Tossing away their corsets along with the last vestiges of bourgeois convention, the women who fled their boring family homes in the ’20s to pursue la vie bohème in the wilds of Montparnasse were known to sometimes cut up two dresses lengthwise, splice the results into four sections, rearrange the panels, and then take to the terrasses of La Rotunde to flaunt their wildly imaginative creations.
These rough, homemade frocks surely owed a debt to the surrealists at the next tables, echoing with needle and thread the collages, the experimental films, and the word salads those artists were gleefully experimenting with. If Magritte’s famous painting shouted, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” these frocks cried out, “I am not a dress!” But, of course, they were.
Now these glorious jumbles are experiencing a renaissance, with stylish hybrids highly visible on recent runways. Let’s call these latest versions Frankenstein dresses—born of an impulse to cut and combine, like that sacred monster, made of parts that were never intended to end up together.
Sacai’s Chitose Abe is widely acknowledged as the author of the contemporary Frankenstein dress, having burst on the scene in 1999 with collections that combined unorthodox materials—not just leather and lace, but also dull jersey and excited lamé, weighty tweed and fairy-tale tulle. “I’ve always thought that a collection is a balance of betrayal and stability,” Abe has said. But though she may have been early on the soapbox, she is not the only proselytizer. At Vetements’s legendary Fall 2015 collection, held in the basement of Le Depot, a gay club in Paris, betrayal and stability were on full display: The models wore dresses that were floral at the fore, sweatshirt aft. (So desirable were these that a friend immediately bought two, then decided they were just too trendy to wear and packed them up for sometime in the future. Missy, that time is now!).
In the years since these spectacular debuts, Frankenstein has continued to make his (her?) presence known. Is it a reflection of the disjointed times in which we live, where everyday events seem increasingly surreal, that makes these cohabitations so appealing right now? At Calvin Klein in New York last month, Raf Simons wed Mylar to aprons; in Milan, Francesco Risso at Marni revered the spirit of bohemian Paris with coats that were slashed vertically, featuring hot pink lighting up one side and sober tweed on the other. (He called the collection Technoprimitivism and explained that the clothes were informed by the uneasy tension between technology and the longings of the soul.) And in Paris, where it all began, Koché’s Spring 2018—in stores now—provided Fly Emirates T-shirt patterns cozying up to lingerie slips, while Junya Watanabe’s most recent runway offered delicate slips over chunky Scandinavian sweaters fused with sweaterdresses in back. And newcomer Marine Serre, who won the LVMH prize last year and whom everyone seems to be talking about, jumped into the pond (the Seine?) with an exuberant mishmash of silky scarves, athleisure, and even velvet.
“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision,” Salvador Dalí, a gentleman who was known to wear a dinner jacket decorated with actual wine glasses, once averred. This season, we can rip off the shackles, clad in a Frankenstein frock to light the way.