By: Sylvia Nica '25, with research credit to Kayla Kane
The word ‘surrealism’ evokes Dali-like dreamscapes, with melting clocks, feverish movements, and odd, billowing colors. "Fashion" isn’t usually on this list. Yet despite a lack of mainstream awareness, Surrealism irreversibly stamped fashion.
The Surrealist art movement emerged in the wake of WWI, and would reach its peak after WWII. Armed with Frued’s theories of consciousness and dreams, Surrealist artists hoped to tap into the superior reality of the subconscious mind and the irrational. Artists and writers sought to overthrow the oppressive rules of modern society by demolishing the backbone of rational thought, rebelling against the cult of reason they identified as a hallmark of the European enlightenment. The surreal was not something supernatural, but something considered to be a hidden layer of the real.
Fashion, in its own way, became inextricably linked with the Surrealist movement as traditional conventions were broken. Bold colors and prints took hold, and many of the rigid boundaries of fashion shifted and became warped.
Elsa Schiaparelli was one designer that transformed fashion through the incorporation of the surreal. Although many of her pieces, such as her dresses, kept the traditional silhouette, she subverted tradition by incorporating bold colors, odd materials, and extra embroidery into her work. For example, some of her hats have miniature insects on them, or her coats have embroidered faces mirroring the style of surrealist painters. Although Schiaparelli’s work was bold, and subversive, she maintained incredible beauty and grace. By introducing her surrealist elements through smaller aesthetic details, she kept her pieces from spilling into the over-embellished and gauche.
The commercial aspect of surrealism, not just its avant-garde ideas, served as a bridge to fashion. In her article, Louisa Rogers writes that capitalism may have played a role in fashion as the novelty, the newness, of surrealism once incorporated became a way to drive up sales, especially in the beauty industry. Schiaparelli even based a design for one of her hats, Shoe Hat, off of one of Dali’s designs.
Other successful surrealist designers include Meret Oppenheim and the photographer Man Ray, whose Chanel campaign was especially notable. A surrealist artist who got his start as a fashion photographer, his works incorporated abstract surrealist elements and became works of art themselves.
A surrealist designer less tied to the commercial includes Hussein Chalayan. Born in 1970, Chalayan is a Cypriot designer based in Britain. His work is considered conceptual, with technology integrated heavily into his pieces. Some of his most awe-inspiring works include a dress that dissolves in water, or furniture that transforms into clothes. Marked by high craftsmanship, his work, sometimes displayed in galleries, straddles the line between fashion and art. Sometimes, it is hard to tell if there is a distinction with his works—or if it even matters.
Today, fashion and surrealism are re-emerging. In 1998, Alexander McQueen created a corset with Shaun Leane, seemingly taking inspiration from Schiaparelli’s Skeleton Dress, which is a black dress with quilting made to look like ribs. In a triumphant title, Harper's Bazaar claims that “Surrealism Is Staging a Fashion Comeback,” going on to say that “it's the roaring '20s again, and designers are grasping onto dreamy, other-worldly vibes.” This is seen in jewelry, which is now often oversized, mismatched, and featuring abstract, geometric designs and unusual materials. The silhouette of today's clothing, rejecting classic tailoring, also invokes themes of “rebelling against the cult of reason” that marks surrealism.
As boundaries in fashion get broken and as traditional, gatekeeping restrictions of fashion get ripped down, the values of surrealism and the rejection of the status quo breathes on. Although the movement emerged nearly eighty years ago, the flexibility of surrealism, the way it can bend to distort any modern restriction, keeps the movement’s values fresh, alive, and ready for any or all application.