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The return of surreal fashion

You saw some surreal things during the autumn/winter 2022 fashion shows earlier this year. I don’t just mean the spectacle of challenging garments paraded six months before they go on sale — though there’s definitely something surreal about that. But rather surrealism in the sense the writer André Breton intended 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 seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” Sounds like fashion. In fact, it sounds like Instagram, and much else of what we call reality right now.

But fashion’s engagement with Surrealism is simultaneously deeper and shallower. The shallower end of the pool comes when surreal themes are influencing designers’ collections: Dolce & Gabbana showed clothes with trompe l’oeil inlaid corsets or printed brassieres; Bottega Veneta had fuzzy platform shoes that looked like Méret Oppenheim’s “Luncheon in Fur”, a teacup lined in gazelle pelt. Belgian designer Dries Van Noten created a snuggly down-padded coat incongruously patterned to look like Dresden china.

In Milan, Jeremy Scott’s Moschino AW22 show seemed to reflect the swanky furnishing of oligarchs’ mansions, dressing models as upholstered chairs, brass-studded doors, lacquered screens. Model Gigi Hadid emerged as a perambulating, ormolu-encrusted piece of furniture, simultaneously recalling Salvador Dalí’s 1936 painting “The Anthropomorphic Cabinet” — a female figure with drawers in its chest — and the outré decor of Surrealist patron Edward James’s home, Monkton House, incongruously furnished with whirly Regency furniture alongside the famous Mae West lips sofas and his wife’s footprints painted on to the stair carpet.

Those 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 marching on heels crafted to resemble ripe balloons fit to pop. They wore dresses that seemed composed of ragged animal skins, peeled away from latex approximating bared flesh or moulded to resemble billowing cloth, in leather or transparent plastic. Others were swathed around the body, but seemed to trap a pair of high-heeled shoes against the flesh. These were in fact 3D printed replicas, engineered to sit snugly against the body — but they were still bizarre, unsettling and, yes, surreal. Speaking after the show, Anderson used two words profoundly associated with the dreamlike, sometimes violent and always strange visions of Surrealism: “irrational” and “tense”.

Surrealism is also fashionable beyond the catwalk right now. The exhibition Surrealism Beyond Borders opened in February at Tate Modern in London; less than a week later, at Sotheby’s in London, René Magritte’s 1961 painting “L’empire des lumières” sold for £59.4mn, almost tripling the artist’s record. The 59th Venice Biennale, opening on April 23, takes its title — “The Milk of Dreams” — from a children’s book by another of the movement’s artists, Leonora Carrington. It isn’t a surreal biennale per se, but its reflections on our current cultural moment lead back, it seems, to Surrealist ideas — “an imaginary journey through the metamorphoses of bodies and definitions of the human”, in the words of the biennale’s artistic director, Cecilia Alemani.

Although its roots are in Dada and early works that emerged in the teens and throughout the 1920s, Surrealism only really surged to international prominence in the 1930s: times of economic hardship and fraught, extreme politics. That moment can be seen to mirror our own. Anderson’s mention of the irrational and the tense 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 its best, it’s deeper than the surface — a true connection with the ideologies and aims laid out by Breton and expounded 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 febrile aspect to this relationship: the Surrealists were fixated on fashion for its ephemerality, its corporeality, its artifice and its connection to Freudian notions of sexual fetish. Fashion cropped up in their work all the time. As early as 1919, Max Ernst created a series of lithographs titled “Let There Be Fashion, Down with Art”.

Others were not only obsessed with it, but dabbled in some of the earliest art-fashion crossovers. Dalí worked often with Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian fashion designer who made clothes that many have described as “witty” or, worse, “whimsical”. Her clothes are often deemed thus because lots of people see someone wearing a shoe or a pork chop as a hat as a funny thing, ditto jackets fastened with miniature acrobats and woven with patterns of carousel horses. Those may be the lighter moments, but Schiap (as she was known) also created dresses padded and stitched to resemble bones apparently poking through their surface. Her “Tears” dress of 1938 was based on a painting by Dalí, printed with designs 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, at around the time that Dalí was replacing telephone receivers with the crustaceans in sculptural works. Schiap dissuaded him from splattering the dress with real mayonnaise.

The Duchess of Windsor photographed in 1937 in Elsa Schiaparelli lobster dress, created in collaboration with Salvador Dalí © Cecil Beaton/Condé Nast/Rex/Shutterstock

Dalí also dabbled in fashion solo, as demonstrated by the three covers he painted for American Vogue between 1939 and 1944. Or, indeed, the window displays he devised for now defunct New York department store Bonwit Teller in 1939. He did something similar for Schiaparelli, too — dyeing a taxidermied bear pink and carving drawers in its torso, to sit in the vitrine of her Place Vendôme boutique.

Schiaparelli will be the subject of a major retrospective, Shocking! Les mondes surréalistes d’Elsa Schiaparelli, opening at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs this July. The house has been spectacularly revived of late; as in the 1930s, it is now a hot fashion ticket. Its clothes, created today by American designer Daniel Roseberry, pay tribute to Schiaparelli originals, with strange Brutalist embroideries, ornate buttons and trompe l’oeil plays. “All of the Surrealist tropes coming in,” laughs Roseberry. “It’s occupying a really unique space where we’re able to have a sense of humour and able to make people smile but it’s still hyper-sophisticated. It doesn’t approach camp.”

A Dalí illustration for Vogue, 1944 © Christie’s/Bridgeman Images/DACS

That’s an interesting point: as with the art of the Surrealists and the original couture designs of Elsa Schiaparelli, most of these clothes aren’t intended to make us laugh (Moschino excluded, which is a tongue-in-cheek hoot). The idea is to provoke, to disturb, to profoundly unsettle. They also grab attention — they always did. Back in the 1930s, Elsa Schiaparelli’s clothes were favoured by Hollywood actresses and high-profile, headline-generating socialites such as the Duchess of Windsor.

Similarly, the clothes channelling Schiaparelli’s legacy, whether bearing her name or not, have a look-at-me quality, the aesthetic equivalent of clickbait. Dress as a dresser, walk on a balloon, put a shoe on your head, and you’ll get noticed. It’s simple, really. There’s also something childishly gleeful about the joy of dressing up in clothes like these: I know. I have a Schiaparelli denim jacket that fastens up the back with a bunch of ornate buttons, making it look as if I’m wearing it back to front (or have my head on backwards). I get stopped on the street when I’m wearing it.

Maybe that’s why surreal style worked back then and works now: it reflects the insanity of reality, sure, but it’s also a welcome distraction. It lets you dream a bit. Breton would approve.

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