Surrealism and the Avant-garde in Fashion

There are many times throughout history when fashion has gone a bit wacky. Color, material, extreme silhouettes all coming together to create an unforgettable look of usually a quite short moment in time. Think 1790s, 1830s, and 1960s. Often these really ‘memorable’ fashions arise out of socio-economic strife: post-war periods, recessions and depressions, famines and plagues, intense social change.

When a major shift happens in a society, it ripples through art, architecture, music, literature, and design. Such was the case with the post-World War I Surrealist movement, which made famous such names as Salvador Dali, Robert Delaunay, Max Ernst, and Rene Magritte.

In a movement pursuing the expression of complex emotions, fashion could not be ignored. Elsa Schiaparelli lead surrealism in dress, one of the first to introduce terrifically bold colors and unique motifs into and onto her designs. In footwear, Salvatore Ferragamo explored the ideas of Surrealism in pillowy forms, interesting shapes, shots of color, and intense textural elements.

The influence of these Avant-garde designers is easy to see when studying how fashion changed in the 1930s. The oranges and peaches paired with smoky greys and teals, shot through with black, found their way from Dali’s canvases and Schiaparelli’s gowns to all manner of design, interiors, and dress from Parisian couturiers to Sears Catalog. And the influence of Schiaparelli’s signature color, Shocking Pink, elaborated on with metallic gold, peach, and black, influenced the rest of the 20th century and into the next.

McCall;s, Winter 1939

Today, the stage of self expression in fashion set by the Avant-garde designers of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s remains the benchmark. Runway shows are full of interesting shapes, textures, and fabrics, merely the tools used to make statements, commentary, and convey emotions and stories. As always, the high concepts do find their way into mainstream fashion. Look inside your closet – what interesting items of dress, footwear, or jewelry might you have that may have been influenced by the bold, Avant-garde designers of the past?


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