Come February 2014, an unusual Salvador Dali piece will be offered for auction at Christie’s London. Which in itself is an unusual thing to read on the fashion pages. But the Dali painting in question, estimated to fetch £1-1.5m, takes fashion as its central theme. In fact, it was commissioned for Vogue’s October 1943 issue, in which the master surrealist immortalised a selection of high fashion accoutrements – a bejewelled brooch, an empty glove – in a typical Dalinian landscape.
“The idea of disguising oneself was only the consequence of the traumatic experience of birth,” mused Dali, a highfalutin justification for his amalgamations of haute couture and high art. That even included installations in the windows of American department store Bonwit Teller, in 1939. Dali ended up falling through a window, clutching a bathtub, in a fit of indignation when an artistically naked mannequin was dressed by the store in a neat tweed suit.
One doubts intellectual musing on the traumatic experience of birth were part of the thought processes of fashion’s leading lights this season – but nevertheless, distinctly surreal styles were a mainstay of the autumn/winter catwalks. Mary Katrantzou’s prints silhouetted bowler-hatted figures straight out of a Magritte. The artist’s signature blue skies also formed a catwalk backdrop for Raf Simons’ Dior’s show, inspired in part by Monsieur Dior’s aborted career as a gallerist for artists including Dali. Hence the Jean Cocteau-ish embroidered hands and eyelashes scampering across georgette gowns, and the Luis Buñuel-inspired eyes peering out from otherwise-innocuous floral prints. Those eyes cropped up at Kenzo, too, as the new logo on the label’s signature sweatshirts as well as motifs studding everything from knee-length coats and thigh-high boots to the models fingers and ear lobes.
Those bijoux are the work of Delfina Delettrez, who has taken those surreally displaced peepers as her design leitmotif. They stare out in enamel, diamonds or pearls from her eponymous jewellery collection, as well as the gems she designs for houses including Kenzo and Fendi – where, for spring, they’re in silver with crystal eyelashes. “I love the destabilising effect,” Delettrez says of the eyes she dangles from ear lobes or pins to lapels. “I love everything that destabilises, disorientates you. These are eyes, but they’re also earrings... I guess it was as Schiaparelli did with the shoe hat – it’s all about the contestualizzare [context].”
Elsa Schiaparelli was, of course, the ultimate fashion surrealist. Coco Chanel dismissed her as “that Italian artist who makes dresses”, but in fact she didn’t need to be an artist. She enlisted everyone from Marcel Vertes to Jean Cocteau to design embroideries and fabric prints, but her most fruitful collaboration was with Dali himself, inspiring Schiap (as she was known to her friends) to stud a jacket with lip-shaped buttons reminiscent of his Mae West sofa – the same actress’s naked torso formed the bottle for her perfume, titled “Shocking”.
To shock was a key aim of both Schiaparelli and the surrealists. But she had, perhaps, a better grasp of the commercial realities of haute couture: although she collaborated with Dali in 1937 to decorate an evening dress adorned with a larger-than-life lobster – an homage to Dali’s Aphrodisiac Telephone, created a year before – Schiap scuppered the artist’s plan to plaster the frock with real mayonnaise.
Schiaparelli is possibly the fuse for this explosion of stylish surrealism. Her work was the subject of a major retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last summer, while this July saw the revival of the label bearing her name.
The label’s owner, Diego Della Valle, tapped Christian Lacroix to create the first Schiaparelli collection since 1954, shown during Paris haute couture week. It was typically Schiap, packed with house signatures: jewelled pins shaped like insects perched on peplums, and crustaceans balanced on heads. The former designer of Rochas, Marco Zanini, has taken up the reigns, showing his first collection in January.
Surrealism is a seasonal flirtation for many designers – at the moment, it’s a trend, which by its very nature is transitory. However, as Dali so obliquely implied, there’s more than a passing relationship between the spheres of surrealism and style. Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld’s 1970s work was heavily inspired by surrealism.
Lagerfeld‘s first Chanel collection featured a dress adorned with a trompe l’oeil embroidery of jewellery that would have had arch-rivals Coco and Elsa spinning in their respective graves. More recently, Lagerfeld reinvented the Chanel paper carrier in luxury leather as a four-figure tote bag for spring 2009. It’s as perfect a surreal object as Dali’s crabby phone.
Maybe the undeniable and continual parallels result from the simple fact that surrealism, as an artistic movement, became a fashion. By the mid-Thirties, a decade after the publication of André Breton’s first surrealist manifesto, everything from advertising design to interior décor had been influenced by the movement. And with their obsessions with sexuality, gender, and dream vs reality, surrealist artists found fashion an ideal bedfellow. Hence the fact that, alongside Schiaparelli’s collaborations, surreal artists dabbled in fashion off their own bats: there are mannequins by Joan Miro and André Masson, ballet costumes by Giorgio de Chirico, while Meret Oppenheim’s oeuvre is populated with fashion-infused objets, such as her fur-smothered tea-cup, or high-heel shoes trussed and dressed like a turkey. Man Ray’s photographs could adorn a gallery, or an issue of Vogue, as could Dali’s obscure landscapes.
In all honesty, it’s difficult to dress surreal for real life. Most of us don’t want to perch a lobster or a shoe on our head, however stylish. But a quirky button or a witty graphic on the front of a shirt is a nod to the artistic bent of designers this season.
As in Schiaparelli’s time, however, fashion’s current flirtation with surrealism is best served with accessories: Dior’s Cocteauean graphics scroll across silk scarves and embroidered slippers and boots, while a Delettrez earring or brooch fashioned to resemble eyes, lips or even a bejewelled bug is a conversation-starter rather than a loud attention-grabber.
“I call it ice-breaker pieces, like conversation pieces,” says Delettrez herself.
I’d just advise steering well clear of Dali’s Hellmann’s-as-haute-couture approach to dressing for dinner.