Fashion & SurrealisM


Citing Surrealism is no excuse when it comes to questionable female couture  


Since its inception in the early 1920s, the Surrealist movement has captivated the fashion world. From Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli to Alexander McQueen, Surrealism’s dreamlike and theatrical aesthetic has been a continual source of inspiration for fashion designers throughout the century.  

Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí’s fruitful collaboration in 1930s Paris produced some of the most treasured garments of 20th century fashion. Created in 1937, Schiaparelli’s ‘Lobster Dress’ is a lasting tribute to their artistic partnership; it comprises of a white silk evening dress with a crimson waistband. But the pièce de résistance was a lobster painted on the crotch by Dalí, for whom the aphrodisiacal crustacean was the pinnacle of sexuality. The iconic status of the dress was sealed when Cecil Beaton photographed Wallis Simpson in the dress for Vogue, shortly before her marriage to Edward VIII.


Fashion was a natural platform for Surrealism’s high drama. At the time, the collage-like placing of images in disparate contexts reflected the contradictions within an increasingly liberated society. Who else would have placed a lobster in a royal wedding?

At the zenith of the Surrealist movement, writer and poet André Breton composed his Surrealist Manifestos - the two essays published in the 1920s which are still viewed as the definitive handbook on all things surreal. In short, he defined Surrealism as the act of collapsing all boundaries between the real and the imagined. For Breton, Dalí’s lobster telephones and melting pocket watches represented a desire to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality…the imaginary is what tends to become real.”

While Surrealists occupied a marvellously liberated realm lying outside of any previous artistic conventions, feminists have since criticised the insistence that Surrealism represents the complete freedom of art. Breton’s comment, “the problem of woman is the most marvellous and disturbing problem in all the world”, is a glaring illustration of the movement’s latent sexism. How could the movement be viewed as a form of cultural liberation when its power was reserved primarily for the heterosexual male? As the artistic movement was condemned for its misogynistic gaze and patriarchal values, it was inevitable that fashion’s relationship with Surrealism would later be called into question.


Just look to the work of Dalí and Hans Bellmer for evidence of these misogynistic undertones. In the hands of male Surrealists, the female body is often objectified and fetishized as a passive figure in the realm of “looked at other.” No work typifies the male gaze more than Dalí’s ‘Young Virgin Auto-Sodomised by the Horns of Her Own Chastity’, a piece that was previously displayed in the Playboy Mansion – proof enough of its questionable gender politics. With its faceless female subject fragmented and penetrated by aggressive, phallic objects, it is quickly clear why many criticised the Surrealists for being inherently patriarchal and misogynistic. Even more disturbingly, it is thought that Dalí painted the piece in a fit of anger at his sister, Ana Maria. 

Fast forward half a century or so and Thom Browne’s Surrealist-inspired show at Paris Fashion Week 2018 sparked all-too familiar criticisms. Models emerged onto the catwalk silenced, arms bound and immobilised by his creations. Rather uncomfortably, echoes of Dalí’s female figures could be seen in Browne’s designs. Where their lips were stitched shut or concealed altogether by masks, the garments were laced so tightly the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan said, “the models looked as though they’d been taken hostage.” It was a highly problematic collection. Being prisoner in one’s own clothing, with no voice by which to speak felt like a return to pre-Victorian times when women in tightly bound corsets were (like children) to be seen and not heard. One dress in the collection bound the model’s arms securely to her sides; a loose caveat of Dalí’s sexualised lobster floating as inspiration. Watching the model totter on high heels, unable to stabilise without the use of her arms, was painful to watch. In place of liberation, there was restriction. And if we consider the collection in light of Breton’s mantra then Browne’s ‘craftsmanship’ takes on an increasingly sinister design.  


Inadvertently, the spectacle reignited historic anxieties about Surrealism’s murky sexual politics. Reporting for The New York Times fashion editor, Vanessa Friedman observed, “women in towering shoes so vertiginous their legs shook as they minced, ever so slowly, around the room.” Continuing “women in hybrid garments woven and embroidered and pieced in the most painstaking, intricate ways, their various constituent parts (such as arms and legs and backs) laced together so they could be undone and mixed and matched at will.” Quote the Surrealists as much as you like, but clothes that fragment and immobilise women’s bodies have no place in today’s society. If fashion reflects the currents of the time, this SS19 collection jarred with the spirit of female empowerment propelled by the #MeToo movement. 

Even fashion’s great innovator, the late Alexander McQueen, faced similar criticisms for his Spring/Summer 1997 show, entitled La Poupée (doll). The collection took inspiration from the works of the German artist Hans Bellmer (1902-1975) who was renowned for his surrealistic life-sized sculptures of female bodies. These ‘dolls’ as Bellmer coined them were composed of magnified body parts, spliced together and reconfigured to give them an abstract, subversive form. 


McQueen’s homage to Bellmer featured one model staggering down the catwalk in a body manacle, her movements stilted and mechanical like those of a puppet or a doll. Radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys excoriated McQueen’s work for its sexist connotations and suggestions of female violation. However, many believe McQueen was wildly misinterpreted. In presenting his audiences with uncomfortable images, he was not turning women into objects of repression but rather forcing us to confront issues that were glossed over and hidden from public view. It’s one thing to take an art movement as a springboard for design. But it’s another to cut out an aesthetic underpinned by controversial ideologies from nearly a century ago and stitch it, without adaptation, into the fashion of today. Here McQueen’s messages of female empowerment were lost in translation, and his Bellmer-inspired visual language was rendered incompatible with our desire for gender equality as we embarked on a new millennium.


That’s not to say that Surrealism should be shelved entirely when it comes to fashion. For all its reputation as a male-dominated movement, the Surrealists were undeniably some of the 20th century’s most influential people, for both their philosophy and distinctive aesthetic. But contemporary fashion designers must express a much greater degree of precision as to what and why they are channelling Surrealist motifs. Fashion, like any art form, lends itself to continual recontextualisation. Browne and McQueen should have stamped out any hint of Surrealism’s misogyny with a modern update, before their designs hit the catwalks. Lobsters and sexual ownership. Yes. But manacles and sewn-up mouths? No. Combining the imaginary with the real should be emancipating, not repressive. 


From sustainability to body positivity and accessible design, today’s fashion industry is socially-conscious whilst still being avant-garde. As the widespread distaste among fashion’s media elite showed, ambiguous sexual politics have no place on the ‘woke’ catwalks of today.

Originally written for Lines Zine