This post is the third of six for La Alquimia de los Sueños (The Alchemy of Dreams), a multi-sensory dinner performance by Julio César Morales and Max La Rivière-Hedrick, in collaboration with Frey Norris Contemporary & Modern.
It was one of those Bay Area days when you can just breathe in the fog, when there is a beautiful film, a nostalgic haze, covering everything. Peonies had just started appearing at the florists, and I was debating whether to spend the last three dollars in my pocket on a single flower or on a latte. Then I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder. There was a much older man standing next to me. “Buenos dias,” I said. He took my right hand and placed it between both of his, and then he looked at me with his blue eyes. They were leathery and moist. In almost a whisper he said, “Thank you for taking the time to dress up. You are a beautiful gift. From now on, for the rest of the day, I will only see beauty. I’m under a spell.”
Since I had no interest in breaking that spell, I didn’t trouble the gentleman with how my day had begun. Just back from Europe, I had woken to find my vacation bliss wearing off even more quickly than expected. In its place were various harsh realities: I had no work, no money, no prospects, and, for the moment, little in the way of hopefulness. I was sitting on my living room’s sofa feeling quite sorry for myself. The doors to my bedroom were wide open, and I could see the fabrics of my dresses peeking out from the closet: the flowers from my Japanese indigo, the golden silk from a treasured 1940s piece, the purple from the one I bought in Austin a lifetime ago, the Carla Fernandez, my pink linen. In a state of hypnosis, I got up and walked toward them, pulling out my favorite hat, dress shoes, and gloves. I got ready. And at that moment I felt perhaps but a fraction of what the women of the early 1940s must have felt in their beautifully tailored suits: looking pretty as they faced an uncertain, even frightening, future.
Fashion is many things. Key among those is a means to express dignity during hard times. To wear decent apparel in a creative and responsible way is to build the morale of a society in crisis. Fashion also reflects the values and lifestyles of a society. During Remedios Varo’s time in Mexico, the fashion worn and developed by her fellow exiled artists reflected a hopeful and optimistic, if naive, view of the world. The relationship between fashion and art encouraged a natural collaboration between designers and surrealists, as they formed an alliance to discover new sources of inspiration. In the process, they seduced each other. Surrealism suggests that the artist’s whole existence must be in harmony, how they conduct themselves in every aspect of life. Thus an artist’s attire was considered a facet of her or his artistic point of view.
There are numerous ways in which World War II affected fashion. In 1941, a series of restrictions on the production of clothes was introduced throughout Europe. The length of skirts was regimented, the number of pockets curtailed, pleats and buttonholes limited—all due to the reduced supply of fabric. The military look became the norm, and with it the widespread use of dull colors. The biggest change, however, was in the psyche of women. Simultaneous with these restrictions, a middle class was being born. Women who joined the work force now had disposable income. They were able to purchase fashions that had once been the exclusive province of the more affluent classes. Working-class women were, for the first time, seen in the streets wearing hats and gloves. Fashion gave them a sense of pride. Fashion gave them the freedom to express their individuality and their power.
Remedios Varo shared this sense of freedom. Her sensibility as an artist led her to experiment with fashion. Her love for Paris and the time she spent there were no doubt crucial to her personal aesthetic. I wonder what it must have been like for her to arrive in Mexico, a country with its own ancient textiles tradition, a country free of war rationing. From photographs we know that she never lost her European essence; the classic styles of the 1930s and early 1940s stayed with her. But then there are paintings of hers like “Centro del Universo” that immediately make me think of Chamula wool, of the traditional garments of the Chamula men in Chiapas. I wonder if Varo’s art was influenced by Mexican fashion traditions. And if her artistic creation can be understood as a tool for the search inward, I wonder what her fashion means as an extension of her work.