Sonia Delaunay's Fabric and Feminism

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Wearing the Pierrot-Éclair costume
Wearing the Pierrot-Éclair costume designed by Sonia Delaunay, on the set of René Le Somptier’s film Le P’tit Parigot, 1926Courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

As Tate Modern open their show celebrating Sonia Delaunay, we look at her often-forgotten work within fashion

Sonia Delaunay’s creativity profoundly affected 20th century art, however her work in fashion is often forgotten. In fact, her work with fabrics and clothing design has left a legacy as indelible as that of her Orphist paintings; her lectures on women and fashion were progressive for their time and still resonate today. But, as Tate Modern's Director Chris Dercon recently asserted, "Sonia Delaunay has been less recognised for her contribution to the history of modern art and abstraction than she deserves, marginalised by an account of the history of art that has prioritised male artists and, at times, positioned her work as decorative." As an exhibition celebrating her work opens at Tate Modern, we look at the elements that made her fashion and fabric design so brilliant.

Simultaneous design
The aspect of design for which both Sonia and her artist husband Robert Delaunay are best known is their use of colour, which Sonia described as "the skin of the world." Influenced by the brilliant palettes of the Fauves, but with a complete disinterest in decoration, both she and Robert pioneered the abstraction of Orphism. This was an approach which focused on form, colour and rhythm to communicate, and employed the notion of "simultaneity" – seeing colours as having independent lives aquired when liberated from subject matter or combined with other colours. This attitude was seamlessly incorporated into Sonia Delaunay's work with textiles, where she used exactly the same principles and philosophies of colour study as she did in painting, resulting in work that was simultaneously aesthetically engaging and philosophically utopian. 

A feminist freedom
The technical construction of her clothing was designed to suit what Delaunay termed the real-life requirements of women; it allowed one to work, to dance, to play sport. In 1927, during a lecture at the Sorbonne titled The Influence of Painting on the Art of Clothes, she not only explored the rhythmic relationship between colours in her fabrications but also the reasons behind the move towards ready-to-wear during a time where couture was the norm. She explained, “at the present time, fashion is passing through a critical stage which corresponds to a period of revolution. Some time before the first world war it began to free itself from academic couture: it got rid of the corset, the high collar, all those elements of women’s dress demanded by the aesthetic of fashion but which were contrary to hygiene and the freedom of movement.” And, during a time where women were seeing a shift in their roles in the world (it was the year following this lecture that suffrage was extended to all women in Britain), Delaunay’s work in all of its permutations – from painting to fabric design – was an exuberant celebration of liberation.

A harmonious and practical creation of fabric
As her husband Robert explained in Du cubisme à l'art abstrait, “Until now, fabrics were dealt with the same way as wallpaper, by the kilometre, with no conception of their future use – or at best by chance. That was up to the dress designer… Sonia is simultaneous. She gives her conception a perfect creative harmony, by thinking about all the transitions between the ready-made fabric and the final garment.” While this may sound like a sensible approach, her holistic process was a groundbreaking method within fashion design which had employed entirely separate teams for each element of couture creation and production.

Designing in accordance with the female form
As Delaunay complained in a letter to Jacques Damase in May 1968, "All [my] works were made for women, and all were constructed in relation to the body. They were not copies of paintings transposed on to women's bodies, as one couturer 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." What seems to be a particularly important element of Delaunay's clothing design is that the pieces she made were designed to be worn by bodies, in accordance with the female form rather than (as is so often the case) in opposition to it.

On Sunday afternoons, the Delaunays would open their home to artists, poets, writers and intellectuals (often dressed in Sonia's designs) and their engagement with creatives from all spheres of the era clearly influenced both of their work. With a devoted and lifelong interest in literature, in 1921 Delauney started incorporating the poetry of Surrealists and Dadaists into her designs. Sonia Delaunay's presence within progressive philosophical and academic circles of her time encouraged her to continue to develop and directly incorporate the works of peers like Tristan Tzara and Philippe Soupault into her fabrics.

The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay is at Tate Modern until August 9. Sonia Delaunay: Fashion and Fabric, published by Thames & Hudson, is out now.