Tucked into The Courtauld’s History of Dress Archive is a rare and elusive fashion journal, Pinpoints. In its first issue, it declared its founding intention of seeking ‘a better understanding of Beauty.’ Certainly, the accompanying image depicts a beautiful woman, with her eyes closed, as if in a state of deep meditation. Other elements of the illustration, produced in black ink on a stark yellow background, also conform to traditional beauty: the timeless, hourglass proportions of a mannequin, and the classic vase sprouting elegant leaves. Yet these aspects do not add up to a harmonious whole. Contrarily, the woman is not depicted intact; rather, her head and arms are floating fragments. Together with the mannequin, she becomes a part living, part inanimate doll, seemingly in the process of removing her own head. Yet, with a peaceful expression, this is presented as a natural action. On a chair to her side lies a neatly severed head, like a perfectly interchangeable accessory. Again, there are no signs of the violence, merely serenity, and once more, the eyelids are blissfully closed.
This sleepy sentiment created – even in the face of physical fragmentation – is enhanced by the setting. Indicated only by a line for the horizon, and stylised rocks, a drifting, ominous and oneiric atmosphere, where anything can happen, is exuded. It is no coincidence, then, that the image was published at the height of fashion’s infatuation with Surrealism: the artistic and literary group that prized the subconscious, and dreams as a way of accessing and unlocking it. Doing so had the revolutionary promise of escaping the bourgeois actions that had led to the First World War. And violence – which still infused the shaken, de-centred life of interwar modernity – could be similarly progressive, as advocated by both André Breton and Georges Bataille: two Surrealist main players who otherwise tended to conflict. For Breton, ‘The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly… into the crowd’, and such violent tropes were at their strongest within the group’s visual output during the 1930s, coinciding with this illustration.
Whilst Pinpoints did not conjure such explicit violence, it nevertheless permeates its stylish surface. Within the image, threatening potential lies in the scattered, oversized sewing pins, which stand erect amongst the legs of the vase, mannequin and chair. Their sharp points are safely buried in the ground, softening their sharpness. Hidden in this way, their violent capabilities lie latent, and, being so close to resting, unaware eyes, their power intensified. The war was over, but anxiety prevailed, if only behind the eyes, beneath consciouness. From the violent capabilities of a the pin – humble, yet essential for dress – to the cool horror implicated by the presentation of human body parts as inanimate accessories, fashion is intertwined with Surrealism: not only superficially, as often claimed, but by demonstrating several significant principles. If only for a snapshot within the turning of a page, as fleeting and fragmented as the post-war quotidien, fashion was rendered a vehicle of violence with transcendent possibilities, lurking beneath a smooth, superficial veneer.
A. Breton, Manifest du Surrealisme, La Revolution surrealiste, December 1929. English translation by R. Seaver and H.R. Lane in A. Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor, 1969).