Nearly 34 years after her death, the Duchess of Windsor continues to be celebrated for her sartorial style. Indeed, just this week British Vogue featured a catalogue of her most iconic looks. Wallis has become synonymous with haute couture and fashion houses such as Givenchy and Mainbocher still proudly cite her as a former client. What is perhaps not widely known is that the Duchess of Windsor was as much a part of the design process as the couturiers she favoured. Indeed, she disliked Chanel because Coco declined to change her creations to suit the Duchess’ ideas. Wallis learned early that fashion was an important calling card and she refused to compromise when it came to her style.
In her memoir, The Heart Has It’s Reasons, Wallis remembered; “According to my ever truthful aunt, I am supposed to have persuaded my mother, after a foot stamping scene, to substitute for the blue sash she wanted me to wear, with a red one”. Aunt Bessie told Wallis; “You told your mother you wanted a red sash so the boys would notice you”. This was not merely an amusing anecdote from Wallis’ childhood, it was a key part of her attitude to success. She once said, “I’m not a beautiful woman. I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else”
To make this a reality, Wallis learned early the importance of a signature style. In her youth, money was in short supply but the little she had was used to commission local dressmakers in Baltimore who worked from Wallis’ own designs for the fashions she craved but could not afford. She was an early devotee of costume jewellery and loved nature motifs with fruit, flowers, birds and even fish appearing throughout her expanding collection. Wallis liked to tell stories with her gowns and accessories but she was also strict about her silhouette. Fashion designers could often be frustrated when the Duchess commissioned a garment. At one fitting, Mainbocher protested that the cut of a skirt was so small around the waist that to cut it any smaller would mean Wallis could not sit down. “Then I won’t sit down in it”, Wallis retorted. Diana Vreeland testified to Wallis’ determination when it came to design; “She knew exactly what she wanted”
In 1937, the Windsors were planning their longed for wedding at the Chateau de Candé in France. The Duchess knew that her reputation was in tatters and as she had predicted during the Abdication Crisis, she had become the most hated woman in the world. She knew that she would have to change the public perception of her and so assembled a team of iconic creatives to help launch a very different Wallis Warfield Simpson to the public. She arranged a photoshoot to feature in Vogue magazine before the wedding in June. Cecil Beaton had been engaged to take the official wedding portraits of the Windsors but agreed to photograph the soon-to-be Duchess for the pre-wedding feature. Beaton must have imagined Wallis to appear as she had done so previously in his work; perfectly coiffed, wearing a beautiful modern gown in a lavish setting. But Wallis had other ideas.
By 1937, Wallis had built a friendship with the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli had a reputation for bold and exciting designs which were infused with eccentric humour. In 1936, one of her most popular creations was a pair of black suede gloves with sparkling red velvet fingernails. In 1938, she created a necklace made of clear plastic festooned with plastic insects in pinks, greens, yellows and blues. Her fame was secured in 1934 when she was featured on the front cover of Time magazine (just two years before Time declared Wallis it’s ‘Woman of the Year’) and so it was only natural that the two women would come together to produce a truly memorable fashion moment.
Schiaparelli lived to shock. Indeed, her favourite colour was dubbed ‘Shocking Pink’ and her 1954 memoir carried the unapologetic title “A Shocking Life”. Wallis had just shocked the world and against the advice of those London high society pals who had not yet dropped the Windsors, she had no intention of changing her style to win hearts. If people were to change their perceptions of Wallis, they would do so because of her style, not in spite of it.
By 1937, Elsa Schiaparelli had begun her all important association with the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. His iconic “Lobster Telephone” was created in 1936 and those who found themselves confused by Dalí’s crustacean fascination can’t have been any more enlightened when he offered the explanation; “I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster in a restaurant, I am never served a cooked telephone; I do not understand why champagne is always chilled and why on the other hand telephones, which are habitually so frightfully warm and disagreeably sticky to the touch, are not also put in silver buckets with crushed ice around them”
Dalí and Schiaparelli had first collaborated in a newspaper print in 1935 and since then had been taking inspiration from each other’s avant-garde ideas. When Schiaparelli invited Dalí to offer his ideas for a stand-out piece for Wallis Warfield Simpson, the Lobster Telephone was still fresh in everybody’s minds and so it came as no great surprise that the Divine Dalí suggested a “Lobster Dress”. There is no way of knowing what Wallis’ first reaction to this proposal was but clearly she approved of the idea as Schiaparelli was quickly commissioned to begin work on the gown. The colour palette was to be bridal ivory with “shocking” salmon pink. The dress would be cut in the silhouette Wallis always favoured but with one unusual addition – a hand painted orange-pink lobster.
Though Wallis and Elsa were confident in their choice of design, nobody had thought to ask Dalí where the lobster would feature on the gown itself. Neither Elsa nor Wallis saw the gown as it was being painted by Dalí and it was only when it was delivered to the Candé that the two women got their first glimpse of the finished garment. If “shocking” had been the objective, Dalí had succeeded. The lobster had been painted on the front of the silk tulle gown as planned but it’s placement was more daring that perhaps Wallis had envisaged. It began just below her hip bone with the tail of the lobster covering the most delicate area of her anatomy. It is unlikely that Dalí had enlightened Wallis as to his theory that the lobster was a powerful sexual symbol which he believed expressed sexual desires and fantasies.
Beaton took the photographs and the dress was packed away, never to be worn again. When Vogue received the images, they could hardly believe their eyes. What was intended to be a two page feature now became a seven page spread. Though printed in black and white, the dress lost none of it’s shock value and photographs of Wallis and the lobster appeared in newspapers and magazines across the world. If the intention had been for the world to rethink their idea of the would-be Duchess, the project had been a total failure. They were hardly the pre-wedding photographs one would expect from the fiancée of a royal duke and Beaton was not amused. He had seen his role in the Windsor story as focusing the public’s mind on the romance of the situation. In his usual flamboyant style, he wished to present a fairy tale image of a King who had laid down his crown for the woman he loved. He had not bargained for Dalí’s lobster.
One might think that this would mark the end of the Duchess of Windsor’s association with Schiaparelli (and with Dalí) and though we do not know exactly what Wallis felt about the lobster dress, we can assume that she took it all in good humour. Schiaparelli was commission to design Wallis’ summer wardrobe for 1937 (including the famous rococo scroll work jacket and skirt she wore for another set of Beaton images that year) and the two women built on their friendship for the next 40 years. Though Elsa closed down her couture business in 1951 and her fashion house in 1954, Wallis remained a dedicated client until the very end. Though she disliked Chanel’s dogged refusal to incorporate her own ideas, Wallis also knew of Coco and Elsa’s great rivalry and even after the fashion house closed, Wallis refused to buy from Chanel for fear of upsetting Elsa.
But what about the man behind the lobster? Wallis’ friendship with Dalí is perhaps as surreal as the man himself. The Windsors loved to holiday in Spain and whenever they did, they invariably spent time with the Surrealist. Dalí was a guest at their home in Le Bois and the Windsors saw him frequently in New York. Wallis even joined him as a judge in the Pini di San Miniato Scholarship Award Competition at the Parsons School of Design in 1961. Though Wallis never felt tempted to purchase any of his work to decorate her villa, she did in fact own a Dalí. In 1958, the Duchess and Dalí took lunch together at the St Regis Hotel in New York where Dalí lived every winter. As they ate, Dalí sketched a knight on a horse for Wallis. He signed it; ‘Affectueusement, Dalí’. The sketch was later given by the Duchess to her butler, Alan Fisher and in 2013, it joined other items in an auction at Hanson’s. The Dalí sold for $4,600.
But there was a Dalí influence in another unusual photoshoot for Wallis that is worthy of note. In 1956, the Windsors “sat” for the Latvian photographer Philippe Halsman. Halsman had a 37 year long collaboration with Dalí which included a 1954 coffee table book comprised of 36 different images of Salvador’s famous twirled moustache. Halsman was experimenting with a new style of portrait which he dubbed ‘jumpology’. Invented during a photoshoot with Groucho Marx and Bob Hope (a favourite of the Duchess), Halsman asked his subjects to jump, capturing them in mid-air. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were only too happy to oblige, slipping off their shoes and taking a leap for jumpology.
As with many of Wallis’ iconic looks, the lobster dress has been given new life in the modern age. In 2012, Dame Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue, asked Prada to recreate a version of the Schiaparelli/Dalí creation for her to wear at the Met Gala. In Spring 2017, Bertrand Guyon, the creative director of the restored House of Schiaparelli celebrated the gown’s 80th birthday by including it in his new collection. But what of the original lobster dress?
Following it’s infamous outing in 1937, Wallis gave the dress back to Elsa. Schiaparelli kept it until 1969 when she donated it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Though not on public display, the lobster photographs are some of the most commonly reproduced images of the Duchess of Windsor and still appear in fashion magazines as an example of her exquisite, sometimes very eccentric, wardrobe.