Sonia Delaunay and Clothing: Geometry in Fashion

Magda Michalska 2 April 2024 min Read

Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) was a busy woman. She was an officer of the French Legion of Honor, a wife of a famous painter, and an artist herself. On top of everything, she was also a fashion designer! Her endeavors were appreciated: she became the first living woman to have a retrospective exhibition in the Louvre.

A movement called Orphism, or Orphic Cubism, was co-founded by Sonia and Robert Delaunay together with other artists. It focused on pure abstraction and bright colors.

Most people would associate this type of work with her:

Sonia Delaunay, Rythme, 1938, oil on canvas, 182 x 149 cm, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris
Sonia Delaunay, Rythme, 1938, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, France.

But she was also a fashion designer, as you can see below:

Sonia Delaunay, Swimsuits, 1928
Sonia Delaunay, Swimsuits, 1928. WikiArt.

In a lecture she gave in 1927 at the Sorbonne she openly condemned the earlier fashions:

At the present time, fashion is passing through a critical stage which corresponds to a period of revolution. Sometime before World War I, it began to free itself from academic couture: it got rid of the corset, the high collar, and all those elements of women’s dress demanded by the aesthetic of fashion but which were contrary to hygiene and the freedom of movement.

She offered her own vision of new clothing for modern women. She also designed costumes for ballets and famous actresses, such as Gloria Swanson.

Sonia Delaunay, Costume for "Cleopatra."
Sonia Delaunay, Costume for “Cleopatra.” Art Madrid.

Her husband, Robert Delaunay, said about her: “Until now, fabrics were dealt with the same way as wallpaper, by the kilometer, with no conception of their future use – or at best by chance. That was up to the dress designer…(…) She gives her conception a perfect creative harmony, by thinking about all the transitions between the ready-made fabric and the final garment.”

Sonia Delaunay, Dresses, 1928
Sonia Delaunay, Dresses, 1925. Arte por Excelencias.

Delaunay complained in one of the letters in 1968: “All [my] works were made for women, and all were constructed in relation to the body. They were not copies of paintings transposed onto women’s bodies, as one couturier has done with Mondrian and Pop Art […] I find all that completely ridiculous. It’s a promotional medium, but it isn’t a basis for either development or construction: it’s a circus.”

Sonia Delaunay and two friends in Robert Delaunay’s studio, rue des Grands-Augustins, Paris 1924Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
Sonia Delaunay and two friends in Robert Delaunay’s studio, Rue des Grands-Augustins, Paris 1924, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, France.

Chris Dercon, the last director of Tate Modern asserted: “Delaunay has been less recognized for her contribution to the history of modern art and abstraction than she deserves, marginalized by an account of the history of art that has prioritized male artists and, at times, positioned her work as decorative.”

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