The Time Salvador Dalí Almost Suffocated in a Diving Suit - And Other Strange Personal Style Stories
Updated: Jun 8
A diving suit. A ghost’s green dress. And a deadly red scarf.
The things we do for fashion. You know what I mean. Those times when you stumble home from a night out - with glistening blisters forming on one foot - after deciding to opt for the slinky heels over the chunky wedges just before leaving the house. How dreamy the thought of bed becomes then... Or what about when, on the breeziest of winter days, you really want to zip up your coat but won’t because of the way it'll make your outfit look. Waking up with pneumonia the next day will be worth it, right?
As I'm a sucker for a strange story, here are a few examples from fashion history that encapsulate just how dedicated we can be to maintain a good ‘look.’ A painter who almost suffocated in a diving suit to make a Surrealist statement. A ghost of a silent film star who glamorously haunts an old theatre. And a talented dancer whose unfortunate demise came down to a beautiful red scarf.
When Salvador Dalí Almost Suffocated in a Diving Suit.
Salvador Dalí was no stranger to a statement piece. The Spanish Surrealist curated an appearance which was just as peculiar as his dreamscape paintings of melting clocks and giraffe-legged horses.
He had his long waxed moustache which twirled upwards. He once wore André Courrèges ‘snow goggle’ sunglasses which he happily posed in for a few photographs. He even collaborated with avant-garde designer Elsa Schiaparelli, painting lobsters onto evening gowns and turning shoes into hats.
It comes as no surprise that for the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition held at the New Burlington Galleries in London, Dalí attended in an unconventional ensemble. He would give a lecture in a deep sea diving suit.
Now, the opening of this exhibition was a big deal. It was the first of its kind in the UK and a chance to introduce Londoners to the bizarre world of Surrealist art. Visitors could expect to see exhibition pieces from some of the biggest artists of their age like Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miro, and the “pope of Surrealism himself” - Andre Breton. However, the main attraction had to be Dalí in his diving suit.
To prepare for the special occasion, the artist visited a diving shop in the South East of England. The shopkeeper was curious about the purchase. He asked him just how deep he intended to swim in his suit. Dalí's answer? Very deep. Deep enough to swim into the depths of the subconscious mind. And the upcoming lecture was the perfect chance to encourage others to join him down the rabbit hole.
Lecture day. Dalí in his diving suit. The leashes of two dogs in one hand and presentation cue cards in the other. With his helmet pulled on tight, he stood in the middle of a large gallery room surrounded by a delighted audience. They were more than ready to listen to one of the greats. On the other hand, they probably were not prepared to witness the speaker almost pass out halfway through.
Although the lecture had gotten off to a good start, Dalí soon began to stumble about and started waving his hands around like a drunkard. At first, the audience assumed it was part of the talk. But who could blame them? I mean, ‘that’s just how Dali is right?’ All eccentric and amusing.
That was not the case, however, as Dalí was actually finding it increasingly difficult to breathe underneath the helmet. After a few quick-thinking members of the audience noticed that something was wrong, they rushed into action. The diving helmet was prised off Dalí’s head with the very cue cards he had been holding.
For some dedicated artists, not even a near-death experience can prevent them from fulfilling their vision. Despite almost suffocating to death, Dalí's lecture went on. He would continue to inform the audience about Surrealism with a little slide-show. All the more exciting given that the slides were presented upside down. I can only hope it didn’t stress out the two dogs on their leashes.
When You’re Haunted by a Glamorous Ghost in a Green Dress.
Imagine for one moment if, god forbid, Dali did pass away from diving suit suffocation and became a ghost. Would he haunt the New Burlington gallery halls wearing the helmet he died in or, instead, make his iconic twirly moustache and suit set a part of his scare uniform?
There has been much debate over why ghosts are sighted wearing certain articles of clothing, and even over why ghosts need to wear clothes at all. It’s an interesting discussion to have. I mean, if you’re a supernatural being that exists beyond the human realm, surely you’ve surpassed the materialism of a fashion statement. Some ghosts beg to differ, remaining stylish even beyond the grave.
On NYC’s 42nd Street, the New Amsterdam Theatre has a history of hauntings. In one spooky incident from 1997, a guard quit after a frightening encounter with the ghost of a young woman. Whilst inspecting the premises on a late shift, he noticed someone standing on the centre stage. Supposedly, she blew him a flirty kiss and proceeded to walk through the back wall.
The outfit she haunted in? A gorgeous green flapper gown paired with a beaded headdress. A refreshing change from stories of spooky Victorian women wailing in white or brooding in black.
Olive Thomas is the rumoured ghost of New Amsterdam Theatre. In life, she was a glamorous Ziegfeld Follies showgirl who performed on that very stage in the 1910s. Her career was a luxurious one. She captured the hearts of rich and powerful men - meeting politicians, businessmen, and the like - was showered with expensive gifts, and had the fortune of wearing the most opulent pieces of clothing.
Old photographs showcase her in wide brim Macramé hats, feathered headpieces, the dreamiest gauze shawls, and floaty, silk Edwardian gowns; each piece complimenting her striking looks. With her wide violet-blue eyes and feathery locks, she had entered a modelling contest prior to her fame and ended up winning. She was titled ‘the most
beautiful woman in NYC.’
On December 10th, 1920, tragedy struck. Whilst on a second honeymoon with her husband Jack Pickford, a tired Thomas took a strong dose of his mercury bichloride - a drug used to treat syphilis. The dose was fatal and she was only 25 years old at the time. It is still debated whether her death was accidental or not. There’s a chance she took the wrong medicine, but also a chance that she overdosed on purpose. Who knows?
Many employees at the theatre still believe in spirit of Olive Thomas. If you ever visit yourself, you might notice pictures of the star placed at the front and back entrances of the stage. They’re there for the sake of tradition. After evening shows, cast members walk by the pictures to wish her goodnight. It’s a ritual to protect yourself from experiencing any unexpected hauntings in the future!
I do wonder why the ghost of Olive Thomas is attached to the theatre. Perhaps her spirit adored the limelight so much that she just couldn’t leave the stage, even once her time on earth was up. Anyhow, her afterlife ensemble was a great choice. A beautiful green dress for eternity. Though not particularly something I’d like to see floating about in an empty auditorium anytime soon.
When a Dancer Wore a Truly Tragic Scarf.
So we’ve explored Dali’s close shave with death in a diving suit, and learned about New Amsterdam Theatre’s glamorous ghost in green, but what about someone whose death was tied to an innocent, everyday accessory?
‘Free-spirited’ is the best way to describe dancer Isadora Duncan. Her entire life was characterised by a determination to stay true to her ideals. She was not only the ‘mother of modern dance,’ but a supporter of free love, women’s rights, and progressive politics.
At the age of 21, Duncan left America to perform and teach dance in Europe. Growing up she had always adored dance, but was repulsed by formal training. Whenever she was in classes she felt restrained and unable to express her identity freely. It was miserable. Moving to Europe was the perfect chance to escape these constraints and find an audience that could appreciate her free-flowing style of dance. It’s safe to say that she succeeded, finding fame in the European countries and opening dance schools in Russia, France, and Germany.
It’s also safe to say that Duncan was a style icon. She shunned the stiff petticoats and tight corsets of traditional ballet and, instead, opted for lighter fabrics. This was to ensure a greater ease of movement on the dance floor. Additionally, she wore stage outfits which revealed her legs and arms, causing her to collect quite a few critics in her time. Despite having her style labelled as ‘immoral’ or improper, she did not change her ways.
Ancient Greece was Duncan’s greatest source of style inspiration. In fact, she frequently visited the British Museum to gaze at Greek sculptures and vases. She would admire the painted images of Grecian women. They’d be pictured dancing and extending their arms in a fluid motion.
This influence bled into her own performances as she preferred to wear light colours and earthy garments, like Grecian style tunics or flowing, wispy gowns. Just like the natural spirits found in Greek Myth, she believed that dance should be as organic and expressive as the movement found in the wind and the trees:
“Nature is the source of the dance. The movement of the waves, of winds, of the earth is ever in the same lasting harmony. “ - Isadora Duncan, Berlin, 1903.
Duncan also loved scarves. A relaxed and dreamy and elegant garment, much like herself. But who could have thought that a scarf would lead to her downfall?
On September 14th 1927, in Nice, France, the dancer was sitting in the passenger's seat of a convertible. She was wearing a beautiful, red scarf wrapped around her neck. As she was enjoying her ride she rested her head back. Now, it’s only natural to want to rest your head back whilst you’re enjoying the fresh air. Yet this would be the last of life’s pleasures she'd ever enjoy.
In a shocking turn of events, her scarf blew into the car wheel and tightened around her neck. The tension suffocated her and she was dragged out of the car onto the rough, cobblestone pavement. Horrific. But somehow, it’s comforting to know that she spent her last moments in a state of bliss. She was a bohemian beauty in a scarf who was enjoying a fresh September day in Nice; a free spirit floating through the open air.