Professional / Visual Arts & Film Studies Essay


Surrealism in Fashion: From Dali to Magritte

A look at the origin of runway catwalks might lead a beeline to the emulation of a set of brooding felines. Yet, when placed in the context of fashion, one can see that it has to the composition of words and images merged into a unanimous mixture of diverse elements to form a wide range of complex formulas that test the process of intellectual and imaginative competence. Such combination brings to fore an interrelationship of art and fashion from where the ideology of surrealism in fashion is dug from, portraying a relevance in the fashion sphere of today.


The origin of surrealism in fashion cannot be characterized without exploring the contributions of key figures who saw beyond the status quo. One of these figures was Elsa Schiaparelli (1896-1973), an Italian who was known for the application of synthetic materials and brilliant colors to fashion. Her focus in exploring the nature of abstract elements to colorful materials led to the merging of art, through the surrealist ideology, into her designs. Artists such as Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) and Salvador Dali (1904-1989) backed up her practice with inspirations, material properties, and contents.

As a case study, surrealism has often been given a meaning, which is likened to the merger of art and images brought to life by artists. Yet, the true development of this ideology makes it so that its relation to aesthetics is remote. When seen in the context of its creation, the ideology is impacted with an innate point of view or a way of thinking, influencing the manner in which art is expressed. (Walberg, 1997)

Historically, it was a response to the worldview bent on rationalism, which was a doctrine of knowledge, placing reason as the utmost factor in acquiring knowledge as opposed to experience. Due to this, there was the popular belief that society, immersed in violence instigated by the industrial revolution, and the aftereffects of World War 1, does not deserve art. Hence, for a society tending towards not appreciating art, there came the need to initiate the mixture of seemingly non-art elements into paintings, to spur the people to action.

The influence of psychology in this movement produced diverse interpretations. There was Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), an Austrian neurologist popular for his origination of psychoanalysis and Carl Jung (1875-1961), a Swiss psychologist whose analysis initiated alternate schools of surrealism. On one divide, there was the orientation that images should not be subject to interpretations, while another, opined that these abstract properties could be linked to spiritual realities. Notwithstanding, this did not stop the movement from being one of the longest-running of the 20th century.


When the movement began, there was no thought of a definite medium for expression. In fact, the idealists piloted their mindsets with the usage of objects and drawing inspirations from the atmosphere and the aura of the landscape. Naturally, these abstract needed to be translated into a standard, which could accommodate the ideals of surrealism. This created an appeal to the fashion industry. Besides, the upscale growth in the market, consistently bordering on the need for new fashion trends gave it a pass to find its way in fashion. Consequently, the manner of thinking was transferred into clothing, jewelry, embroidery, hats, etc. thereby pioneering a new age of abstract pieces, which switched the perception of fashion from being absent of meaning to a form of expression.


As the movement progressed into fashion, it began to hold symbolic meanings to an array of artists and fashion designers. For Elsa Schiaparelli, there was the initiation of musical instruments and the portrayal of musical notes in her designs. From there, she exhibited nature’s leanings on different fabrics. She was also notable for the practice of associating the human body to the landscape of her fashion. For instance, the Elsa Schiaparelli fragrance was noted to be shaped like the human torso (Evans C. & Frankel S. 2008).

Moreover, surrealism in fashion cannot be completed without the contributions of Salvador Dali. He soared above his contemporaries as a foremost artist known for his wild art and a starling personality in tow. He, in turn, inspired various artworks, including Schiaparelli's design of a desk coat and the shoe hat with the silk-painted drawer dress associated with Doline Dritsas. Dali further drew artwork as an extension of various human body parts. This was influenced by the naturalistic ingredient, particularly to the surrealist use of symbols and scenery. While some applied existing abstracts, such as Rene Magritte (1898 – 1967) who made use of art to drive the concept of a mermaid, a significant divide sought association in the unconventional. Notable of these is Dali's connotation of the female genitalia to a lobster. Such expression influenced the famous lobster dress, linked to Elsa Schiaparelli, which had the intentional painting of a lobster in front of the feminine attire, strategically placed at the groin area. This practice substituted the lobster's traits with the female genitalia and sexuality.

Besides this, Rene Magritte was known for the thought-provoking method through which his art was displayed with wit and humor. The Belgian surrealist artist was known for creating witty and thought-provoking images. While he thrived with the works of the reverse mermaid, then came the works of Viktor and Rolf who were categorized to have the capacity to shock with their loud collections, which reflected in extravagant runway catwalks. The idea of women being substituted with musical instruments held a feature with Viktor and Rolf and other contemporaries. Such were the works of Man Ray (Violon d' Ingres), Christian Lacroix (Violin Dress) and Viktor and Rolf (Black Violin dress).


Art has forever thrived as a medium for the expression of opinions, emotions alongside serve as a political statement for revolution. By applying surrealism in fashion, the initial motive of driving a political statement against violence and war became a manner of clothing and expression of ideas and human relationships with nature and fantasy.


-Surrealism (World of Art). Patrick Waldberg. Published by Thames & Hudson, May 17th, 1997. ISBN 10: 0500200408 / ISBN 13: 9780500200407

-EVANS, C. and FRANKELSurrealism in Fashion: From Dali to Magritte, S. (2008) The House of Viktor and Rolf. London: Merrell. Standard Number: 9781858944609

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