes as hats, ribs, spines and clavicles built into dresses, and bug bodies suspended onto necklaces: Schiaparelli’s oeuvre is one which would be groundbreaking even today.


A button down dress, appliquéd with beaded lips – some with, some without, the cigarette – was Yves’ way off continuing the legacy of a then-ailing Schiaparelli, who died two years later. They were great friends, and Schiaparelli would be cited as one of Yves’ greatest inspirations when he wrote the foreword for her biography. While images of the dress are just as hard to find as the actual garment, Saint Laurent revived the print for his final SS01 Haute Couture collection. 


In repeat patterns, on stark white fabric, lips appeared over and over again in Miuccia Prada’s SS00 collection. From pussybow shirts to pleated knee-length skirts and pedal pushers, the result was obviously painfully cool, with that perfect air of Prada awkwardness. From purple, to red and black and white, lips covered everything. And when there weren’t lips there were unsheathed red lipsticks. For the accompanying campaign, the lips were in action again with that couple appeared captured mid-argument. 


Known for his direct approach to sex appeal during his tenure at YSL, Tom Ford drew on the house’s archive, and Yves’ love of Schiaparelli, to bring you the lip shoe and bag. In oxblood – a Ford favourite – black and nude, they were a huge hit. Over his short tenure at the Parisian house, it ended up being one of the most recognisable motifs from his time there. 


One of Schiaparelli’s most famous headpieces is a bright red lip, with an unlit cigarette poking out of the corner of the mouth. For SS12, Prada took it a step further and lit the cigarette, a puff of grey smoke in patent leather drifting off the side – very much reminiscent of artist Tom Wesselmann’s work. This motif of lips smoking a cigarette was released in bright patent and added to the front of a stiletto, causing outrage among the tabloids, asking fashion to ‘stop glamourising smoking.’ Of course, the similarities between Prada and Schiaparelli didn’t go unnoticed, with The Met curating an exhibition in the same year – Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations – dedicated to the two designers.


Like Ford, Hedi Slimane revisited the YSL archives when at the helm of Saint Laurent, with lips printed in red over a black dress in what became known as ‘the dress of the Summer’ that year. Appliquéd, ruby red beaded lips were stuck all over a pouffe sleeved one shoulder top, in true Slimane 80s style.


Alessandro Michele’s Gucci, while firmly grounded somewhere in the seventies, takes reference from surrealism. The famous Dalí x Schiaparelli pearl and ruby lip brooch was turned into giant earrings which dangled from a pearl for SS16. The downward facing grimace of the mouth is part of the surrealist charm: not obviously sexy but certainly magnetic.