The hidden messages in Dior's couture show are somehow both sexist and feminist

On Monday, Christian Dior kicked off the first day of Haute Couture Fashion Week in Paris with a surrealist-inspired collection. On the surface, it’s your typical runway show filled with gorgeous gowns that celebrities will clamor over to wear on the red carpet. But look closer and the clothes actually have a deeper meaning hidden in plain sight.

For the show, the French fashion house transformed the Musée Rodin into a Dali fan’s dream, featuring floors made of large black and white tiles with massive white sculptures of a hand,a torso, an ear, and a nose hanging from the ceiling.

Models strutted down the checkered floors wearing masks and dresses mirroring a masquerade party. But, as spotted on models’ hands — “contradictoire bal masqué,” which translates to “contradictory masked ball” — not all is what it seems.

Similar statements appeared wrapped around necks, across chests, and down fingers of models from the words of French poet André Breton. Breton is credited with having founded the surrealist art movement and penning its first manifesto in 1924.

One of Breton’s “tattoo” quotes read, “Au départ il ne s’agit pas de comprendre mais bien d’aimer” which translates to, “Initially, it’s not about understanding, but about loving.” Another read, “L’imaginaire. C’est ce qui tend à devenir réel,” which means, “The imagination, this is what tends to become real.” A different one featured a repetition of words, Attitudes Spectrales Attitudes Spectrales Attitudes Spectrales,” a direct reference to Breton’s 1932 poem “The Spectral Attitudes.”

The obvious connection between Breton and the collection is his ties to surrealism. But beneath the surface, Breton was not only a surrealist but actually a misogynist. As Christopher Bailey wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “In 1927 Breton’s second Surrealist manifesto embodied the general sexism of the day. He extolled women as the muses of men, who were assumed to be the important artists.” In fact, Breton also once said, “The problem of woman is the most marvelous and disturbing problem in all the world.”

Yet contrary to the sexism of the era, there were several notable female surrealist artists who were not merely muses but accomplished artists: Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, and Leonor Fini, to name a few. The latter came from Argentina and was known for depicting strong women in her artwork. She is also quoted at the beginning of Dior’s show notes.

So why feature Breton so prominently? Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s artistic director, is perhaps directly responding to Breton’s antiquated views. The representation of female bodies in sexual forms was a continuous theme in surrealist art. The balance many female surrealist artists had to find was how to represent this overt sensuality in a form that was respectful and empowering — not demeaning or submissive.

Chiuri attempts with her couture collection to relieve this tension, which is still present in today’s society — a pressure women have between managing in a male-dominated world and finding their place in a culture at large that’s strongly advocating for women to rise up and break the glass ceiling even as they are still faced with roadblocks.

Take, for example, the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement. Women are looking for ways to assert themselves — especially when it comes to ownership of their bodies — after years of staying quiet (and being silenced) on sexual assault. Additionally, women are helping change the conversation away from victim shaming and stereotyping based on appearance, especially when it comes to fashion where questions like “What were you wearing?” were often asked.

Dior exuding strong feminist undertones is nothing new in Chiuri’s era. In 2016, the designer became the first female artistic director in the brand’s more than 70-year history. She debuted her first collection for the fashion house with her sensational feminist tee, “We Should All Be Feminists.”

Click through the gallery above for the top 15 best looks from the couture collection.

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