‘Sonia Delaunay’s ‘L’Élégance’ (1926) and the Keller-Dorian Colour System’ by Lucy Moyse Ferreira

The 1926 experimental fashion film, ‘L’Élégance’, was the first studio-shot, artificially lit film that used the Keller-Dorian colour process (Ede, 2013: 193). Produced by painter Robert and painter-cum-designer Sonia Delaunay, and camera operator Chevreau, this was not only the first public screening of the colour process, but it also served as a unique platform for Sonia Delaunay’s design aesthetic, which traversed art, fashion, textiles, and interiors, in what was to be her only fashion film.

The first intertitle describes the ‘robes et tissus’, all designed by Delaunay in Paris, as being ‘simultanés’, and indeed the film features a series of eight simultaneous outfits worn by three models upon a backdrop of simultaneous fabric. The garments and fabrics are characterized by a rich array of bold colours and geometrical patterns, cascading as a model drapes scarves, or descends stairs, filling the screen with animated vibrancy.

Delaunay_L'Elegance_1926_2

L’Elegance (Sonia Delaunay, 1926) Keller-Dorian colour film process.

Michel Eugène Chevreul initially coined the concept of simultanism in his 1839 book, De la loi du contraste simultanée des coleurs (on the law of the simultaneous contrast of colors). It detailed the way in which colours are perceived differently by the eye depending on which colours they are placed close to. Therefore, when these colours are perceived together at once – simultaneously – their intensity appears to change.

Both Robert and Sonia Delaunay keenly explored this dynamic in their painting, which triumphed colour over form, and created innovative and strong senses of depth and movement through the use of experimental colour relationships.

In 1913, Sonia Delaunay applied this concept to fashion for the first time in the form of a simultaneous dress. This extended its potential: in painting, motion was created through building colour relationships. Yet within a garment, this sense of movement could be considerably enhanced due to its placement on the body: when worn, the dress itself would physically move with the wearer. Even the most quotidian activity would cause the fabric to flow in new ways, thereby offering a greater number of possible colour combinations as different parts of the dress meet, if only momentarily, rather than being limited to the relationships present when the garment is static. Simultanism was demonstrated throughout the film, with its succession of colourful outfits modelled before a changing array of equally vivid textile backdrops. This was especially apparent in one scene, when a model wearing a dress comprised of black and orange geometric shapes, appears before a colour wheel in graduating shades of grey-blue, larger than her: as she turns it, we are able to see how the orange and black change depending on which shade of the colour wheel they appear against.

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L’Elegance (Sonia Delaunay, 1926) made using the Keller-Dorian colour process.

This sense of colour and movement was crucial for Delaunay’s art, design, and fashion sensibilities alike, which she viewed as being highly interconnected. The film was screened on 27 January 1927 at the Sorbonne, Paris, to accompany a lecture that Delaunay gave on ‘The Influence of Painting on Fashion Design’. Delaunay did not refer to the film directly within the lecture itself, though she did detail her thoughts on the themes of colour and movement, which were central to both simultanism, and her interdisciplinary oeuvre to date.

For example, she noted that a recent ‘change in the life of woman’ resulted in women being ‘more and more active’ (1926: 206). This was reflected (and assisted) by a ‘revolution’ in fashion, which had begun shortly before the first world war, when constricting garments such as the corset and high collar began to be ‘shaken off’, as Delaunay put it (206). She highlighted that this change in dress enabled ‘free movement’ for women, of which she was a vocal advocate (206). This easier movement in less restrictive silhouettes could facilitate women’s increasingly independent lifestyles and growing opportunities in a modern manner. Contemporaneous media and modernist art similarly related the notion of movement with modernity. This was taken to the next level in one scene of the film, when a model descends a staircase: not only does her outfit enable easy movement, but she is able to almost instantaneously transform it whilst in motion, shedding an outer top and skirt in orange to reveal a light blue ensemble underneath, suggesting the way in which Delaunay’s designs could support a fast-paced, modern life.

In her lecture, Delaunay also expressed the importance of colour, and its own links with modernity, stating that ‘colour research… is the basis of the modern vision’ (1926: 207). Like movement, colour also had strong contemporary associations with modernity amongst wider culture. With rapid technological developments, colour was increasingly present in daily lives, which re-generated attitudes towards it.

It was therefore not surprising that the relatively new and little explored Keller-Dorian colour system was selected for the film. In fact, one of the few details given when the lecture and film screening event was advertised was that it included ‘cinematic projections in colour’, specifically mentioning that it used the Keller-Dorian system (1927: 78). This additive colour system was first developed by Rodolphe Berthon in 1908, yet due to delays caused by the First World War, the first functional prototype was only completed in 1922 (Ede, 2013). It used a lenticular process which separated blue, green, and red, and recorded them onto one frame of black and white film. Practical constraints in projection and printing meant that it was quickly overtaken by other colour systems, but nevertheless, its innovations would inform later processes such as Kodak’s Kodacolor.

What distinguished the Keller-Dorian system was its ability to capture truer colours as they unfolded in real time. This eliminated the manual element of the previous colour methods of tinting and stencilling, instead allowing a more automatic process (along with monitoring and adjustment). Despite its limitations, then, it was in 1926 an avant-garde process, offering technological advancement compared to earlier processes. Significantly, it aimed at capturing colours in a truer-to-life manner, and also made it possible to achieve increased vibrancy. It was therefore the ideal choice through which to shoot Delaunay’s designs, which themselves centred on colour and movement.

The moving image was therefore next logical medium in which Delaunay could explore colour and movement, aspects which had driven the entirety of her oeuvre beforehand. Here, she could showcase the transformative effect of combining colour and movement in a new dimension. No longer restricted to a fleeting fall of fabric (as part of a couture presentation, or on a city street, for example, which would change again as quickly as it appeared), Delaunay could instead record a dazzling array of changing colour relations for prosperity – and in the truest intensity possible, thanks to the Keller-Dorian system.

References

Chevreul ME (1839) De la loi du contraste simultanée des coleurs. Paris: Pitois-Levrault.

Delaunay S (1978 [1926]), ‘The Influence of Painting on Fashion Design’ in Cohen AA (ed.) The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay. New York: Viking.

‘Conferences et Cours Divers’, La Semaine à Paris, 21 January 1927: 78.

Ede, F (2013), ‘Un episode de l’histoire de la coleur au cinema: le procéde Keller-Dorian et les films lenticulaires’. 1895: Revue de l’association française de recherché sur l’histoire du cinema 71: 187-202.

Dr Lucy Moyse Ferreira teaches fashion cultures and histories at London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London; and the University of Hertfordshire. Her research currently focuses on fashion film, and violence in fashion. She has published broadly in fashion history and theory, and is a regular event speaker and contributor to media projects, including a documentary film based upon her doctoral research. Contact: l.moyseferreira@arts.ac.uk

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