As early as 1924, the surrealist movement linked art, philosophy, and literature in dealing with ideas of the mind, the unconscious, the boundary between reality and imagination, and the irrational. Typically, surrealist art uses motifs of easily recognizable subjects – such as animals, human anatomy, instruments, and shapes – to express the dream-like state of the work. The uncanny strangeness that classifies surrealist art is the very quality that, unsurprisingly, drew fashion designers to begin exploring the movement as early as the 1930s.
Elsa Schiaparelli, Perhaps the most well-known designer associated with surrealism, embarked on a multitude of creative collaborations with surrealist artists; namely the “Lobster Dress” and “Shoe Hat” designed with Salvador Dali, and a series of embroidered garments made with French poet and illustrator Jean Cocteau. Despite the lack of recognition given to Schiaparelli’s work in the context of fine art, her designs created a lasting impact on both the art and fashion worlds.
Likewise, 20th century artist and photographer Man Ray shot commercial work for Schiaparelli as well as Lanvin, Chanel and Vionnet, utilizing artistic techniques that demonstrated innovative use of light and shadow, as well as darkroom manipulation. Just as Man Ray’s work in fashion photography adhered to and manipulated hallmarks of surrealism to best fit the medium in focus, the fashion world has famously employed a number of distinct surrealist themes and techniques to create a harmonious dialogue between disciplines; techniques which include: teasing the eye, the merging of opposites, unique construction methods, as well as ornamentation, and surrealist motifs.
A hallmark element of surrealist fashion resides in designer’s tendency towards teasing the eye through a variety of formats and techniques. Schiaparelli’s 1936 black gloves are one example; on the tip of each finger sits a nail-shaped red swatch, giving the appearance of fingernails and insinuating that the design acts much like the wearer’s second skin. A similar example of visual deceptiveness is a pair of white gloves decorated with delicate red lines that give the illusion of a hand’s interior veins, designed in 1985 by artist Meret Oppenheim.
Contemporary French couturier Jean Paul Gaultier has embraced a slew of surrealist techniques in his work, such as the “floating” garments featured in the designer’s Spring/Summer 2003 couture collection; at first glance, these ensembles appear ordinary, but upon closer inspection it is revealed that they are actually draped on the wearer body like an apron, leaving one’s arms entirely sleeve-free. For Fall/Winter 2012, Commes des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo explored yet another facet of visual trickery by layering vibrant, oversized dress shapes atop one another, which ultimately toyed with the idea of flatness and perception. Likewise, Schiaparelli’s 1938 “Tears Dress” uses pattern to insinuate that portions of the evening dress have been torn off like wallpaper, revealing variation of the designer’s ‘Shocking Pink’ color beneath.
Alternatively, designers have historically made use of odd materials - such human hair - and unique construction techniques to further induce elements of surprise. Maison Margiela’s Spring/Summer 2009 collection famously utilized wigs to as outwear, while Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fall/Winter 2006 Couture collection turned human hair into decorative hats atop models’ heads. Alternatively, in the designer’s aforementioned 2003 couture collection, Gaultier reinvented Schiaparelli’s iconic “Skeleton Dress” using light, transparent fabric knotted to appear like a ribcage, while for spring/summer 2008, Marc Jacobs showed a backwards shoe – yet another Schiaparelli homage – that twisted convention and perception. All of such examples succeed in teasing the eye as they lure in the viewer with what appears to be the familiar, only to reveal a twist uncovered upon closer look.
Yet another key element of surrealist fashion is the merging of opposites, in that fashion, by nature, is attuned to analyzing binaries due to its innate ability at merging skin and fabric. As such, Real and imagined, natural and unnatural, inside and outside, as well as masculinity and femininity are all dichotomies which designers explore in their work.
While surrealist art typically objectifies the female form, surrealist fashion tends to break down gender binaries by merging “masculine” and “feminine” ideals to create an entirely unique outcome. One can see the importance of challenging these gender structures within the fashion world by examining a few chief examples; Thierry Mugler’s Spring/Summer 1997 Couture collection featured a male model in a “femme fatale” shiny black skirt, while Commes des Garcons’ Spring/Summer 2017 collection played with similar elements of androgyny, with a female model in oversized black trousers that covered much of her arms and chest. Likewise, nearly each season Thom Browne explores similar dichotomies within his men’s and women’s wear collections, which often feature male models sporting skirts and dresses, and female models in pantsuits and tuxedos.
Amongst the handful of construction techniques associated with surrealist fashion, designer's use of visible padding and exaggerated forms continues to be amongst the most imporant methods used. Beginning with Elsa Schiaparelli’s famed 1938 ‘Skeleton Dress,’ which utilized protruding, delicate forms to create an external skeleton-like structure on the dress’ façade – effectively merging inside and outside, body and fabric – designers have engaged with these techniques in their work to better exhibit the strange and uncanny. A classic example of this being Comme des Garcons’ 1997 collection “Dress Meets Body — Body Meets Dress,” in which Rei Kawakubo used bulging padding and bulbous forms to exaggerate areas of the female form not usually drawn attention to in fashion. Through this surrealist act, Kawakubo was effectively making a statement about the manners in which the world, across various forms of self-expression, regards the female body. Similarly, Gareth Pugh’s Spring/Summer 2009 collection, like many of his designs, employed exaggerated geometric ruching and Elizabethan collars to draw emphasis on often overlooked parts of the body, such as the neck and elbows.
Perhaps the most widely used surrealist construction method is trompe l’oeil, a technique popularized by Elsa Schiaparelli’s early sweaters from the 1920s. Trompe l’oeil — literally meaning, “to trick the eye” — creates optical illusions atop flat surfaces, often involving layers or ornamentation. Rudi Gernreich, a dynamic fashion designer from the 1960s who became known for his political and provocative displays of the female body, created trompe l’oeil t-shirts and knit onesies that appeared to have a bikini, or bra and briefs layered on top. Likewise, Karl Lagerfeld’s first collection for Chanel in 1983 used this technique to create a stunning evening gown embroidered with faux trinkets and heaps of jewelry, blending couture and costume in a manner that would have made Coco Chanel proud. For Fall/Winter 1996, Martin Margiela showed an entire collection of trompe l’oeil-printed garments, while for fall/winter 2001, Moschino presented a trompe l’oeil trench that was featured prominently in Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 mystery/crime film Kill Bill. Comme des Garcons’ Fall/Winter 2009 collection made similar use of trompe l’oeil to give illusion of jacket pockets, lapels, and sleeves on what were actually capes, while Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2016 collection masterfully employed the technique to suggest mock-ruffles atop bejeweled dresses. Likewise, Thom Browne often relies on trompe l’oeil construction to create the illusion of layers; throughout the designer’s spring/summer 2017 collection, for example, entire looks that appeared to include a skirt, layered with a jacket, vest, shirt and bowtie, were actually all single dresses.
As mention earlier, flatness plays a role in the construction of surrealist fashion, Issey Miyake’s 1994 “Flying Saucer Dress” being a classic example. The dress skillfully uses pleats and circular forma which allow it to become completely flat when not being worn; the dress resembles both paper lanterns, an old symbol of community and celebration, and flying saucers, associated with “space age” futurism. Martin Margiela’s spring/summer 1998 collection dealt similar traits of 2-dimensionality; when not worn, the collection’s garments hung impressively flat on a hanger.
Lastly, Surrealist fashion uses ornamentation differently from most fashion, in that oftentimes the ornamentation is utilized to communicate specific motifs and themes found in surrealist art. Lips, for example, are often seen in the work of Man Ray, appear in fashion as prints, as seen in Prada’s Spring/Summer 2000 womenswear collection and Yves Saint Laurent’s Spring/Summer 2014 show, in which creative director Anthony Vaccarello revived an archival lip pattern made famous by the house in the 1970s.
Hands, yet another common surrealist motif, are oftentimes used to create strange visual parallels. Diane von Furstenberg’s Fall/Winter 2012 collection featured a dress printed with black and white hands over the bodice, evoking sexuality, while John Galliano positioned hands on an evening gown for his spring/summer 1999 Dior couture collection. Other designers haven taken a more subtle approach to tactile motifs: Hussein Chalayan used delicate fingers to cinch together a white gown for Spring/Summer 2010, evoking Margiela’s Spring/Summer 2001 glove top, while Comme des Garcons’ Fall/Winter 2007 collection employed coordinating, three-dimensional stuffed hands as whimsical accessories atop complimentary colored garments.
In addition to body parts, wildlife is a common theme in both surrealist art and fashion, while typically leaning towards bugs and animals rather than flora. Thierry Mugler, in particular, is known for his bug-themed jewelry and large-scale headpieces, which likely sought inspiration from Elsa Schiaparelli’s famous 1938 bug necklace. Likewise, Lanvin’s Fall/Winter 2013 collection featured ornamented bug blouses and jewelry, while Alexander McQueen leaned heavily into themes of bugs and animals throughout his career. McQueen’s prolific creative partnership with milliner Phillip Treacy often bred gorgeous lifelike headpieces using bug motifs, birds, nests, feathers, and eggs. Despite McQueen’s untimely death in 2010, the design house has continued expanding upon these themes, as evidence by the brand’s Fall/Winter 2018 collection, which featured a transparent evening dress decorated with hundreds of bejeweled insects.
Similarly, for Spring/Summer 2010 Miuccia Prada employed a slew of delicately drawn cat and dog patterns on garments at Miu Miu, while other designers have taken a far more didactic approach towards incorporating animals in their work. Marjan Pejoski’s swan dress, famously worn by Bjork to the Oscars in 2001, is a classic piece of surrealist imagery, as is Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s “Teddy Bear coat” and, more recently, Armani’s flamingo feather cape Fall/Winter 2018 Couture.
Last but certainly not least, an important theme across all surrealist work is the use of anatomy and erotic motifs. Viviene Westwood often subverts the male gaze by sexualizing female body, such as through a T-shirt designed in 1977 as well as a Spring/Summer 2017 dress, both which featured a painted motif of breasts, in essence pushing back against surrealist art’s objectification of the female body and reclaiming the image for women. Thom Browne explored similar questions in Fall/Winter 2018, as did Jean Paul Gaultier, who designed a couture that placed emphasis on a woman’s nipples, belly button, and pubic hair. Alexander McQueen took a more adventurous approach in 1998, collaborating with Shaun Leane on a corset that resembles Schiaparelli’s skeleton dress. The use of the corset, long a symbol of female oppression, as the skeleton it conforms to similarly subverts while drawing attention to fashion’s oftentimes unrealistic expectations of women.