A Surrealist Masterpiece by Remedios Varo at the MFA Boston Is the Stuff of Fashion Dreams

On a recent visit to the MFA Boston, work and pleasure collided for me in front of one of the museum’s new acquisitions, Ladies Tailor, a surrealist masterpiece by Remedios Varo from 1957. It’s easy to get lost in this strange painting, which ostensibly shows a woman viewing new designs with a couturier in his salon. Not everything is as it seems, however. For starters, the floor of the salon is web-shaped, the ceiling padded, and the drapes made of fur. A magnet on the floor attracts real and ghost pins which float in air while the client, flanked on either side by her ghost selves, looks at the models through a lorgnette. Near her stands the couturier, whose eye and nose form the shape of scissors; his shadow unfurling into a ribbon.

Like Elsa Schiaparelli—who will be the subject of an exhibition in Paris this summer—Remedios Varo was a female proponent of Surrealism, an interwar movement that began in France and was dominated by men. Influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, their art manifested the subconscious, and was characterized by strange juxtapositions. To borrow a much-quoted phrase by the writer Comte de Lautréamont, the Surrealists’ lobster phones and fur teacups were “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.”

A traveling exhibition, “Surrealism Beyond Borders,” remaps the movement, showing how it crossed borders and appeared in different periods, often as a reaction to crisis and in aid of liberation. As the Metropolitan Museum curators wrote: “Surrealism is an expansive, shifting term, but at its core, it is an interrogation. It refers not to a historical moment but to a movement in the truest sense.” Varo’s career is quite literally one of Surrealism on the move. Born in Spain, she graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid in 1930, and became part of the “Logicophobista” movement there, before moving to Paris and joining the Surrealists’ mad tea party. Arrested in 1940 during the Second World War, she and her husband fled to Mexico City upon her release in 1941; she died there in 1963.

Ladies’ suit was painted 10 years after Christian Dior’s made his debut, conjuring “flower women” whose bodies were sculpted by his beautiful, and demanding, constructions. The fashions Varo dreamed up were similarly cocooning. They were also sort of “machines for living.” The pink ensemble features a fur tunic over a dress, the skirt of which is buttoned to a quilted shell with unicorn/dolphin fins at the head, and finished off with a compass necklace and a sail-trimmed cane. To its left is a gray gown with a side-draped skirt with a fur hem. The model’s scarf has frozen into a seat on which she sits, the better to enjoy the drinks and nibbles laid out on a shelf fit into her capacious and structured hood hat. At the far right is a fitted purple dress, with a tail in place of a train. It’s worn over a brown calf-length skirt and under a cowled cape of the same material. On top of that is an effervescent cape/carapace emitting bubbles. The client who is taking in these otherworldly creations, wrote Varo, “splits into two other persons because she does not know which model to choose, and her somewhat transparent doubles represent her doubts.”

Varo’s dream dresses and tailoring might seem extreme, but there were a lot of head-turning Surreal looks in the latest fall collections—and earlier, some of which are collected below. Which best suits your fantasies?

Tailor for ladies (retail). Remedios Varo (Spanish, active in Mexico, 1908 – 1963) 1957. Oil on masonite. Museum purchase with funds by exchange from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection—Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe, and a Gift of the Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation.

Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / © Estate of Remedios Varo / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Viktor & Rolf, spring 2022 couture

Photo: Alessandro Lucioni / Gorunway.com

Richard Quinn, fall 2022 ready-to-wear

Photo: Isidore Montag/Gorunway.com

Issey Miyake, spring 2020 ready-to-wear

Photo: Alessandro Lucioni / Gorunway.com

Balenciaga, fall 2019 ready-to-wear

Photo: Alessandro Lucioni / Gorunway.com

Tailor for ladies (retail). Remedios Varo (Spanish, active in Mexico, 1908 – 1963) 1957. Oil on masonite. Museum purchase with funds by exchange from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection—Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe, and a Gift of the Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation.

Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / © Estate of Remedios Varo / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Moschino, spring 2019 ready-to-wear

Photo: Luca Tombolini/Indigital.tv

Tailor for ladies (retail). Remedios Varo (Spanish, active in Mexico,1908 – 1963) 1957 .Oil on masonite. Museum purchase with funds by exchange from the Alfred Stieglitz Collection—Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe, and a Gift of the Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation.

Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / © Estate of Remedios Varo / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Schiaparelli, spring 2022 couture

Photo: Filippo Fior / Gorunway.com

Schiaparelli, spring 2022 couture

Photo: Filippo Fior / Gorunway.com

Yves Saint Laurent, spring 2002 couture

Photo: Antoine de Parseval/Digital Shoot for Style.com

Comme des Garçons, spring 2017 ready-to-wear

Photo: Yannis Vlamos/Indigital.tv

Coperni, fall 2022 ready-to-wear

Photo: Courtesy of Coperni

Alexander McQueen, spring 2007 ready-to-wear

Photo: Marcio Madeira

Comme des Garçons, fall 2015 ready-to-wear

Yannis Vlamos / Indigitalimages.com

Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood, spring 2020 ready-to-wear

Photo: Alessandro Lucioni / Gorunway.com

Maison Margiela, spring 2006 ready-to-wear

Photo: Marcio Madeira

Richard Malone, spring 2022 ready-to-wear

Photo: Alessandro Lucioni / Gorunway.com

Junya Watanabe, spring 2003 ready-to-wear

Photo: Shoot Digital for Style.com

Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood, spring 2020 ready-to-wear

Photo: Alessandro Lucioni / Gorunway.com

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