You saw surreal things during the Fall Winter 2022 shows earlier this year. I don’t just mean the spectacle of demanding garments shown six months before going on sale, although there is certainly something surreal about that. But rather surrealism in the sense that the writer André Breton meant it. As he wrote in his 1924 “Manifeste du surréalisme”: “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are apparently so contradictory, in a sort of absolute reality, a surreality”. It looks like fashion. In fact, it sounds like Instagram and more of what we call reality right now.
But fashion’s involvement with Surrealism is both deeper and less profound. The lower end of the pool comes when surreal themes are influencing the designers’ collections: Dolce & Gabbana showed dresses with Optical illusion inlaid corsets or printed bras; Bottega Veneta had fuzzy wedge shoes that looked like Méret Oppenheim’s “Luncheon in Fur”, a teacup lined with gazelle skin. Belgian designer Dries Van Noten created a comfy padded coat with incongruous patterns to resemble Dresden porcelain.
In Milan, Jeremy Scott’s Moschino AI22 show seemed to reflect the swanky décor of the oligarchs’ homes, dressing the models as upholstered chairs, brass-studded doors, lacquered screens. Model Gigi Hadid emerged as a walking furniture encrusted with ormolu, simultaneously reminiscent of Salvador Dalí’s 1936 painting “The Anthropomorphic Cabinet” – a female figure with drawers in its chest – and the extravagant décor of the home of Surrealist patron Edward James , Monkton House, incongruously furnished with swirling Regency furniture alongside the famous Mae West Lips sofas and his wife’s footprints painted on the stair carpet.
Those lips appeared at Jonathan Anderson’s Loewe show, cast in resin and puckered across the breasts of a pair of jersey sheath dresses. This collection was the most surreal of the season, with models marching in heels made to look like mature balloons suitable for pop. They wore clothing that appeared to be made from frayed animal skins, peeled from latex that came close to bare flesh or shaped to resemble floating fabrics, leather or clear plastic. Others were wrapped around the body, but seemed to trap a pair of high-heeled shoes against the flesh. These were actually 3D printed replicas, designed to fit snugly against the body, but they were still bizarre, creepy and, yes, surreal. Speaking after the show, Anderson used two words deeply associated with the dreamy, sometimes violent and always strange visions of Surrealism: “irrational” and “tense”.
Surrealism is also in fashion beyond the catwalks right now. The exhibition Surrealism beyond borders opened in February at London’s Tate Modern; Less than a week later, at Sotheby’s in London, René Magritte’s 1961 painting “L’empire des lumières” sold for £ 59.4 million, nearly tripling the artist’s record. The 59th Venice Biennale, which opens on April 23, takes its title – “The Milk of Dreams” – from a children’s book by another artist of the movement, Leonora Carrington. It is not a surreal biennial per se, but its reflections on our current cultural moment apparently lead back to surrealist ideas – “an imaginary journey through the metamorphoses of bodies and definitions of the human”, in the words of the biennial director artistic, Cecilia Alemani.
Although its roots are in Dada and early works that emerged in the teens and throughout the 1920s, surrealism really rose to international prominence only in the 1930s: times of economic hardship and tense, extreme politics. That moment can be seen to mirror ours. Anderson’s mention of the irrational and the tense seems applicable to the collective mood, given the geopolitical anxiety and global apprehension of health, travel, financial markets, conflict. . . you call it.
But there is also something less contextual in the relationship between surrealism and fashion. At its best, it is deeper than the surface: a true connection to the ideologies and goals set by Breton and exhibited through the works of artists such as Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró, Francis Picabia, Yves Tanguy and, of course, Salvador Dalí.
There was always a feverish aspect to this relationship: the Surrealists were obsessed with fashion for its ephemeral, its corporeality, its artifice, and its connection with Freudian notions of a sexual fetish. Fashion always appeared in their work. As early as 1919 Max Ernst created a series of lithographs entitled “Let There Be Fashion, Down with Art”.
Others were not only obsessed with it, but delighted in some of the earliest intersections of art and fashion. Dalí has often worked with Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian designer who has created clothes that many have defined as “witty” or, worse, “extravagant”. His clothes are often considered that way because many people see someone wearing a shoe or pork chop as a hat as a fun thing, ditto jackets laced with miniature acrobats and intertwined with carousel horse motifs. Those may be the lightest moments, but Schiap (as she was known) also created padded and sewn dresses to resemble bones seemingly poking out of their surface. Her “Tears” dress from 1938 was based on a painting by Dalí, printed with designs created by him and inspired by the idea of skinned and torn human flesh. Dalí and Schiaparelli also made a dress printed with a lobster, around the time Dalí was replacing telephone receivers with crustaceans in his sculptural works. Schiap dissuaded him from splashing the dress with real mayonnaise.
Dalí also dabbled in fashion on his own, as evidenced by the three covers he painted for Vogue America between 1939 and 1944. Or, indeed, the shop windows he designed for the now defunct New York department store Bonwit Teller. in 1939. He did something similar for Schiaparelli, too – dyeing a taxidermized bear pink and carving the drawers on his torso, to sit in the window of his boutique on Place Vendôme.
Schiaparelli will be the subject of a major retrospective, Shocking! The surreal worlds of Elsa Schiaparelli, opening at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris this July. The house has been spectacularly revived in recent times; as in the 1930s, it is now a trendy fashion ticket. His clothes, created today by the American designer Daniel Roseberry, pay homage to the original Schiaparelli, with strange brutalist embroideries, decorated buttons and Optical illusion plays. “All the surrealist tropes are coming,” laughs Roseberry. “It occupies a very unique space where we are able to have a sense of humor and make people smile, but it is still hyper-sophisticated. It does not come close to the field “.
This is an interesting point: as with the art of the surrealists and the original couture designs by Elsa Schiaparelli, most of these dresses are not meant to make us laugh (excluding Moschino, which is ironic fun). The idea is to provoke, to upset, to deeply upset. They also attract attention – they always have. In the 1930s, Elsa Schiaparelli’s dresses were favored by Hollywood actresses and high-profile socialites who made headlines like the Duchess of Windsor.
Likewise, dresses that channel Schiaparelli’s legacy, whether they bear his name or not, have a look-at-me quality, the aesthetic equivalent of clickbait. Dress like a dresser, walk on a balloon, put a shoe on your head and you’ll get noticed. It’s simple, really. There is also something gleefully childish about the joy of dressing in clothes like these: I know. I have a Schiaparelli denim jacket that fastens at the back with a bunch of decorated buttons, making it look like I’m wearing it inside out (or that my head is upside down). I stop on the street when I wear it.
Maybe that’s why the surreal style worked then and works now: it reflects the madness of reality, sure, but it’s also a welcome distraction. It makes you dream a little. Breton would approve.
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