The surreal thing – fashion archive, 27 June 1988

Fashion is effete. It is a form of creativity unable to stand on its own feet. Too weak to instigate, it feeds reactively on stronger movements. For the past 10 years fashion has fed from and reacted to the enormous energy of pop music – arguably the most powerful artistic movement of the century. Just as pop was the prime mover of the Seventies and early Eighties so the vibrantly creative movement of the late Eighties is sport – and fashion seems increasingly to be taking its energy from it.

But before the Seventies – and really back as far as fashion stretches – the major movements which fashion flirted with and sucked energy from were all artistic. Of them all, no artistic movement fitted fashion so successfully as surrealism. In the 1920s, when it became a serious force in the arts, surrealism found an immediate answering chord in fashion. It could not fail to. Both fashion and surrealism have a common root. What binds them together is inappropriateness. Surrealism began as a literary movement attempting to incorporate Freudian and Jungian principles into the creative mainstream. Its high priest was André Breton and, in common with most early twentieth century movements, manifestos were produced to explain what the movement was about. In broad terms, surrealism dealt with transforming creativity by releasing it from the strait-jacket of reality. Just as dreams enabled the imagination to run untrammelled, so did surrealism. Canons of taste, artistic rights and wrongs, even creative good manners and order were tossed out. The shock of the unexpected and the juxtaposition of unlikely and ill-at-ease elements were what gave surrealist poetry and painting their unique point of view. The creators used recognisable symbols in a way in which they had not been used before. The result, they hoped, would be to change our point of view and broaden our ideas of what is acceptable – and it largely did.

Evening ensemble with dress and jacket of silk crepe, metallic and silk thread, glass beads by Elsa Schiaparelli and Jean Cocteau, 1937.

Evening ensemble with dress and jacket of silk crepe, metallic and silk thread, glass beads by Elsa Schiaparelli and Jean Cocteau, 1937. Photograph: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Surrealism proved that in the arts inappropriateness pays. By the early Thirties, fashion had cottoned on. By then fashion designers had begun to steal the symbols of the painters and incorporate them into their designs. The results of the filching were predictably banal and sterile. The worst offender was the Italian, Elsa Schiaparelli, who Chanel witheringly referred to as ‘that painter who makes clothes’. Chanel was, as usual, not so far off the mark. Schiaparelli identified with painters and appreciated what they were about much more than she understood fashion. She worked with Cocteau and Bérard but her most productive borrowings were the result of re-interpreting in her clothes the artistic symbols of her great friend, Salvador Dali. Thus his City of Drawers in which the figures have torsos made of drawers turned up in a suit of Schiaparelli’s which used the same drawers as decorations down the jacket. She interpreted his ideas as decoration on many of her clothes – as buttons, fastenings and brooches. Schiaparelli shocked by making a shoe into a hat and by decorating a hat with a mutton chop.

It was all good news, especially for Schiaparelli as the dress designer who brought surrealism to fashion largely misses the point. She was merely copying the symbols of an artistic movement stronger than fashion. True surrealism in fashion was much more fundamental than her decorative additions. The fact is that high fashion is, and always has been a surrealist movement in that it deals constantly with the unexpected and inappropriate.

What could be more inappropriate (and surrealist) than the Edwardian lady donning a hat extravagantly weighed down with fruit, flowers and dead birds in order to walk in the country surrounded by their real equivalents? What was more bizarre and unexpected in a war-torn Europe suffering shortage and privation, than Dior’s New Look? The decision to make it necessary for fashionable women to wear long skirts requiring yards of precious rationed material was as surrealist, that is, inappropriate, as Worth’s creation of the crinoline 70 years earlier.

Equally fundamental to surrealism as inappropriateness is displacement. Objects achieve new power by being placed in a way not expected. Magritte understood this but so do the great couturiers. Most of the history of couture has been involved with the displacement of parts of the body. The waist moves up and down the shoulder line varies from narrow to impossibly broad. High fashion has largely been involved with displacing elements of the body to recreate a shape far removed from reality – but one which is deemed de rigueur by the fashion cognoscenti of the moment.

High fashion is surrealist because it brings unreality into the real world. It is as well to remember that high fashion has always been akin to fancy dress and also to recall that until very recently fashion was synonymous with couture. The clothes that ordinary people wore on the streets were usually far removed from the fashionable clothes created by couturiers. The point of couture was to amaze and delight that small group who could afford it, understand it and dedicate 70 per cent of their lives to it. We are talking of an artistic attitude of mind and it produced clothes which only the elite could understand and which most of us would find ridiculous.

We now live in the new age of couture, we are told. In most cases the new couture is much more like the old ready-to-wear, with a few noughts added to the price. Nevertheless, this so-called couture has paradoxically produced the sort of clothes which traditionally had small boys pointing and giggling and yet are now worn with total seriousness on the streets. The arch-mover of this new twist to the surrealism of clothes which makes the unexpected non-exceptional is the French designer, Christian Lacroix. His clothes are largely fancy-dress and mostly unwearable by women living in normal society and yet they have been copied everywhere. Their very irrationality has made them acceptable. This must surely be the ultimate ironic twist of fashion as surrealism.

For those unable to see for themselves the true madness of Lacroix’s clothes, the V & A has mounted an exhibition called Fashion and Surrealism. Although it largely misses the point of its title, it is interesting in that it shows fashion’s borrowing of surrealism’s attitudes and symbols. For the true surrealism of fashion go to any costume museum or old fashion magazine. Once you have seen how we were expected to dress – and did, if rich enough – it will become apparent that high fashion is surrealism.

Fashion and Surrealism at the Victoria & Albert Museum, June 29-August 7. Fashion and Surrealism by Richard Martin, Thames & Hudson, £ 27.50.

Christian Lacroix spring line launch, 1988.

Christian Lacroix spring line launch, 1988. Photograph: Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty Images


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