In the spring of 1937, Wallis Simpson posed for Vogue in a Schiaparelli evening gown that had a lobster printed on its skirt. Salvador Dalí designed the print, which also featured sprigs of parsley. The Vogue spread was intended to introduce readers to Mrs. Simpson, who in July of that year would marry Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor and abdicated King of England. Cecil Beaton's lens captured Mrs. Simpson wearing a softened expression that was the antithesis of what would come to be called "hard chic" and for which the Duchess of Windsor would be famous.
Mrs. Simpson was an important client for Schiaparelli, whose white organdy gown appeared superficially naive and whimsical. Organdy was the fabric of debutantes, the fabric of virgins. The gown had a modest neckline, red waistband, and full skirt. The lobster motif must have seemed fanciful, yet by wearing the gown Mrs. Simpson was telegraphing her ignorance of the artist's message. For Dalí, the lobster was full of frank sexual connotation and metaphor. Mrs. Simpson was an ardent Schiaparelli fan and history has not recorded who, if anyone, suggested she wear the dress in the layout. Interestingly, it also suggests a naïveté and lack of cultural awareness on the part of Vogue's editorial staff. Surely Schiaparelli was aware of the ramifications, and it is likely that photographer Cecil Beaton was as well.
Dalí liked the idea of the jolie laide, saying, "In the elegant woman, there is always a studied compromise between her ugliness, which must be moderate, and her beauty which must be "evident," but simply evident without going beyond this exact measure." Such a presentation resulted in a sharp, aggressive profile and seems to epitomize Mrs. Simpson.
Dalí had been using lobsters in his work for several years prior, most famously in the 1936 Téléphone-Homard. There, a plaster lobster replaced the ear piece. The telephone was a prime example of the symbolism of the Surrealist object. In their juxtaposed incongruity, Dalí felt, such objects were freed from "formal preoccupation" and "depend(ed) only on the individual's amorous imagination." Also, as work of art the phone had no social status. It was not a Monet or Rembrandt, artists who work conveyed the wealth and supposed taste of the buyer. Quite the opposite; the absurdity of the phone telegraphed an enlightened, anti-bourgeois philosophy.
It also carried a message of Freudian sexuality. Dalí equated lobsters with the vagina dentata.
The expanded definition of lobster as symbol of vagina dentata would appear two years later, at the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows. The fair, billed as "Building the World of Tomorrow," was a theoretical and technological showcase for American industrial design and its consequent power. Built on land repurposed from a garbage dump, the fair was intended to demonstrate American determinism as it moved away from the bleak years of the Depression and towards a future that would soon be clouded by war. At the entrance, the Trylon and Perisphere invited visitors to enjoy pride in modernization. The phallic Trylon soared skywards while the orb-shaped, maternal Perisphere suggested totality. That the fair relied heavily on the babbittry of the citizen was contrasted by a pavilion parked away in the Amusement Zone.
The pavilion proposed by art dealer Julien Levy was to contain a gallery of Surrealist artwork. When Levy and architect Ian Woodner were unable to obtain financing, they approached Dalí, then the most well-known proponent of the movement. With Dalí's name attached, the project went forward, becoming The Dream of Venus and a furthering of Dalí's Freudian interpretation of the Surrealist code. As conceived by Dalí, the pavilion was a pile of biomorphic deformities: a fish head for a ticket booth, disembodied female legs as a portal. Inside, a topless Venus "slept" on satin sheets while her dream was enacted by models swimming in a water tank.
Much of the modern European art community felt that nefarious bourgeois plotting caused World War I. By nationality and original aesthetic part of that group, Dali's taking part in a bourgeois fair that advanced America as a mechanized superpower and provider of a synthetic good life seems odd until one remembers the ultra-conservatism that caused Dalí's 1939 expulsion from the Surrealist circle. America was over two years away from declaring war on Japan and was maintaining a stance of isolationism even as it intended for the fair to be international. At the time the Pavilion was conceived, Dalí was living in New York, enjoying a capitalist lifestyle, and was no longer philosophically connected to the Surrealist movement. The Pavilion was a monument of separation; it reduced Surrealism to fantasy art alone.
Would Mrs. Simpson have posed in the gown had she been aware of its connotations? The simplicity of the fabric and design belied the sexual complexity of the concept. A duality of whimsy and repulsion, along with the disruption of reality and literal significance would have been completely lost on her as she nonchalantly posed in the garden.
What appeared as a nonsense motif had its roots in a Dada cynicism that questioned the smugness of the social class of which Mrs. Simpson was a member. On the eve of her wedding to the Duke, she posed in a dress that was loaded with social and sexual implication.
Schiaparelli had a long affiliation with the Surrealists. The fashion medium was ideal for incorporating the Surrealist object. The designer made hats that looked like pork chops and gloves onto which red snakeskin nails were affixed. For the mainstream client, the lobster gown was refashioned into a summery apron dress, appearing that way in the July 1937 Vogue. As ready-to-wear, the rephrased dress lost its charge and the further addition of parsley makes the dress as carefree as a clambake.
History has not been kind to the Duchess of Windsor; she is remembered as a conniving American divorcée who interfered with the royal line of succession. Hers may have been a café sophistication and not an intellectual one. How she missed the context of the original design seems the oversight of a past that was far naiver and more superficially trusting than the world that emerged at the end of World War 2.