When fashion runs wild

A FANCIFUL Wedgwood pitcher is a hat. Ivy leaves grow on a man's jacket. A telephone becomes a handbag. A lobster crawls up the skirt of a chiffon evening gown. A shoe takes the form of a foot - toes and all. Such is the stuff of surrealism, a school of expression in which irrational visions, curious metamorphoses, and humorous illusions are given free rein. They all run wild in ``Fashion and Surrealism,'' an exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology, on view through Jan. 23. A stroll through the various rooms of the exhibition puts you in mind of those dreams in which paradoxical experiences (like finding yourself walking along Main Street in your underwear) take place.

The show is a lesson in the ways surreal imagery plays with tricks of the mind. An Ionic column takes the shape of a dress. Butterflies fasten a suit jacket. A sequined trompe l'oeil guitar decorates the front of an evening gown. Figures standing against a brick wall are almost invisible. They wear clothes made of an identical brick pattern. Another startler is the long banquet table set with a damask cloth and golden cutlery. At each place there is a disembodied head wearing bizarre millinery: a nest of twigs, a spray of insect-laden flowers. The scene evokes memories of the surrealist movies of Jean Cocteau.

Art and fashion meet in this exhibition. It is rooted in the 1930s, the decade when artists Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico, Rene Magritte, and other initiators of the Surrealist movement were collaborating with couturiers. Designer Elsa Schiaparelli was particularly open to the ideas of Dali, Cocteau, and Marcel Vertes, who illustrated ads for the perfume she called ``Shocking.'' It came in a torso-shaped bottle that was modeled after the hourglass figure of Mae West.

As Dali's sculpture ``Venus de Milo With Drawers'' related the classic statue to a piece of furniture, so Schiaparelli's ``Desk Suit,'' which had drawer-pulls on its oblong pockets, gave elegance a utilitarian twist. Ambiguous displacements, the essence of surrealism, were a Schiaparelli forte. Always exploring implausibilities, she made hats shaped like an inkpot, a shoe, and a lamb chop (with frill). Her work with Cocteau resulted in a group of linen jackets with embroidery that replicated hands and faces drawn by the artist and included Cocteau's signature.

Along with the fantasy world of clothing and accessories, there are paintings, photographs, and objects by the artists. The curators of the show (Harold Koda, Laura Sinderbrand, and Richard Martin) have traced interweavings of the movement in its progression to contemporary times. Case in point: The lipstick imprints on Andr'e Breton's Second Surrealist Manifesto (1929) led to a proliferation of lips in various media. Man Ray's painting ``Observatory Time - The Lovers,'' depicting giant red lips floating above the horizon, was a memorable example. Dali's sofa in the shape of a pair of lips was another. Later on, Yves Saint Laurent used the lips motif in 1960s Pop Art creations.

After ``The False Mirror,'' Magritte's 1928 canvas of a huge enigmatic eye reflecting sky and clouds, eyes became a recurring theme. ``Celestial Eye Suit,'' a 1985 work by New York artist Larry Shox, consists of a man's jacket and trousers covered with hand-painted eyes.

More about the subject, past and present, is delineated in a new book, ``Fashion and Surrealism,'' by Richard Martin, published by Rizzoli International. After its current run at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the exhibition will be shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

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