The return of surreal fashion
You saw some surreal things at the Fall/Winter 2022 fashion shows earlier this year. I’m not just talking about the spectacle of demanding clothes paraded six months before they go on sale – although there’s definitely something surreal about that. But rather surrealism in the sense understood by the writer André Breton. As he wrote in his 1924 “Manifesto of Surrealism”: “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, apparently so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality”. It looks fashionable. In fact, it sounds like Instagram, and a whole lot of other things we call reality right now.
But fashion’s engagement with surrealism is both deeper and shallower. The shallow end of the pool comes when surreal themes influence designer collections: Dolce & Gabbana showed clothes with optical illusion encrusted corsets or printed bras; Bottega Veneta had fuzzy platform shoes that resembled Méret Oppenheim’s “Luncheon in Fur,” a teacup lined with gazelle skin. Belgian designer Dries Van Noten has created a cozy down-filled coat in incongruous patterns to resemble Dresden porcelain.
In Milan, Jeremy Scott’s Moschino AW22 show seemed to mirror the chic furnishings of oligarchs’ mansions, dressing models like upholstered chairs, brass-studded doors, lacquered screens. The Gigi Hadid model appeared as a walking piece of furniture inlaid with gilded bronze, reminiscent both of Salvador Dalí’s 1936 painting “The Anthropomorphic Cabinet” – a female figure with drawers in her chest – and the outrageous decor of the house of the surreal patron Edward James, Monkton House, incongruously furnished with swirling Regency furniture alongside Mae West’s famous lip sofas and his wife’s footprints painted on the staircase carpet.
These lips appeared at Jonathan Anderson’s Loewe show, cast in resin and puckered over the breasts of a pair of jersey tube dresses. This collection was the most surreal of the season, with models walking in heels designed to look like ripe balloons ready to burst. They wore robes that appeared to be made of ragged animal skins, peeled off with latex resembling bare flesh or molded to look like puffy cloth, leather, or clear plastic. Others were wrapped around the body, but seemed to trap a pair of high-heeled shoes against the flesh. They were actually 3D-printed replicas, designed to fit perfectly on the body – but they were still bizarre, unsettling and, yes, surreal. Speaking after the show, Anderson used two words deeply associated with the dreamlike, sometimes violent, and always eerie visions of surrealism: “irrational” and “tense.”
Surrealism is also in fashion beyond the catwalks at the moment. The exhibition Surrealism beyond borders opened in February at the Tate Modern in London; less than a week later, at Sotheby’s in London, René Magritte’s 1961 painting “The Empire of Lights” sold for £59.4 million, nearly tripling the artist’s record. The 59th Venice Biennale, which opens April 23, takes its title — “The Milk of Dreams” — from a children’s book by fellow movement artist Leonora Carrington. It is not a surrealist biennale per se, but its reflections on our current cultural moment refer, it seems, to surrealist ideas – “an imaginary journey through the metamorphoses of bodies and the definitions of the human”, according to the terms of the director of the biennale. artistic director, Cecilia Alemani.
Although its roots are in Dada and the early works that emerged in adolescence and throughout the 1920s, Surrealism only really gained international prominence in the 1930s: times of economic hardship and extreme and tense policies. This moment can be seen as a reflection of ours. Anderson’s mention of the irrational and time seems applicable to the collective mood, given geopolitical anxiety and global apprehension around health, travel, financial markets, conflict. . . you name it.
However, there is also something less contextual about the relationship between surrealism and fashion. At best, it’s deeper than the surface – a real connection to the ideologies and goals defined by Breton and exhibited through the works of artists such as Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró, Francis Picabia, Yves Tanguy and, well course, Salvador Dalí .
There has always been a feverish aspect to this relationship: the surrealists were obsessed with fashion for its ephemerality, its corporeality, its artifice and its relation to Freudian notions of sexual fetishism. Fashion kept coming back to their work all the time. As early as 1919, Max Ernst produced a series of lithographs entitled “Let There Be Fashion, Down with Art”.
Others weren’t just obsessed with it, but dabbled in some of the earliest art-fashion crossovers. Dalí often worked with Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian fashion designer who created clothes that many described as “witty” or, worse, “whimsical.” His clothes are often judged that way because many people see someone wearing a shoe or a pork chop as a hat as a funny thing, ditto jackets tied with miniature acrobats and woven with carousel horse designs. These may be the lightest moments, but Schiap (as he was known) also created dresses that were padded and sewn to look like bones seemingly piercing through their surface. Her 1938 “Tears” dress was based on a painting by Dalí, printed with patterns created by him and inspired by the idea of flayed and torn human flesh. Dalí and Schiaparelli also made a dress printed with a lobster, around the time when Dalí was replacing telephone receivers with shellfish in sculptural works. Schiap talked him out of splashing the dress with real mayonnaise.
Dalí also dabbled in solo fashion, as evidenced by the three covers he painted for American Vogue between 1939 and 1944. Or, indeed, the window displays he designed for the New York department store Bonwit Teller in 1939. He did something similar for Schiaparelli. , too – dyeing a stuffed bear pink and carving drawers into its torso, to sit in the window of his Place Vendôme boutique.
Schiaparelli will be the subject of a major retrospective, Shocking! The surreal worlds of Elsa Schiaparelli, opening at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris in July. The house has been dramatically revitalized lately; like in the 1930s, it’s now a hot fashion ticket. His clothes, created today by American designer Daniel Roseberry, pay homage to the Schiaparelli originals, with bizarre brutalist embroidery, ornate buttons and optical illusion rooms. “All the surreal tropes happen,” laughs Roseberry. “It’s occupying a really unique space where we’re able to have a sense of humor and make people smile but it’s still hyper-sophisticated. He does not approach the camp.
It’s an interesting point: as with surrealist art and Elsa Schiaparelli’s quirky couture designs, most of these garments aren’t meant to make us laugh (Moschino excluded, which is an ironic hoot). The idea is to provoke, to disturb, to profoundly destabilize. They also attract attention – they always have. In the 1930s, Elsa Schiaparelli’s clothes were popular with Hollywood actresses and prominent socialites who made headlines like the Duchess of Windsor.
Likewise, the clothes that convey Schiaparelli’s legacy, whether they bear his name or not, have a look quality, the aesthetic equivalent of clickbait. Dress up as a dresser, step on a ball, put a shoe on your head and you’ll get noticed. It’s simple, really. There is also something childishly joyful about the joy of dressing in clothes like these: I know. I have a Schiaparelli denim jacket that closes in the back with a bunch of ornate buttons, which makes it look like I’m wearing it inside out (or upside down). I get stopped in the street when I wear it.
Perhaps that’s why the surrealist style worked then and works now: it mirrors the madness of reality, sure, but it’s also a welcome distraction. It allows you to dream a little. Breton would approve.
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