Back in January 2018, I was very excited to see a call for papers for the inaugural conference of the newly-created International Society for the Study of Surrealism (ISSS). This would be an amazing opportunity to disseminate my research on Surrealist artist Leonor Fini's work as a designer to a global audience of academics, researchers, writers, and practitioners. I was even more excited when my colleague and fellow Fini researcher, Dr Valentina Vacca, agreed to co-convene a panel on Surrealist costume design with me. There was one problem, however: the conference was to be held at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania – a beautiful and historic location, but one that was very tricky to access from my home in Loughborough in the UK. I was, therefore, incredibly grateful (not to mention profoundly relieved) that the Design History Society awarded me a Research Travel & Conference Grant, which enabled me to cover transport costs to the conference.
Titled 'Surrealisms' to reflect the conference's exploration of multiple periods, themes, geographies and media of Surrealist activity, and held over two jam-packed days (not to mention three nights of films, performances and poetry readings), the ISSS conference offered sessions on a plethora of topics. From periodicals to photography, curating to consumption, hermeticism to post-humanism, there was something for everyone. The title of mine and Valentina's panel was 'Surrealist costume: Dissolving borders', and it sought to explore how artists and designers employed Surrealist ideas, techniques and motifs to dissolve or transgress 'normative' social and cultural boundaries.
The first speaker on our panel of four was Dr Teresa Lucia Cicciarella, from the Università della Tuscia, who discussed the intriguing links between the designs of iconic couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier, and those of the Surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli and collaborators such as Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau. The next speaker, Dr Francesca Granata of Parsons School for Design, took a similar approach, raising links between Schiaparelli and the Belgian designer Martin Margiela, this time in relation to the grotesque. In my own paper, titled 'Styling the Surreal Woman? Hat Designs by Leonor Fini and Leonora Carrington', I focused on a little-known collaboration between these two artists from the early 1950s, exploring the links between these designs, period fashions in haberdashery, and key themes in their artwork to promote a methodology that views their art and design as interconnected practices. The final speaker, Dr Valentina Vacca, also of the Università della Tuscia, compared Fini's theatrical designs with the costume designs she produced for extravagant masked balls, arguing that the former represented a break with Surrealism, thereby encouraging us to view her designs within a larger contextual framework.
The panel was well received by delegates and generated some interesting discussion. It was clear that the topics we presented had links to other key themes emerging from some of the other conference panels – notably themes of hybridity and post-humanism. Such links will only strengthen the position of Surrealist design within studies of the movement and its legacies confirming it as an intrinsic part of Surrealist production and worthy of much further study.