Sonia Delaunay’s Designs as Wearable Art

The line between fashion and art is often a blurry one, particularly when the term “wearable art” is used. The term is often used to describe artistic pieces that can be worn, but that exist outside of the industry of designer brands and marketable pieces. However, this blurry line is often being crossed by fashion designers and artists alike. One instance of this was with Sonia Delaunay, an artist and clothing designer in France who, in the early 1900’s was one of the first artists to introduce fashion into the realm of fine art. As a fine artist, theorist, and designer in the Orphism movement, her utilization of color theory in clothing design laid the groundwork for fashion as an artistic discipline in contemporary western culture.  

Clothing design has been an art form for a very long time. However, for a lot of history it was not thought of in that way. Along with furniture and textile, in western discourse, fashion was considered a craft. While there were design houses that made clothing for the wealthy bourgeoisie, this was an industry separate from art movements based in theory and shared values and aesthetics. One of the first instances of fashion and art movements beginning to merge (at least in western art historical discourse) was when the Vienna Workshop took hold of the dress reform movement. Schwestern Flöge was a fashion design studio started by Emile Flöge and her sisters. They were part of the Vienna Workshop alongside artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Their fashions drew from the geometric and abstract aesthetics of the Vienna Workshop in loose, flowing designs that were easy to move in and fun to wear. The fashion designs of the Vienna Workshop are just one example of fashion beginning to be included in the world of fine art. Sonia Delaunay and her designs emerged soon after as another extension of dress reform and women’s liberation. 

  When looking back to moments when fashion and art began to merge, the possibly most notable example of this is the Mondrian collection by Yves Saint Laurant from 1965. It is often considered the first main example of fashion designers using explicit art works in their designs, although the exchange had been happening more subtly for a while. As the fashion industry was growing more powerful and design houses were getting bigger, Yves Saint Laurant, the designer in the early stages of his career, felt the need to push the boundaries in order to stand out against the crowd. Through this desire to be modern, YSL looked back to Piet Mondrian as a symbol of avant-garde ideas, as he was a main figure in cubism, an avant-garde art movement based in abstraction of objects to geometric forms. YSL used the visual imagery of primary colors and flat lines that Mondrian used with the goal of creating new lines and shapes in garments using textile instead of silhouette. By doing this, YSL had a role in the elevation of fashion to the status of fine art by showcasing the two as inseparable from one another with a shift dress that’s intrigue lies in the artistic reference. While what YSL did was groundbreaking in some ways, the real connection of art and fashion happened earlier with Sonia Delaunay’s designs. 

Sonia Delaunay was one of the figureheads of the Orphism movement, which was an offshoot of cubism founded by her and her husband Robert and including another prominent artist, Frantisek Kupka. Orphism was a multidisciplinary movement that incorporated poetry, painting, fashion, the scientific exploration of color theory, movement, and simultaneity. Beginning in 1912, Orphism took cubist ideas to a new level with a focus on color and a tendency toward complete abstraction. The title of Orphism was given by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire after Orpheus, a musician and prophet in Greek mythology. Music played a role in the ideas of the movement because of the emphasis on motion and interconnected forms of expression that they called Simultanism. The Delaunays were interested in simultaneity as a concept that expresses the multitude of shapes, colors, contrasts, and the relationships between them that are dependent on each other in paintings. They drew attention to this by abstracting forms into geometric shapes. However, the main focus of the Delaunay’s was with color contrast as theorized by Michel Chevreul, a chemist who worked at a textile factory in Paris. Chevreul helped develop dyes in the factory and noticed how light interacted with colors as well as how colors looked different next to other colors. He came up with the theory of simultaneous contrast—that colors look different depending on what colors they are next to. The Orphists experimented with Chevreul’s theories a great deal by combining different shades, tones, and hues, in different shapes. They were interested in the way the senses interacted and in synesthesia and included these ideas in their paintings, poems, and other media. As an art movement, Orphism was short. It ended around the time that the first world war began, but Sonia’s fashions outlived the movement itself. 

Robert Delaunay, Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon, 1913

Much like the art movement, Sonia Delaunay’s personal art practice ranged widely in medium. She worked primarily with painting and textiles. In 1911, inspired by Russian folk style, she made a quilt for her son using fabric scraps. After she made the quilt, she started to notice how the scraps created shapes with their lines and colors. After this, her and her husband connected color theory, poetry, motion and the senses together in a cohesive aesthetic. Sonia’s quilt is considered one of the pioneering pieces that led to Orphism. Sonia Delaunay created many notable pieces within the movement including a collaborative poem with Blaise Cendrars where she translated the sounds of his poem into colors and shapes that accompany it. In 1914 she made the painting titled Prismes Electriques, a painting that layered color and shapes to create the sense of simultaneity. These pieces were the foundational ideas that her clothing designs sprung out of. Early clothing designs resembled the Russian folk style of her quilt more so than her later designs that she designed for upper class women. As she was primarily an artist, she was able to pull fashion into the fine art world because of her credibility. 

Sonia Delaunay’s quilt for her son, 1911
La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de Franc (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France) by Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrar, 1913
 Prismes Electriques, 1914
Dress by Sonia Delaunay, 1913

Delaunay’s design career came partly out of necessity but she had a history making clothing and found a passion in the path. As World War 1 started, the painting that the Delaunays had been doing was no longer a viable option to make money, so Sonia turned to craft, in the form of textile and clothing design. She began making costumes for ballets and movies. She designed costumes for Cleopatra at Ballet Russes in 1918, which drew strongly from Orphist aesthetics of geometric shapes and contrasting colors. She designed fabrics for the luxury clothing store Metz and Co. and later, in the 1920’s opened her own design studio called “Sonia.” She used Orphist and simultanist focus on geometry, color, and contrast in her designs. She was dedicated to creating original designs using the same ideas, but not copying her art onto textiles. Her combination of clothing with Orphism led to design sketches that resembled abstract paintings and what she called Poem Dresses, in which she further explored “simultané,” Delaunay’s clothing was still very wearable and was successful in the market of wealthy women who were seeking liberation through dress. Her silhouettes were often straight cut and her textiles geometric, which coincided with the art deco and flapper styles of the 1920’s. Her pieces allowed for movement and action which not only provided more freedom for women in their daily lives, but coincided with the Orphist interest in motion and its interactions with color and light. 

Cleopatra costume for the Ballet Russes, 1918
Coat by Sonia Delaunay made for movie star Gloria Swanson, 1925
Poem Dress no. 1329, 1923

 Sonia Delaunay combined fashion and fine art by integrating concepts from Orphism into her designs, bridging the gap between craft and art. Her design career existed for a couple of decades after and she continued to incorporate the same avant-garde and modernist aesthetics. Although for much of history it was not considered an art form, it is an important tool to understand the values of a culture in any given time period, sometimes even more so than fine art. As it is now taught as an artistic discipline at art universities, the merging of art and fashion has opened up possibilities for an even more multidisciplinary art culture.