Color Moves: Art & Fashion by Sonia Delaunay

A little over two weeks remain to see the exhibition Color Moves: Art & Fashion by Sonia Delaunay, currently up at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York.   I was happy to finally have the time to see the show after much anticipation, and I was not disappointed!  Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted immediately by one of Delaunay’s quintessential coats, lavishly adorned with wool embroidery.  Although this is not by any means the only piece of clothing featured in the exhibition (there is a variety of skirts, shawls, dresses, scarves, swimsuits, and even ties), this coat (designed for Gloria Swanson, ca. 1923-24) is the only item featured on a complete mannequin form.  Other apparel items are displayed in a variety of ways including partial form figures, padding, or laying flat in glass cases, and anyone who is remotely familiar with Delaunay’s fashion designs would immediately know why one of her coats would merit such distinction.  For those less familiar with her clothing, and perhaps more aware of her career as a painter or stage-set designer—it only takes a few images of mannequins dressed in her coats, to convey how perfectly they highlighted the bold appeal of her lively and legendary textile designs.


Throughout the exhibition, black and white photographs are juxtaposed with material culture, textile documents, swatches, and yardage–all printed or painted in the bright colors that pervaded the design and art that Delaunay created throughout her career.  In the past, when viewing black and white photographs of Delaunay’s fashion, I always felt a little slighted.  Although the photos could convey a great deal of information, the color element felt so crucial to her work that it was hard to move beyond its absence.  However, in this setting, when viewed alongside other related items, whether clothing, swatches, or art of some sort—the vitality of her color choices or simultaneity principles were communicated, and I found that the simplicity of pared down black and white photography served as an interesting means of focusing on the shape and lines of the patterns and silhouettes that her fashion garments were comprised of.  It was easy to focus on the clothes themselves, as well as the styled composition of the images, in a way that was refreshing, and which allowed the eye to take in everything without tiring.

One of the more interesting items that Delaunay designed during her career was a Citroën B12 car.  This photograph from 1925 speaks to the growing popularity of the automobile as a fashionable luxury item, as well as the newly found freedom and mobility of women during the 1920’s.


I found that viewing clothing or textiles alongside the preliminary design documents was particularly enjoyable.  Many of these hand-painted textile designs–from an era long before CAD technology–are truly works of art in themselves, and it is not often that these fascinating documents are displayed in such a manner.  The combination of these gouache paintings, sketches, and tracings, alongside swatches, yardage, photographs, and clothing items, created a milieu for the exhibition that in many ways channeled a designer showroom or artist studio, transcending the bare austerity that a gallery or museum show can often take on.

Two models in Sonia Delaunay’s boulevard Malesherbes studio, 1925.

Photograph by Germaine Krull.

The harmony between the technical proficiency of the design documents that Delaunay created and the fashion illustrations that she painted so freely, carries throughout the show, and any combination of objects seemed to work favorably for the artist.  In one room, displayed along with a silk satin dress from 1925-28 and illustrated books and pamphlets, are several paintings of robe poèmes: wearable, experimental, art-clothing-poem hybrids that she created in collaboration with her Dadaist friends such as Tristan Tzara and Philippe Soupault.

“For me, there was no gap between my painting and what is called my ‘decorative work’…I never considered the ‘minor arts’ to be artistically frustrating; on the contrary, it was an extension of my art, it showed me new ways, while using the same method.”Sonia Delaunay

Overall, the creativity and reach of Delaunay’s ventures into several genres of design and fine art resonate strongly, and fill the space with the energy and momentum that the designer herself must have required to lead such a prolific career.  The variety of  expressive outlets that Delaunay ventured into, including graphic design, stage & costume design, textiles, automobiles, rugs, dishware, books, and visual poetry are explored in a way that demonstrates the reach of her ambition while simultaneously conveying that all of this documentation is merely a scratch upon the surface of a great artist’s life.

Many of the textiles and documents were cataloged, dated, and lent by Matteo De Leeuw-De Monti, from the Amsterdam department store Metz and Co’s archive for which Delaunay created over 200 designs, and which serves as one of the themes within the exhibition.  As a supplement to her work, and a veritable testament to zeitgeist and the overall influence of artistic movements such as de stijl, there are also several sketches for furniture, textiles, and other home furnishings that were created by contemporaries of Delaunay.  This includes the work of Vilmos Huszar, Gerrit Rietveld, Bart Van Der Leck, and Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart among others, and the opportunity to see designs and some finished pieces by these artists– especially within the context of viewing Delaunay’s work, was also really interesting and is just one more reason to try and see the show if you have the opportunity.

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  • Jenna June 03, 2011 07.02 am

    Thanks Melissa for this keen insight into an exhibition I very much wanted to attend but won’t be able to! Love the photos and thanks for letting us all see Delaunay’s work in resplendent color.

  • Keren B. June 06, 2011 10.54 am

    It is a great exhibition. I myself have a long “relationship” with Delaunays’s work, I saw the exhibition with my mother who never heard of her before. The fact that we were both able to enjoy the show and learn from it says a lot about its quality and the good curatorial work.


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