The last time surrealism was so in vogue, humanity was wedged between two world wars. The art movement, which gained momentum in the ’20s, emerged as a reaction against the bleakness of the times; it interjected reality with dream-like imagery drawn from the improbable and the irrational — subconscious imaginings made real. Think of René Magritte’s portraits, where the human face is often swapped out for fruits and flowers and fauna; Giorgio de Chirico’s piazzas, devoid of life but populated by the strangest artefacts, or Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered teacups. Fashion, always happy to get into bed with art, quickly followed suit, led by Elsa Schiaparelli who collaborated with the likes of Salvador Dali on shoe hats and lobster dresses.
Today, the world once again finds itself shadowed by premonitions of doom and gloom — culture wars, climate crises and, of course, the coronavirus have all turned the world topsy turvy. Was there anything more surreal than four years of a reality TV trainwreck as the American president? Amid this backdrop, it is little wonder that surrealism has staged a monumental comeback. In a true full-circle moment, the surrealist cohort of fashion in the 2020s is being led by the House of Schiaparelli, as it was in the 1920s.
At the helm of the House today is American designer Daniel Roseberry. He took over the reins in 2019 but it was only in this past year that his work started dominating the cultural conversation in a major way. His blockbuster 2021 started when Lady Gaga wore Schiaparelli to Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, and was capped off by Cardi B at the American Music Awards in November, with a face-shielding gold mask and golden talons dangling off her ears and sprouting from her black opera gloves.
From the very start of his tenure, Roseberry proved that he was keyed into Elsa’s surrealist spirit without being beholden to the trappings of her ’30s heyday. His Autumn/Winter 2021 haute couture collection, in particular, was a standout. There were giant golden breasts protruding from a heavily embellished matador jacket, minaudieres in the form of giant lips, a black sheath adorned with a gargantuan shocking-pink rose that looked as though it had burst through the womb, metal hands clasped across waists and breasts, gilded eyes and ears in buttonholes, and a black gown sliced away at the chest to reveal a pair of lungs made of delicate golden capillaries.
Of his headspace while he was creating the collection, Roseberry says: “I felt that [it represented] a return to the joy that drove me into fashion in the first place. A year ago, I felt like I was designing for the end of the world, but the world didn’t end. We’re still here. Fashion is still here. Couture is still here. And not only is it still here, but in a world increasingly reliant on the easily replicable and the digitally disseminated, its power — to stop you in your tracks — is greater than ever. The gift of fashion is its ability to allow us to pretend, and that is its promise as well — if we dream hard enough, maybe we can will that beautiful past into existence.”
Roseberry is by no means the only designer willing a bolder, brighter, more beautiful future into existence. Perhaps the only other designer in Paris who has thrived as gloriously as he did these past two turbulent years has been Jonathan Anderson. The designer’s pandemic-era work at Loewe, especially, has been a masterclass in how to zig while others zag. While other brands experimented with digital solutions to physical restrictions, Anderson doubled down on the analog, the tactile and the tangible. The boxes and books he has thoughtfully put together to present his Loewe collections will serve as time capsules to be studied for years to come.
But now, with the light at the end of the tunnel in sight, Anderson has changed gears, swapping out the high drama of his Covid-era collections for a dash of surrealism in his latest Spring/Summer 2022 show. In a collection he called “neurotic, psychedelic, completely hysterical”, Anderson showed trench coats and denim jackets worn backwards and inserted with hammered metal breastplates, as well as dresses distorted and contorted by metal wiring — the more “neurotic” cousins of Rei Kawakubo’s “bumps and lumps” looks.
But the most surrealist flourish of all was to be found in the accessories, specifically on the heels of the shoes. His sandals were perched on bottles of nail polish, birthday candles, bars of soap, red roses and cracked eggs — a riff on the Duchamp-ian idea of ready-made. It was bizarre fashion for a bizarre world into which we are reemerging, and it felt just right.
Elsewhere in Paris, Marine Serre, one of the most influential young designers in fashion today, was also toying with the idea of surrealism. From the very beginning of her career, she has explored, deeply and intellectually, about what makes fashion “fashion”; why certain objects are perceived as special or precious and others aren’t.
In her hands, tablecloths, towels and curtains turn into demi-couture dresses. Her work, in short, has been fashion’s most compelling argument for the maxim “one man’s trash is another’s treasure”. For Spring/ Summer 2022, she takes that idea into a surrealist realm. The most memorable pieces of jewellery in the collection were fashioned from antique spoons and forks, heirlooms of a particular variety elevated and transformed into another.
Demna Gvasalia is another designer with his finger firmly on the pulse. Who could forget the flooded arena in which he showed his last pre-pandemic collection, with storms and fires blazing on the ceiling overhead? Since then, with physical shows impossible, Gvasalia has ventured into realities of the hyper and virtual kind —culminating in a virtual reality game (complete with VR headset) he created specially to showcase the Balenciaga Autumn 2021 collection, as well as a collaboration with the gaming platform, Fortnite, which put forth merchandise both virtual and physical.
With the return of physical shows during the most recent fashion week season though, Gvasalia traded digital realism for a kind of surrealism. His take was less about the manipulation and displacement of imagery and symbols; instead, he turned reality on its head by questioning the very fundamentals of fashion and fashion shows. What is a fashion show? In our celebrity-obsessed culture, is the red carpet the pre-event or the main event? Who is in the spotlight and who spectates? Who gets to decide?
His Spring/Summer 2022 show for Balenciaga took the form of a movie premiere where the red-carpet roll call was the show and the models, which included both celebrities and regular folks, were the guests (or was it the other way around?) before it all culminated in a surreal one-off, Balenciaga-branded-everything episode of The Simpsons where the population of Springfield gets flown to Paris to walk in a Balenciaga show.
The route he took might have been different, but the frisson of things appearing where they don’t belong and not being what they seem was up there with the best of the surrealists. In their own quiet way, Gvasalia’s clothes have always leaned into that tension as well. His work poses the questions: When is a dressing gown not just a dressing gown but a black-tie one, something not to change out of but into? Where do the boundaries between a tracksuit and an actual suit blur?
Those aren’t questions one often ponders but they came to the forefront during the most recent Met Gala, where Gvasalia and Balenciaga pretty much won the night with their coterie of celebrities. Rihanna, who routinely breaks the Internet with her Met Gala looks, rocked up wrapped in a black Balenciaga duvet and do-rag. And that wasn’t even the brand’s most viral look of the night. That honour went to Kim Kardashian West. America’s most famous woman (or at least, the most photographed) showed up on fashion’s biggest night as a surreal void, every inch of her famous figure and face shrouded in black—setting off a barrage of memes and think-pieces about identity and celebrity along the way.
Kardashian West is no stranger to making a surrealist statement. Before she was into Balenciaga, she too was into Schiaparelli. Roseberry once created for her a look moulded onto her famous curves — a body-armour bustier sporting six-pack abs in The-Hulk-green. Sure, it was divisive but it was also defiant, representing all the transformative, transportive qualities the best of fashion can offer.
As the designer says about his latest couture collection: “Is there anything more urgent today than dreaming big? I hope this collection reminds everyone who encounters it of the sheer delight that fashion can bring us in hard times, and with it, the promise of more joy when the clouds part. Give me more fashion. Give me more hope.”
And that’s what surrealism does — it dares you to stretch reality just that little bit further, in search of the fantasy you want to see made real. Give us more hope, indeed.