Sonia Delaunay – stylish simultanism

In 2015, Tate Modern held an exhibition of the work of Sonia Delaunay. Until then, I was unaware of her work in textiles and fashion. I had previously seen her work in the Tate and in various museums in France, notably the Musée National d’Art Moderne in the Pompidou Centre, alongside that of her husband, Robert Delaunay.

Sonia Delaunay was born into a Jewish Ukrainian family in 1885. At the age of seven she went to live with her wealthy uncle Henri Terk and his wife in St. Petersburg, Russia, where she enjoyed a privileged and cultured upbringing. She moved to Paris at the age of twenty and married Robert Delaunay five years later, in 1910.

Together, she and her husband practised Simultanism. This was a particular branch of an artistic movement called Orphism. The French poet and art critic Appollinaire first used the term Orphism in 1912 to identify a new style of Cubist painting. The Cubists removed almost all colour from their paintings. However, artists including the Delaunays, while they retained the Cubist interest in geometric fragmentation,  prioritised colour in their work, considering it to be a powerful aesthetic element. In this they echoed the approach of the Fauvists. Appollinaire felt that this use of colour brought movement and musical qualities to the artwork, and therefore named the style of painting after Orpheus, a poet and singer in Greek mythology.

Simultanism was the particular strand of Orphism practised by the Delaunays. The name comes from the work of French scientist Michel Eugène Chevreul who identified the phenomenon of ‘simultaneous contrast’ in his 1839 book De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs. He established that colours look different depending on the colours around them. For example, a grey will look lighter on a dark background than it does on a light one. The Delaunays increasingly disregarded form, aiming to created rhythm, motion and depth through overlapping patches of vibrant colours.

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Works by Robert Delaunay 

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Works by Sonia Delaunay

Sonia’s move into textiles and fashion design happened almost by chance. At home with her newborn son Charles in 1911, she made him a bedcover from various pieces of fabric:

baby quilt

While she had drawn her inspiration from folk art embroidery, and from the quilts she had seen peasants make in Russia, she felt that the finished bedcover had a Cubist look to it. She was inspired to consider how she could incorporate this approach of contrasting blocks of colour into objects other than her paintings.  Like her paintings and those of her husband, she felt the quilt was a simultané or simultaneous work of art. For Sonia, simultané meant colours that had a single meaning or many meanings simultaneously, and she sought to capture the spirit of simultanism in her subsequent work with fabric and clothing.

Sonia Delaunay’s first works outside of painting were covers for the poems of her friends such as Guillaume Apollinaire, lampshades, waistcoats for her husband and hats:

LA PROSE DU transsiberien

Sonia Delaunay. The last section of 2m-long accordion-pleated book, created to illustrate Blaise Cendrars poem, La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, 1913

Driving Hats, and a waistcoat for her husband. 

At the outbreak of the First World War the Delaunays were in the Basque country on holiday. Robert was unable to fight due to heart problems, and the couple decided to stay away from Paris. They lived first in Madrid, then in Portugal and finally in Barcelona, where they befriended the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev.  The period of the First World War marked a turning point for the Delaunays, both financially and artistically. In the course of the Russian Revolution, the properties originally owned by Sonia’s aunt and uncle in St. Petersburg were seized by the Bolsheviks. Deprived of the living that these properties had afforded them, financial necessity encouraged Sonia to think about how she could commercialise her designs. Both of the Delaunays began increasingly to work in media other than paint. Robert designed scenery and Sonia costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes’ production of Cléopâtre:

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Sonia then opened an interior design and fashion store in Madrid, in which she sold her own designs. She continued to develop both her commercial and artistic activities when the family returned to Paris in 1921.  The Delaunay’s apartment became a hub of artistic activity, where the members of the Parisian and foreign avant-garde would congregate. Sonia collaborated with this circle of artists, poets and writers, which included Triztan Tzara, Hans and Jean Arp, Philippe Soupault and Guillaume Apollinaire. She developed a new genre,  robes-poèmes (poem-dresses). She  juxtaposed geometric blocks of colour and lines of poetry by Tristan Tzara, Philippe Soupault, and Jacques Delteil onto draped garments.

Tristan Tzara’s The Gas Heart, with costumes by Sonia Delaunay, performed at Theatre Michel in Paris, 1923

Cette eternelle femme robe poème 1922 Sonia Delaunay

Robe poème, Sonia Delaunay 1923

As her designs became increasingly famous, Sonia realised that there was a strong market in Paris for her work. Therefore, in 1924 she opened her own studio, the Atelier Simultané. She took on other staff and created her first embroidered fabrics, inspired by the folk embroidery traditions of her native Russia. The studio was dedicated to creating textiles and clothing, while her fashion house, named simply ‘Sonia’, produced exclusive pieces for customers including Gloria Swanson and Nancy Cunard. They featured the contrasting geometrical forms and colours of Simultanism and were incredibly successful.

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Simultaneous Dresses

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Coats and Shawls


delaunay in her own design

Delaunay in one of her own designs

1923 was a significant year for Sonia Delaunay. A silk textiles manufacturer in Lyon ordered 50 fabric designs from her. She said that the designs she supplied illustrated ‘the relationship of colour using pure geometrical forms with rhythm.’ She saw her work in textiles and fashion design as a continuation of the application of the principles of Simultanism that she had begun in her painting. Throughout her career, Sonia was very clear that she saw no distinction between her decorative work and her work as a painter. She valued both equally, she sought to ensure that both were of a similar quality, and they were often exhibited side by side, as they were in the recent Tate retrospective of her work. In fact, in addition to the sizeable commission from Lyon, 1923 saw the first exhibition-style presentation of her textiles and clothing at the Grand Bal Travesti-Transmental.

While she promoted the artistic value of her work in textiles, Sonia was also aware of its commercial value. Following the commission from Lyon, Sonia began to produce textiles for the Dutch department store Metz and Company, and over the next thirty years the store purchased nearly two hundred of Delaunay’s designs for fashion and home decoration. She also supplied factories in the USA. In 1924, to facilitate the distribution of her fabrics, she decided to have them published. They all included the signature ‘Sonia Delaunay – Atelier simultané.’

This decision was significant in terms of the increasing influence of Sonia Delaunay’s designs in a fashion world in which issues of commerce and mass production were assuming greater importance. She never lost sight of the roots of her fashion designs in her painting and in the aesthetics and theories of Simultanism, and in fact it was those very principles that had the biggest impact on the fashion industry at the time. In 1927 Sonia gave a lecture on  ‘The Influence of Painting on the Art of Clothes’ at the Sorbonne. She reflected on the revolution in women’s fashion since just before the First World War, which had seen the demise of the corset, the high collar and other elements that negatively impacted on women’s hygiene and freedom of movement. She related this transformation of women’s dress to the change in their lives. As they became increasingly active, women needed clothes that suited their lifestyles, and Sonia Delaunay’s designs advocated this move towards increasing female emancipation.

Fashion was a key aspect of this emancipation and Sonia Delaunay’s approach to fashion design played a huge role in making modern, practical and fashionable clothes available to a wider market. In her lecture at the Sorbonne, Sonia talked about fabric patterns. Unlike previous designers, she wanted to devise the decoration for a dress at the same time as its form. Her husband patented the fabric pattern which she first used in a collaboration with the fashion house The House of Redfern. These patterns were used to establish precisely how the fabric would be cut, in order to ensure that the decoration was suitable for the design of the dress. These early fabric patterns are hugely significant, not only because they represented the first ever collaboration between the dress designer and the fabric designer – who in Sonia Delaunay were one and the same – but also since they marked the beginning of ready – to – wear fashion. With a fabric pattern, clothes could be mass produced, since an item could be reproduced on the other side of the world, at a lower cost and with very little wasted fabric.

In addition to the bringing together of fabric design and garment construction, Sonia Delaunay’s work led to a sharper focus on the decorative possibilities of the fabrics themselves. In the same way that the principles of simultanism employed in her painting explored the relationships between contrasting colours and shapes, the simultaneous fabrics designed by Sonia focused on geometric forms and the distribution of colour, while always ensuring that both suited the style and intended use of the garments for which she was designing the fabrics. In Sonia’s hands, fabric design became a purer art form. Previously, many fabrics were decorated with interpretations and distortions of natural forms. Sonia created original fabric patterns that worked together with the design of the garment. The fabrics incorporated a limited number of colours, and Sonia played with the striking contrasts between them.  Depending on the item for which she was creating the fabric, she would modify her designs by varying the colours and the interplay between them. The geometrical shapes she used – predominantly triangles, squares and discs – were arranged according to strict rules, precisely as they were in her paintings.

The shape and the design of each garment worked together with the fabric pattern, the three dimensionality of clothing adding further possibilities to the rhythms of and interplay between the colours and geometric shapes of the pattern. Beyond the shape of the garment, Sonia also focused on the use to which an individual item of clothing would be put when she created a fabric pattern. Her collection included items as varied as swimming costumes, sports dresses, winter coats and evening dresses. In all of them, there was a clear unification of purpose, colour and form, and in the catalogue for a 1925 exhibition of her designs, critics praised their ‘balance of volumes and colour.’

It was through an embroidered quilt for her son that Sonia Delaunay had originally discovered her interest in fashion and fabric design, and she continued to use embroidery throughout her career. This was a way for her to retain a cultural connection to the folk art and crafts of her native Ukraine and Russia. It also reflected her interest in the arts and crafts movement, which emphasised the value of cultural tradition and the application of art to everyday objects.

Despite the success of her designs and her fashion house, Sonia decided to close her studio in the 1930s. With the arrival of the American Depression, the market for her designs was reduced. At the same time, there was increased interest in her husband’s work. This motivated Sonia to dedicate herself to painting and this remained the focus of her artistic activity for the rest of her long career. 

Despite the premature end to her work in fashion and fabric design, Sonia Delaunay has had a significant impact in that field. Her designs are still copied and reproduced and also serve as inspiration to a wide range of designers.  The avant-garde aesthetic with which they are imbued means that they still look modern and relevant today. Beyond her lasting legacy in both the fashion and art worlds, Sonia’s unification of decoration and garment design laid the foundations for the way in which ready to wear fashion is produced today. While she is at times unjustly overshadowed by her husband in the pantheon of artists of the 21st century, in her own time she was celebrated by members of the Parisian cultural and artistic elite. She was remarkable for the fact that her move into fashion and textiles enabled her to support her family when the Russian Revolution led to a change in the Delaunays’ circumstances. Even with the increasing commercialisation of her ideas and designs, she remained true to her artistic principles. She played a key role in making fashionable and practical clothes more widely available and thus contributed to the drive for female emancipation in the interwar years. There is a huge amount to be admired in Sonia Delaunay’s work on so many levels. The illustrations for her fashion designs and fabrics and the garments themselves are true works of art. 

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