Fashion’s love affair with Surrealism is staging a comeback

11 Mins read

The bizarre and the surreal continue to inspire and influence the world of fashion today – from the avant-garde designs of haute couture to the everyday clothes we wear – designers are reimagining the dreamy and other-worldly.

Surrealism, a revolutionary artistic movement that emerged in the early 20th century, has had a profound influence on the world of fashion.

Characterised by its exploration of the subconscious mind and its rejection of traditional artistic techniques and values, Surrealism has inspired designers to push the boundaries of what is possible in fashion, creating garments that blur the lines between reality and fantasy.

At the heart of Surrealism is the idea of the spontaneous creation of art. Surrealist artists sought to tap into the unconscious mind, allowing their imaginations to run wild and creating works that were often unsettling, bizarre, and dreamlike.

This same spirit of spontaneity and experimentation has been embraced by fashion designers, who have used Surrealism as a way to break free from the constraints of tradition and explore new forms of expression.

“Surrealism is to do with the state of mind and cuts across art, fashion, theatre and performance – it is an interdisciplinary [concept],” according to Donatella Barbieri, Principal Lecturer in Design for Performance at the London College of Fashion

Gold satin maxi evening dress created by Charles James. It is sleeveless with a plunging neckline, and the bodice highlights the body's curves.
Charles James, Evening Dress, 1934

She adds that Surrealism’s identity is that of “reality binding with non-reality. Of transforming the meaning of something through its use of exaggeration, through its repetition, and its misuse. To turn something into what it isn’t meant to be – that dream to nightmare binary.”

Fashion students Ebba Zickerman and Faith Cole echo these sentiments. “[Surrealism] is more about creating something unexpected and thought-provoking; it aims to evoke a sense of mystery and intrigue rather than being practical,” Zickerman told us.

Surrealism’s influence can still be seen in today’s fashion scene, from Schiaparelli’s latest haute couture show to streetwear brands. “[Surrealist fashion designers] take everyday things into high fashion that’s unrealistic but really makes you look at the garments as art pieces,” Cole emphasises.

In today’s fashion scene, Surrealism has been embraced by designers such as Iris van Herpen, Alexander McQueen and Viktor & Rolf, who have pushed the boundaries of what is possible in fashion with their avant-garde designs. This year, Schiaparelli’s haute couture show highlighted how Surrealism is still influencing fashion houses today.

But Schiaparelli isn’t the only high fashion house to be inspired by the Surrealist movement. Hillary Taymour, Collina Strada’s creative director and founder, channelled fantasy and the surreal through the form of anthropomorphic representations for the brand’s Autumn/Winter 23 haute couture collection.

Strada’s exploration of nature and this human-animal connection appeared at New York Fashion Week with their new collection, Please Don’t Eat My Friends, which was inspired by the ecosystem. Models morphed into animals through surreal prosthetics, courtesy of British make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench.

Commenting on the catwalk, Barbieri stated, “These new bodies coming down the catwalk that are actually accessible highlights the hybridity, going through the boundaries, all those kinds of edges that are open to creative interaction and are coming through the surface, form, fit, and composition of what a garment can be with a body.”

Together Taymour and Ffrench paid homage to animal welfare and the natural world, keeping with some of the brand’s ethos’ which include sustainability, inclusivity and accessibility. The brand often serves as an extension of the environment, as seen even last season as Taymour took over a butterfly sanctuary in Brooklyn.

“Schiaparelli means an intimate and ancient relationship between art and fashion, in particular with the vernacular of a Surrealism”

Tilda Swinton

The use of face-transforming prosthetics combined with the designs on this season’s haute couture runway verges on the bizarre and the surreal. The collection continued to honour the Earth and her animal friends while also upping the level of sophistication and workmanship in the designs.

The psychedelic prosthetics included snouts, whiskers and beaks, while the designs incorporated “fur”, organza bunny tails, reptile scale and dolphin print mesh pieces. As usual, Taymour’s collection used sustainable and deadstock materials, as she collaborated with Italian manufacturer Vitelli on recycled pieces, such as flap hats and animal tails.

The experimentation with animal print was paired with earthy tones, as the range of pieces included velvet bodysuits, satin gowns and chequered cotton flannel suits – a masterclass in playful tailoring.

There were also tank tops with spiked shoulders and elegant opera gloves, reflecting a more formal aspect of the collection, “We’re trying to do some more sleek things, and we’re using a lot of silk satin”, the creative director explained. Another nod to this was a chocolate brown biodegradable satin cut dress, although it did come with removable horns on the shoulders.  

Talking about Strada’s show, Zickerman highlighted: “I believe [Surrealism’s] effect on fashion is even more prominent to date when analysing the archives and current collections of designers such as Collina Strada, who has drawn influence from Surrealist motifs to make bold political statements, incorporating slogans and graphics into her designs.”

A perfume bottle, advert from Vogue for the perfume and a black hat displayed on a wire head.
Room 40, Victoria and Albert Musuem, London

The creative director expressed in synchrony with her magnificent vision of a reality in which humans live in constant harmony with nature. As Ffrench explained: “The idea was to have some creatures that were not human but not animals either”, adding, “We decided to paint [the prosthetics] in the colours and prints of the collection.”

The collection delivered eccentricity and maximalism combined with truly whimsical and ethereal aesthetics, as the nature-inspired motifs add an air of romanticism and highlight the overall theme of our eternal connection with mother earth.

Barbieri echoes Ffrench about the identification with animals and nature in this collection, “[There was a] really elegant way of doing animality, it wasn’t a kind of mockery, it had a real elegance in the beautiful materials and surfaces, a real hybridity of […] human and animal that was explored through art and the body.”

The influence of Surrealism can still be seen in contemporary fashion, distinctively continuing within the house of Schiaparelli, as it did in the 1930s, to incorporate Surrealist motifs into its designs. In a recent collection, Schiaparelli’s creative director, Daniel Roseberry, paid tribute to the past collections of the house and its connection to Surrealism.

Roseberry’s collection had a series of hourglass gowns accessorised by a foam-moulded lion and snow leopard head. While a wolf head was adorned onto a body-covering coat-like gown made from faux fur.

 “Schiaparelli means an intimate and ancient relationship between art and fashion, in particular with the vernacular of a Surrealism dear to the heart of Elsa Schiaparelli herself. In the hands of Daniel Roseberry, this resonance pulses with an energy and freshness that regularly takes the breath away”, acknowledges performer Tilda Swinton.

Roseberry’s designs have been praised for their innovative use of materials and motifs, and his approach to Surrealism is a continuation of Schiaparelli’s legacy. His latest couture collection – inspired by The Divine Comedy – divided opinions.

One person on Twitter wrote, “I am against the Schiaparelli collection. I know they are fake animal heads out of manmade materials, but we can’t deny that it is glamorising trophy hunting as fashion again.” Even though the creations were made from resin, wool, and silk – they still inspired strong reactions from the public.

Twitter post written about Schiaparelli's latest collection which displayed faux animal heads on some dresses. The post is against the collection.
Twitter User, PaigeThreeDrag on Schiaparelli’s SS23 Show

In contrast, PETA’s president Ingrid Newkirk saw the value in Roseberry’s craftsmanship. Newkirk stated it “celebrates lions’ beauty and [could] be a statement against trophy hunting […] These [are] fabulously innovative three-dimensional animal heads.”

Between the animal heads, Roseberry showed garments with various sculptural and surrealist elements. He has reinterpreted and modernised tailoring, as one tailored skirt suit featured a hammered, hand-patinated brass bust worn as a headpiece.

Schiaparelli’s use of Surrealism in fashion has had a lasting impact on the industry as Roseberry has taken the legacy of his predecessor as a clear blueprint. He has dutifully resurrected key surrealist motifs, as shown in his latest haute couture show in Paris.

The highly realistic lion, snow leopard and wolf heads were embellished with sleek black designs modelled by Naomi Campbell, Irina Shayk and Shalom Harlow. The fantastical appearance of the collection has divided opinions, but nevertheless, Roseberry has highlighted Schiaparelli’s house codes set by the brand’s founder.

“Surrealism, when streetwear imitates formalwear and when life imitates art. Or vice versa”

Virgil Abloh

Surrealism is all about exploring the subconscious mind and tapping into the worlds of dreams and fantasies. In fashion, this translates into pieces that are unexpected, whimsical, and often abstract. It is about “addressing that eternal psychology; the wake and sleep thing that Surrealism started off from has then allowed imagination to create across generations”, describes Barbieri.

One designer who has embraced Surrealism in her work is Iris Van Herpen, known for her innovative use of 3D printing and unconventional materials.

In an interview, Van Herpen stated: “When I’m designing clothing, I try to stretch the boundaries or the perception of boundaries that we give ourselves. Reality is everything, and dreaming is the same: it’s where you put your own border between those two, and I think that border for me can be very different than the border for someone else.”

Since her first show in 2007, Van Herpen has been inventing new ideas of sartorial expression as she combines the traditional with radical materials and garment construction methods to create her unique aesthetic vision. The designer’s commitment is to blend the past – traditional couture craftsmanship – and the future – 3D technology – together. In doing this, she is able to create these other-worldly designs reminiscent of sculptural art.

“In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous”

Elsa Schiaparelli

Iris Van Herpen’s designs often feature organic forms and intricate patterns that seem to defy gravity. Her collections are a perfect example of how Surrealism can be used to create wearable art. But Surrealism is not just limited to high fashion.

Elements of Surrealism can be seen in everyday clothing as well, from the whimsical prints of brands like Moschino and Gucci to the unexpected colour combinations and asymmetrical designs of independent designers.

Even streetwear, a style known for its emphasis on practicality and comfort, has been influenced by Surrealism, with brands like Hood By Air and Off-White incorporating unexpected materials and graphic elements into their designs. In an interview with Hypebeast, Off-White’s founder, Virgil Abloh, explained his approach: “Surrealism, when streetwear imitates formalwear and when life imitates art. Or vice versa.”

Off-White’s designs often feature bold graphics and unexpected combinations of colours and materials. Abloh’s use of Surrealism helps him create a brand that is both cutting-edge and playful. In 2018 and 2019, Off-White dropped two capsule collections with retailer Smets for a range of exclusive apparel, including hoodies with the word “SURREALIST” on one sleeve. Inspired by the Surrealist movement and artist René Magritte, the capsule featured graphics reminiscent of Magritte’s work. 

The influence of Surrealism on streetwear, as Zickerman explains, “utilised unexpected materials and graphic elements in their designs to create a sense of otherworldliness, which I believe somewhat challenges conventional streetwear aesthetics.”

A hand-printed silk head scarf with hands designed on it, and a yellow trim. Next to it is two golden hair combs.
Jean Cocteau, Head Scarf, “Hands”, 1937-39, and Elsa Schiaparelli, Hair Combs, 1935

One of the most famous examples of Surrealism in fashion is the work of designer Elsa Schiaparelli. In the 1930s, Schiaparelli collaborated with Surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau to create garments that were truly innovative, incorporating unexpected elements like lobster motifs, birdcage hats, and buttonholes in the shape of eyes.

Schiaparelli’s designs were playful, extraordinary and utterly original, and she became the Surrealism provocateur who forever altered fashion designs. Elsa Schiaparelli’s surrealistic motifs have influenced generations of designers. As Schiaparelli herself said, “In difficult times, fashion is always outrageous.”

Her daring approach to design was reflected in her iconic Lobster Dress, which featured a lobster print across the front of the dress. Fashion historian Valerie Steele explained Schiaparelli’s approach: “It’s true that Elsa Schiaparelli was pushing all kinds of boundaries, particularly with the Surrealist experiments, where she was in some ways blurring the line between clothing and the body and violating a lot of rules of what’s attractive.”

Schiaparelli’s use of unusual materials was also evident in her famous shoe hat, which featured a high-heeled shoe placed upside down on top of a hat. This playful piece became a symbol of Surrealism in fashion and is still talked about today. The duo of Schiaparelli and Dalí created one of the most startling illusions for the Tear Dress.

The trompe-l’oeil design was created by pieces of cut fabric loosely hanging to resemble tears printed onto the dress. It was inspired by Dalí’s painting “Necrophiliac Springtime”, painted in 1936 and originally owned by Elsa Schiaparelli.

The painting was an allegory for the painter’s paranoia, his conscience shifting towards illusion. The garment was created in harmony with the artist and fashion designer, and it balances the extremes of perfected couture with the inescapable fragmentation of the mind.

The essence is that “Schiaparelli revolutionised form”, as Barbieri explains, adding that “the whole art and fashion, to me, were made a space by Surrealism [as] the notion of tradition is something that Surrealism began to tear up.”

Beyond her direct collaborations with Surrealist artists, Schiaparelli added surrealist symbolic forms in her clothing, intentionally creating illusions and strange images or bizarre juxtapositions. Gloves were embellished and modified by adding fingernails, claws, and rings. While hands frequently appeared in her designs as clips, buttons and belt clasps.

At its core, Surrealism in fashion is about pushing boundaries and exploring new forms of expression. At the zenith of the Surrealist movement, André Breton composed his Surrealist Manifestos – in short, defining it as the act of collapsing all boundaries between the real and the imagined.

It has impacted designers to create pieces that are truly unique. From Iris Van Herpen’s 3D-printed creations to Schiaparelli’s dramatic runway shows, Surrealism has influenced some of the most innovative designers of our time. By embracing the playful, flamboyant spirit of Surrealism, designers can, and have, created garments that are truly innovative and inspiring, challenging our perceptions of fashion.

“It is really interesting to see where the cultural energy is, and at the moment, there seems to be a lot of transgressive energy towards [Surrealism]”

Donatella Barbieri

As Barbieri highlights: “When you want to work into a Surrealist approach as a designer, what we will certainly engage with is that tension of reality and non-reality. It’s the becoming of non-recognition, which gives you freedom but also a challenge, where the body is there but it is transformed.”

Fashion, like any art form, lends itself to continual recontextualizations, but the use of Surrealism’s dreamlike and theatrical aesthetic has been a continual source of inspiration for fashion designers throughout the century.

Pinstripe Suit and shirt by Jean-Paul Gaultier 1995.
Jean-Paul Gaultier, Suit, 1995

Cole explains how Surrealism will continue to be a source of inspiration for fashion “as it’s often the world around you that inspires you and your designs. There will be everyday elements that you look at and think are great to inform your shape/silhouette.”

Zickerman echoes Cole’s statement, “I think Surrealism is likely to continue to be a strong source of inspiration. A surge in technological advancements has exposed designers to new opportunities and ways to create that previously never existed – technology as a medium of curation has prompted designers to expand their horizons and incorporate unconventional shapes, textures, and colours through computerised aid.” 

Surrealism is all about breaking down barriers, and the influence of surreal elements in fashion designers’ work will continue in the years to come. As fashion historian Caroline-Elenowitz-Hess explains, “Surrealism is often connected to a sense of cultural upheaval.”

With the uncertainty following the COVID-19 pandemic, countless pressing global conflicts and wars, and the rights of women and queer folks challenged by archaic systems, the current cultural environment makes Surrealism’s fantastical incongruity especially apparent today.

Barbieri reinstates these sentiments, “It is really interesting to see where the cultural energy is, and at the moment, there seems to be a lot of transgressive energy towards [Surrealism].”

Haute couture or everyday wear; Surrealism continues to influence and inspire the world of fashion, unleashing the unconscious and opening up new possibilities for creativity and self-expression.

From the iconic early collaborations of Dalí and Schiaparelli to the ground-breaking designs of Jean Paul Gaultier in the 80s, Surrealism has had an enduring impact on the fashion world. Maybe Surrealism is the sartorial antidote to the world around us as it channels the anxieties of the present in a liberating creative way that associates fashion with art.

Featured image of Elsa Schiaparelli’s ‘Circus’ Evening Jacket, 1938 – all images by Georgie Vartan

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