The relationship between Surrealism and fashion is iconic. It can be found in the fur bangles of Meret Oppenheim, the Chanel campaigns by Man Ray and the theatrical, dreamlike pieces created by contemporary designers such as Alexander McQueen. However, the classic pairing began in the 1930s in the collaborations between the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and haute-couture fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli.
The two met in Paris in the early 30s, where Schiaparelli introduced Dalí to Parisian high society. They shared many interests, including technical artistry, irony and shock value. Both were visionaries who deftly defied the rules throughout their partnership, and held one another in high regard.
The unforgettable hats of Surrealism
One of their most recognisable collaborations is Shoe Hat (1937-38). Schiaparelli’s design for the hat was based on a drawing by Dalí. Although the design is remarkably simple, it takes what we expect and literally turns it on its head.
However, Schiaparelli’s hat was not the only one to make waves. The Surrealist artist Eileen Agar also created a work that was at once both art and fashion with Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse (1936). She took another common object and turned it upside down (this time a fruit basket) and declared it a hat.
You can watch Agar wear her hat down the street in this clip:
Surrealist fashion at the Met Gala
More recently, the New York Met Gala has become the place to witness the meeting of the surreal and fashion in fittingly unusual ways. Beginning in 1948, the event marks the beginning of the Costume Institute’s annual fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It offers celebrities and designers a chance to create the strange and unexpected, just as Surrealism did.
Ezra Miller’s Met Gala Dalí-inspired costume
For the 2019 theme of ‘Camp’, actor Ezra Miller created this look in collaboration with Burberry creative director Riccardo Tisci that could have been straight from a Dalí painting. Miller arrived covering his face with a mask of his own face. He then revealed that under it, his face was painted with five optical-illusion eyeballs surrounding his real eyes, a look created by make-up artist Mimi Choi. In doing so, his outfit recalls iconic works by Dalí and René Magritte that often depict strange objects in a hyper-realistic manner.
The legacy of Surrealism in fashion
The Surrealist fashion legacy of Elsa Schiaparelli continues to live on through her fashion house. The creative director Daniel Roseberry referenced her lasting vision ahead of the Schiaparelli Haute-Couture Spring Summer 2022 collection. The pieces felt as in tune with the surreal as Schiaparelli was. Twists on classic silhouettes included a golden corset that looked more like an intricate contemporary sculpture than a piece of clothing and handbags in the shape of heads and planets. Surrealism and fashion first met in the period of uncertainty between two world wars; in 2022 they came together again against the strange backdrop of conflicts and global crises.
‘What does fashion mean, what does fashion have to say, in an era in which everything is in flux? What does surrealism mean when reality itself has been redefined?’
Daniel Roseberry, 24th January 2022, in the notes for the Schiaparelli Haute-Couture Spring Summer 2022 Collection