PRINT March 1988


Fashion and Surrealism

Fashion and Surrealism, by Richard Martin. New York: Rizzoli, 1987, 240 pp., 15 color and 285 black-and-white illustrations.

RICHARD MARTIN HAS PUT together a very useful book documenting Surrealism’s contribution to 20th-century fashion—not fashion in general, but fashion with a capital F, the industry centered around the design of women’s clothes. The book, which is exhaustively illustrated, traces the relationship between the two at the level both of direct effect—fashion designs etc. by Surrealist artists—and of the indirect, the distant, or possibly even the merely coincidental, as in Christian Lacroix’s Violin Dress, 1985, which might as easily be related to Vermeer, or to anyone else who has employed the general theme of the woman as a musical instrument, as to Surrealism. Martin defines Surrealism in terms that lean heavily on the movement’s origins in Symbolism; he begins his book with Lautréamont’s definition, in 1869 or so, of the production of meaning as a matter of chance and incommensurability—the encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table—and he doesn’t do much to distinguish the later movement from the earlier, except by implication. But he is entirely right in concentrating most of his attention on what no doubt was Surrealism’s most overt contribution to the fashion industry, namely the conversion of the fetish, in the Freudian sense, into a familiar visual motif.

To that end, Salvador Dali figures strongly in Fashion and Surrealism, which culminates in a chapter devoted to Elsa Schiaparelli, the designer most closely associated with the Surrealist movement and Dali’s collaborator on a number of projects. Dali’s successful engagement in fashion design raises the question of how a character so tediously misogynistic (or is it just Catholic fear of the mother?) could do good things with women’s clothes. Perhaps the answer is twofold. First, ever since science took the place of (overt) religion the language of the West has been one in which meaning is made through transgression, through breaking rules and proving theories, and therefore people, wrong. In these terms Dali’s naughtiness could not fail to be chic, particularly since fetishism, which he so indulged in his work, is the displacement of the object of fascination to a safe distance from the place where it originates, hand in hand with fear. His display of fetishism as a motif was therefore a ritual expulsion or accommodation of that fear. It would be chic as long as Freud was chic—and until the sullen realization dawned that his illumination of the fetish on one level must inevitably drive it into some other, newly elusive position, prominent but hidden. (Dali’s uses of the fetish would seem, by the way, to be good examples of the inevitable parochialism of any such fashion—one wonders how Schiaparelli’s and Dali’s Shoe Hat, 1937, was received in India, where I’ve read that convicted criminals are sometimes made to leave the court with their shoes on their heads, associating the shoe not with the body but with the filthy ground.) Second, Dali was chic because his naughtiness played with something that in fact could not be defeated. One recalls Baudrillard’s assertion that one of the most powerful—unassailable—images in our culture is the consummately passive-aggressive one of the reclining female nude, and it is in this sense that Dali’s fear of the mother does indeed culminate in the perpetual triumph of attractive women over the fussy bits of nonsense with which he sought to encumber them. Dali’s career is a sacrifice on the altar of the very femininity that elsewhere seems to make him so cross and so remorselessly banal.

Whatever criticisms I might have of Fashion and Surrealism would have to do with my impression that in scrupulously pursuing every actual coincidence or causal effect that might link a Surrealist object or practice to a product of the up-market rag trade, Martin has not given sufficient attention to the extent to which fashion—which is and always has been a language of concealment as revelation, covering as display, the external as an intensification of what it pretends to obscure—is an essentially Surrealist operation to begin with, a surreal activity both avant and après la lettre. One may say that fashion must always be thus, remembering as we do so Marx’s invocation of a future, liberated epoch in which we shall supposedly be transparent to one another, a goal entirely commensurate with both the aspirations of the Surrealist movement and the ideas with which fashion plays. Fashion marks time—in the two senses of that expression, for it both announces change and tends to make change cyclical, a naturalist rather than a historical, i.e. irreversible, notion of the temporal. And fashion is able to perform this double play by virtue of the body’s being always encountered as a completeness, a system, like language, entirely self-contained and adequate to any expression it may seek to articulate. Clothing is a zone of convergence between the person considered as an entity contained by its own body, and the person as an entity in historical space—not a self-sufficient entity at all, but rather a signifier in, or component of, a larger world of signs. The body’s completeness allows clothing to theorize every important question the living body might want to ask of the world without having recourse to language: does the world, considered as a text, currently want to make meaning out of an erotics of plenitude or of lack? In how much fluidity and how much stability, concepts that bracket the body like hemline and neckline, does power’s self-image manifest itself at this moment? What expression, what ideological disposition, must the body adopt in response to the clothes that the times offer it?

These questions, enshrined—an example I seem to use whenever a subject of this sort comes up—in Oscar Wilde’s claim that he once saw an advertisement on a Paris bus that said “With this hat the lady’s mouth should be worn slightly open,” may have been, as it were, ready made (I appreciate the infelicity of the term) for the Surrealists. Martin’s first chapter in fact summarizes them through a Joseph Cornell image of a seamstress sewn, created, by her sewing machine. But they certainly weren’t invented by them. Indeed, remarks like Wilde’s suggest that everybody had always known that fashion did what the Surrealists, through the intensification of certain themes, would say it did.

Still, it is possible to say that it is because of this intensification that fashion is what it is today. Surrealism, which after all sought to be many other things besides “art,” did indeed succeed in intervening in the world at the level of the body. It was in this sense the last representational art form, as well as the one that irrevocably finished off representation in the pre-Freudian sense. And it achieved this through a clarification of the role of the mannequin, the objective correlative of male narcissism. Surrealism sought to theorize the body through the mannequin (in those dark days the word referred both to the object in the store window and to the actual living woman).

Consider the illustration on page 165 of Fashion and Surrealism. A Bruce Weber photograph advertising a dress by Karl Lagerfeld, it has both nothing and everything to do with Surrealism. A very beautiful woman stands, her right shoulder and her face toward the camera, with her right hand on her hip. Balanced on her head is a rather large bundle of twigs, which makes her posture awkward in a manner that becomes eloquent by virtue of one’s being able, since it’s been frozen by photography, to stare at it for a long time. Leaves drape the side of the model’s face, like hair, and a slender twig protrudes from her sleeve and exfoliates, paralleling her hand. She is seen against a bit of wooded countryside, shot in soft focus, a soft stability against which her willowiness appears even more sharply. (In one’s recourse to an arboreal metaphor, the forcefulness of the image becomes all the more apparent.) The shot is arranged so as to concentrate attention on the model’s right shoulder. This is exposed by way of a primary feature of the dress being modeled, a pretty opening of the seam toward the top of the arm. The seam is joined together again by a fastening on the shoulder itself.

The image makes me think of Joseph Beuys rather than of any Surrealist, mostly because it’s so delightfully Gothic (in the sense that the Gothic is a Christian repository of Northern paganism), and is as such at a considerable remove from Surrealism’s pervasive Classicism. (As fasces the bundle of twigs may be Roman, but the forest is Gothic, and once drawn into it the legions were defeated.) Yet one may indeed find Surrealist antecedents for this image, and Martin tells us what they are, and in doing so reminds us of the historical project of which Surrealism was a large part: the goal of nothing less than the total and absolute (let us all murmur here, “some chance”) demystification of the 19th century and the kinds of meaning it produced and lived by. The twigs on the woman’s head surely invoke the enormous hats worn by the early Modernists’ Victorian grandmothers, hats that included not only bits of dead vegetation but also dead birds, headdresses that reflected giant industrial triumphs over nature. Behind these grotesque assemblages, and ritually exorcised by everything that the hat as Victorian behemoth celebrated, lay the pagan fertility images to which the Christian West so often aspires when it tries to make thought out of transgression. Surrealism was an important part of the revolution that abolished the Victorian woman’s hat.

Of Fashion and Surrealism’s heroine, Schiaparelli, one learns that she was a Roman aristocrat; in the world of fashion, of course, Rome is a city entirely lacking a working class—only aristocrats live there. For my part I think it would have been a good idea for Martin, in the course of developing a theoretical background to what fashion is, to have taken Coco Chanel more fully into account in his book.

Chanel, who was working class, definitively altered the symbolic reference of the basic dress, and did so by attaching it to a symbology originally lodged in all that women’s clothing was not. In the 19th century the rules governing what men should wear were themselves inherently surreal. Surrounded by his family at the evening meal, or by his cronies and others he sought to impress at a more elaborate version of the same event, a man would be clothed in evening dress, exactly the same attire as his male servants. Only his power would separate the two: uniformity celebrated power as an invisibility manifest only in action. For women, however, there was a mad disparity between the dress of servant and served. It is a commonplace to note that Victorian women’s clothes of the middle class and up were designed to celebrate impracticality, the fact that the wearer didn’t work for a living. This impracticality gave birth to the elaborate language of deployment of the female body that the Surrealists inherited. In sharp contradistinction, the dress of female servants was meant to be severely practical and generally the same, allowing for whatever job was at hand. The triumph of Chanel’s little black dress after World War II represents the triumph of that servant class, the class that inherited what was left of Europe after two world wars, and that has been most radical in its rejection of the 19th century and most pathetic in its allegiance to it.

I make this point in order to suggest that a general theory of clothing would have to take into account the extent to which fashion confirms power through playing a game of transgression, one that might indeed be connected to some notion of the zeitgeist, and that acts out, involuntarily as well as consciously, where the power is. Because of its Involuntary element, fashion could never really be susceptible to the imprecations or interventions of an intellectual tendency, whether Surrealism or any other. The fashion industry is a force by definition uncontrollable because of its indifference to reason in the pursuit of identifying the pleasurable. An overwhelmingly unconscious articulation of the desires of the culture that produces it and is produced by it, it is no more amenable to outside influence than any other autonomous social institution, particularly because it is meant to perform according to a principle of a sort other than that implied by the concept of good sense.

The same principle of uncontrollability defines the body adorned by 20th-century fashion. Considered as a historical sign, this is, to return to an earlier suggestion, a Gothic rather than a Classical body. To take Weber’s model, or the way he presents her, as an example, it is mobile, fragile, impermanent, unstable—a creature of the forest, or, as the Symbolists would have said, a fawn. Furthermore, the clothes it wears are indisputably Gothic. In adopting a rhetoric of display in place of the 19th century’s deployment of the concealed, which drew attention to the body by covering it, the 20th century returned women’s dress to the Gothic antecedents that men’s had never abandoned. Gothic men wore clothes that were tight fitting, so that one could do unpleasant things like herd swine in the woods without getting caught up in the branches. Gothic women, perhaps celebrating the division of labor and the need for one’s arms to be uncovered when cooking over an open fire, left their limbs unencumbered. (This distinguished them from the women of the Mediterranean and was found to be shocking, which is to say arousing, for visitors from that region, whether from Rome or, later, from the Islamic world, where the chador must be counted as the consummation of the principle of implication and concealment as display. Both kinds of visitors were similarly shocked by these same women’s self-assertiveness.) In contradistinction to the model wearing the Lagerfeld dress, the Surrealist mannequin is too often in repose, violinlike, as Martin points out, or Mae West–like—Schiaparelli and Dali actually used West’s body as a template. The Surrealist conception of the female body is Classical in inspiration, harmonic, stable, not Gothic. In this regard the final verdict on Surrealism’s use of fashion might be that it tended to miss the point, that it saw something was going on but failed, for much of the time, to see that the day of the odalisque was past. One might usefully compare the modernity of the women in Surrealist films to the generally more Ingres-like women of Surrealist painting in order to pursue the results of their confusion of this point, and I would draw attention likewise to the way in which the Surrealist model/mannequin is so often trapped, prone, in every sense kept still. Despite the profound interest in the North demonstrated by such masterpieces as André Breton’s novel Arcane 17 (1947), from the perspective of its treatment of the mannequin Surrealism looks like one more attempt to stabilize the 20th century.

A word about the timeliness of Fashion and Surrealism. In the art world, fashion is sometimes in fashion and sometimes not. Surrealism’s status is more or less constant. On the one hand, art critics love it because it’s “literary” and allows them to talk at length about Freud and to a lesser extent Marx, usually without letting go of any pre-Freudian or implicitly anti-Marxist prejudices.about the art object or the body in so doing. Artists tend to be similarly unified, particularly in the United States, but their unity comes from denying that their work has any particular relationship to the stuff. This was true beginning with the Abstract Expressionists, some of whom joined the Surrealist movement during its wartime exile in New York and then became embarrassed about it. Such rejection generally seems to result from artists feeling uncomfortable with Freudian interpretations of the work of art, which is what they’ve been told Surrealism is all about, and it is reinforced by most Surrealist art objects being in practice rather feeble when compared with other art objects, let alone the best products of popular culture. It is only proper that fashion should predominate over Surrealism in Fashion and Surrealism, for the book’s illustrations make it quite clear that fashion has available to it a force that Surrealism could only fitfully grasp, let alone harness.

The art world is currently emerging from a decade-long religiosity. A great deal of art and art criticism has spent the past ten years or so being pious about, or, which is exactly the same thing, knowingly compliant in, the world of signs that has the world of fashion at its center. One result of this has been the wholesale conversion of Marxist-Freudian critique—the sort with which Surrealism sought to engage and associate itself—into a successful commercial enterprise. The art and criticism associated with this tendency have sought to deconstruct pleasure as the enemy of enlightenment, usually through a methodology more or less consistent with Surrealism’s, though the relationship is never acknowledged, and the art is more moralistic, or more coyly amoral, than Surrealism ever was. Thus it can only be helpful today to have a book that demonstrates the gap between the fruits of a search for enlightenment and the tremendous force available to a machine—the fashion industry—that is in general engaged in an articulation of the pleasurable, and is quite indifferent, in its pursuit of the pagan and the transgressive, to any idea of being enlightened. Fashion and Surrealism may help us to grasp how and why such current art, like Surrealist art, seems enfeebled by its own putative sophistication when contrasted with what it seeks to control through critique.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe is the author of Eminance and Contradiction. He is currently working on a short history of the fashion photograph.