Part of: Ugly

Essay: Schiap and Surrealism

by Lucy Norris on 27 May 2014

Historian and writer Lucy Norris explores a key aspect of 'ugly' fashion; surrealist clothing, offering an ode to the genius of Schiaparelli.

Historian and writer Lucy Norris explores a key aspect of 'ugly' fashion; surrealist clothing, offering an ode to the genius of Schiaparelli.

Whilst Poiret may not have been a surrealist, he was a strong influence on Elsa Schiaparelli. Not only was he the first designer to work in conjunction with artists outside of the fashion system –as Schiaparelli did – his designs aligned women with the otherness of enchanted objects and the erotic mystery of nature. He enveloped these ideas into a desirable and inaccessible package that only few women could afford – or dare - to wear.

However, if Freud and the Metaphysical world of Aristotle were a sentence, then Poiret would only be in brackets. It was the philosophical questions posed by Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali that Schiaparelli wanted to answer: 'What is ultimately real? What could/should it look like?' Schiaparelli’s influences not only reached far beyond the fashion system, into the world of philosophy and politics, her work itself went beyond the realms of the wardrobe. Her collaborations were the stuff that dreams are made of. She was the clairvoyant via which surrealism entered fashion. It is to her that designers such as Lagerfeld, Kawakubo, Saint Laurent, Prada, Mugler, Lacroix and Gaultier owe their debt. She let them in the back door of the most exclusive private members' club of all: art.

The early 20th century saw our minds literally open up - and creativity would never be the same. It seemed that not only was the world confusing, but that we were too. Freud’s terrifying psychoanalysis into the unconscious and our fear of the uncanny delivered the nightmare, which was at the heart of Surrealism’s escape and doom. Chirico, the God Father of Surrealist art, created paintings that put deconstructed sub-human puppets and unsettling anatomical beings within classical settings. The ancient world this time though was empty and eerie, a foiled backdrop against which our unanswered questions posed, sat or ran from the shadows.

Hellenic symbolism, within surrealist fashion, speaks of our collective wrangling with the eternal question: who are we? This construct is an unnerving reminder of how far we have come; yet how much we do not know. The pleating along the back of Schiaparelli and Jean Cocteau’s evening coat resembling the columns of Ancient Greece upon which the two embroidered faces sit, is an example of this. The faces represent our duality and subconscious awakening, whilst the column is the questionable foundation of what we already know. Throughout the 20th and 21st century, fashion designers have used this surrealist trope: dip frieze statue pleating at Viktor & Rolf, angel wings at Thierry Mugler, impossible pleating at Miyake & Capucci, or near mythical gothic draping at Rick Owens. It is the presence of both known and unknown, without comprehension of which is real that is fearsome. Fashion is threatening to turn in on us, and jump from the shadows.

Surrealist fashion is anarchic and defiant. Yes, this glamorous gaggle of clothes even informed punk. Schiaparelli and Dali were ripping cloth way before Westwood or Kawakubo. The Tear Illusion Dress and Headscarf of 1937 was destroyed inside of the atelier, with the intent of communicating the anger and desolation of Fascism spreading throughout Europe. This dress was a dramatic step change for fashion design, customers were no longer buying fashion. They were buying visual culture.

The word surreal (sur-real) literally translates as over and above the real. Thus, surrealism could not survive without there first being the real. Surrealism and surrealist fashion had - and still has – as much to do with the world we live in, then the nonsensical dream world to which we escape. Think of it as the most fantastical form of drop out culture.

Wearing surrealism proves you put creativity and the fight against homogeny over and above the importance of being conventionally attractive to the opposite sex.

One hundred years on and there’s plenty of battles to trigger disillusionment - whether it’s the fight against consumerism, illuminati conspiracy theories or oil being put ahead of our planet’s welfare. Not all designers can hit the darkness of these agendas head on. Alexander McQueen was one such designer. His commitment to the metamorphosis of females into fishes, insects and caged birds tackles the same dark questions that Schiaparelli posed about female entrapment. Schiaparelli knew that a lobster didn’t belong on a dress; that was the point. Served up pink for our delight, she was asking about our right to displace a creature from the sea, purely for our consumption. Her Dali lobster was an alien from another world, just as Lee McQueen’s appendaged Atlanteans were here to beg us to save our planet.

One eternal message that surrealist pieces communicate is relevant no matter what century you live in: wearing surrealism proves you put creativity and the fight against homogeny over and above the importance of being conventionally attractive to the opposite sex. Whether it’s Mary Fellowes wearing a Schiaparelli shoe hat on her head or a customer wearing a bulbous piece from Kawakubo’s 1997 Lumps and Bumps collection, it’s all about using the body as a collage – where components of the female form are cut up and displaced in a way that shocks, startles and amuses. This game of mix up could be misconceived as inconsequential cartoonish fun. However, this feminist fashion stance is bound up in surrealism’s intricate relationship with the female psyche - and art’s claim that fashion items embodied the female within surrealism.

The forefathers of surrealism adored and desired a female muse for not only being mind boggling, but for being a downright walking nightmare. They had an erotic adoration of a woman’s ability to access the dark, the wild, the neurotic, the playful and the irrational. These were the same unpredictable and dangerous emotions that surrealist art was ultimately trying to access. One philosophical approach was that women not only had a stronger connection to the unconscious mind, but that maybe women were the unconscious.

In the 21st Century, it is no different. When a woman walks into a room wearing a surrealist piece of design – whether it be a chain sawed tulle skirt from Viktor & Rolf or an A/W 14 acrylic nail dress by Hussein Chalayan – the wearer is subliminally communicating not only her access to another world, but the connotation that she is the walking other. Some may call what she is wearing ugly, stupid or and at best fantastical or weird – but engaging a man with subliminal psychological trickery beats the unchallenging offering of a bit of leg. Women are blissfully unaware of the part they play. They are a vortex for mysterious ideas beyond their conscious.

Something tells me that ex-Vogue editor Bettina Ballard knew what a handful Schiaparelli’s disciples were. She once described the Schiaparelli customer as: 'not having to worry as to whether she was beautiful or not; she was a type.' Elsa Schiaparelli’s 'types' could metaphorically pour out their subconscious via the Desk Suit, complete with real drawers where a psychoanalyst could easily file a patient’s confidential notes. Externalising the inner world of our bodies, Schiaparelli’s infamous skeleton dress, her clear PVC cape or Rhodophane tunic were all about a transparent access to this inner world. Fast forward and we see everyone from Madame Grès and Pierre Cardin through to Alexander McQueen and Rei Kawakubo committed to externalising anatomy; whilst in 1980 Yves Saint Laurent offered a peep into the female psyche with the help of an extra pair of eyes. The words 'Les Yeux des Elsa' embroidered across a zodiac sky confirmed that these were Elsa’s eyes, no less.

Exposed but covered, clothing that taps into this intellectual voyeurism promotes the duality of intrigue and the inaccessible. Even to this day, women are sexually unnerving the male gaze yet also open for analysis. Just this season, the saying 'I could read her like a book' was taken to new heights as Christopher Kane sent 21st century women walking down our catwalks as literal books - whilst at Mary Katrantzou, pieces embellished with keys saw girls dressed as secrets.

Fashion and the female remain locked.

Image features Schiaparelli haute couture by Marco Zanini S/S 14 print



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