Surrealism aims to revolutionise the human experience. It balances a rational vision of life by affirming the power of the unconscious and dreams. The artists of the movement find magic and strange beauty in the unexpected, the despised, and the unconventional. At the core of their works is the search for freedom and the willingness to question imposed values and rules.” This is the definition of surrealism on the website of Tate Modern (an art gallery located in London), which I borrow to put you in a climate beyond reality. Historically, the word ‘surrealist’ was coined by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and appeared for the first time in the prologue of a play in 1917. But it was André Breton who wrote the Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. In the world of fashion in 2023, surrealism and fashion move on the same trajectory.
Take note of Daniel Roseberry’s recent Couture 2023 show for Schiaparelli—there was little analysis behind the real inspiration of the animal heads that were on display. The controversial collection was a contemporary take on Dante’s Inferno. These surrealistic references, that Roseberry brought to life, were re-imagined versions of the legendary poem’s three allegorical animals: the lion, the leopard, and the she-wolf.
As those creations took the Internet by storm, it is no surprise that from the beginning of the rise of Schiaparelli, the House’s designs have always initiated strong conversations about surrealism. Even Schiaparelli’s famous creation, known as the Desk Suit—a design inspired by Salvador Dali’s 1936 Venus de Milo with Drawers, the sleek tagger with pockets, masterfully sewn by Lesage in the Trompe-l’œil technique to represent the drawers of Dali’s sculpture... This creation opened the doors of weird fashion that defied reality.
Think Schiaparelli’s The Tears Dress designed in 1938 as part of the Circus Collection. Considered to be one of her most famous designs, even though the creation is simple in shape...the garment showcases elements of surrealism. The creation, which almost looked like torn flesh, did not only arouse extreme reactions in the late ’30s, but also influenced the fashion for all in its subsequent history.
The Paris Couture Week 2023 set an example of how bizarre reigned supreme. Closer home, designer Gaurav Gupta’s sculptural creations from the collection Shunya were recently showcased at the Paris Haute Couture Week. Inspired by fantasy and surrealism, Gupta shared, “I wanted to delve deeper into our mindscape to come up with a concept that is subliminal in thought and original in form. I have tried to explore the movement possibilities between zero and infinity.” Also at Paris Couture Week, designer Rahul Mishra represented the Universe and native Indian philosophy in his ethereal collection Cosmos, by bringing together jellyfish, birds, planets, and oceans, resulting in glittering creations. Viktor & Rolf, too, put up a whimsical show—where models walked the runway in tulle, princess gowns, and multi-tiered dresses that were flipped in every possible direction.
One can also clearly notice the design excesses at Loewe’s SS 2023 show, where lines of reality got blurred, thanks to ‘pixelated’ creations resembling a real-life Minecraft game. These may not be obvious choices in the world of fashion where glam is associated with the glitter-strewn dream, but they are clearly connected to the subconscious—where dreams actually reside. In an everyday life where fake news parades proudly, the surrealism of fashion seems more relevant than ever. From Alexander McQueen’s summer 1997 collection, Phoebe Philo’s Celine furry shoes in 2013, to the clogs from Birkenstock’s opening ceremony emblazoned with works by Belgian artist René Magritte, fashion has proven throughout the decades that it loves to go hand-in-hand with surrealism.
Today, creations in the world of fashion mirror the chaotic situation currently prevailing in the world, and indicate the collapse of reality and what it means today. This is the fashion of 2023—a balloon that transforms into a shoe, dresses worn upside down, belts with ears and a nose... Designers, today, are elevating the anxieties of the present by equating fashion with art.
This piece first appeared in Harper's Bazaar India, May 2023.