Elsa Schiaparelli’s skeleton dress (1938) is elegant at first glance. Black silk crêpe, it falls sinuously over the lines of the body. On its surface, a lightly padded rib cage and vertebrae rise from the fabric, externalizing the structure that lies beneath the wearer’s skin. It’s a garment at once glamorous and morbid, as well as technically brilliant – the trapunto quilting turning everything usually hidden inside out, rendering it visible to all.

This now much-renowned dress formed part of the designer’s ongoing collaboration with Salvador Dalí, their creative partnership leading to some of the most fascinating dialogues between fashion and Surrealism in the early Twentieth century. Alongside other (in)famous pieces determined to displace the ordinary — including their shoe hat and lobster dress — a number of designs they worked on together focused on the human form itself.

Elsa Schiaparelli 1938; Meret Oppenheim 1985

It’s not surprising. Surrealism’s general love of a good disembodied hand or pair of lips (not to mention the perceived erotic potential found in rendering the female body into disjointed bits — i.e. a neat way for various male artists to indulge in some very literal objectification) is well documented. From unblinking eye brooches to dreamlike paintings, beguiling garments to bulbous sculptures, the movement proved that there were all sorts of ways to fragment a body and patchwork it back together again.

In the hands of Schiaparelli, whose interest in the human form was partly that of an exacting designer and businesswoman with an incredible flair for cut and silhouette, these preoccupations moved deftly between the playful and the sinister. Her skeleton dress is a perfect case in point. It’s a garment that simultaneously exists as something delightful – a kind of sartorial topsy-turviness, upending the usual ordering of bone, skin, cloth – and something altogether darker. For where skeletons are found, the inevitable presence of death and decay lingers too. It’s a dress that can be both tongue-in-cheek and funereal. A form of memento mori – potentially humorous, or at the very least a challenge to the decorum of the times in which it was made – to be worn by a living, breathing figure.

The phenomenon of clothing that mimics the body beneath, and the tensions held therein, remains fascinating. Schiaparelli’s contemporary Meret Oppenheim, with whom she also collaborated in the late 1930s, provided a series of gloves that replicated details of the hands they encased. There’s something eerily beautiful in the results: the leafy fan of fine, red veins printed on bluish grey leather, pulsing with colour; the stark — almost camp –surprise of garish painted nails against dark fabric, resting coquettishly atop the wearer’s own. As with other garments that draw attention to the corporeal, the trompe l’oeil details make this usually mundane garment strange. They draw attention to the layers of function and decoration that make up a body.

Manish Arora SPRING 2012; Jean Paul Gaultier FALL 2003

Where Schiaparelli, Oppenheim, and others began, many have since followed. In fact, in the ensuing decades, the fashion industry has continuously built on this interest in all things physical. Alongside the inevitable number of designers, from Yves Saint Laurent’s ornate ‘Les Yeux D’Elsa’ jacket of 1980 (playing on the title of a Louis Aragon poem while also paying homage to Schiaparelli) to more recent tributes from brands including Prada, Gucci and Lanvin, who’ve drawn heavily on Surrealist iconography, there have been other, subtler responses.

The skeleton remains especially prevalent. In 2006 Jean-PaulGaultier produced a collected aptly titled ‘Les Surrealistes,’ in which he senta shivering purple dress down the catwalk with gathered strands across thechest suggesting the shape of a spine and ribcage. Elsewhere he has designed bodysuitssuggesting all that is encased within bone: a glittering circulatory systemspilling out from a bright red heart (of the symbolic rather than anatomicalkind); realistic printed muscles overlaid with fringed and strapped corsetingto create a burlesque garment reveling, appropriately, in the grotesque.  

Givenchy Fall 2010; Frida Kahlo ‘Appearances Can Be Deceiving’ 1934

For Fall 2010, Givenchy showed a number of garments inspired by Frida Kahlo – her relentless interest in her own anatomy refigured into a series of ornate gowns appliqued with delicate white lace skeletons, the bluntpain of paintings such as ‘The Broken Column’ softened into something altogether prettier and more palatable. Elsewhere, in the hands of Alexander McQueen for Spring/Summer 2009, the same structure became angular: a series of stark black and white spines, almost prismatic, printed on dresses and jackets, overlaying the wearer’s own.

McQueen was no stranger to the provocations of the body. As well as drawing on the skull as another favoured motif – that perfect symbol of mortality – he’d also previously worked with jeweler Shaun Leane in 1998 to create an aluminium spine corset. With each shining vertebra and rib hand-cast, it was kept in place with leather buckles. The end of the spine curved outwards into a pointed tail: a macabre horror movie twist. Along with Iris Van Herpen’s 2011 3D printed skeleton dress – suggesting a stark white amalgam of human, animal and mineral – and wooden offerings of organs and ribcage from Manish Arora for SS12, the rigidity of these designs gives them the look of armour. They don’t merely nod to what lies beneath, flourishing these inner workings like some kind of magic trick. They protect it too, providing an exoskeleton to cover vulnerable flesh.

Iris Van Herpen Fall 2011; Shaun Leane for Alexander McQueen SS 1998

It’s not just about what’s under the skin, either. From Christopher Kane’s pink, blue and orange intertwined bodies of Fall 2015 to Hussein Chalayan’s wandering hands holding together – and sometimes erupting from – white fabric for Fall 2010 (potentially also a nod to Schiaparelli), limbs are repurposed as decorative regularly. There’s also a rich and rather bizarre tradition of shoes that mimic the feet slipped into them. Beginning with Pierre Cardin’s shoes modeled after Magritte in 1986, designers including Dior, Celine, Comme Des Garçons, and, inevitably, McQueen, have either molded or printed toes onto footwear. Elsewhere, Vivienne Westwood’s instantly recognizable chunky heels suggest an outline of toes closer to that of an animal’s paw than a human foot.

However, as with the skeletons and Oppenheim’s gloves, these shoes do something rather odd. Whilst on the one hand existing as a kind of ‘second skin’ claiming to illustrate what’s underneath, they also offer a version of these body parts that is identikit and easily replicable. No-one’s toes will look exactly like the artificial ones that conceal them. The hand that wears a glove replete with decorative bright red nails could have a perfect manicure underneath, or frantically bitten half-moons. Each spine possesses slightly different curves and lengths, unlike the meticulous arrangement of lace or metal that might overlay it. When these garments are worn (acquiring a different power in motion to when seen on a mannequin), a complicated conversation begins between the messiness and complexity and make-up of the individual, and the perfect, static garment that decorates it.  

Pierre Cardin 1986; René Magritte ‘The Red Model’ 1935

The complexity is all part of the fun, though. These garments are ones that are happy to inhabit multiple meanings, playing with concealment and exposure, human and animal, mimicry and deviation, humour and horror, thriving life and fallible mortality. They plunder the worlds of art and medicine and horror and history with glee. They are attention grabbing. No. Better than that. Attention commanding.

In her excellent book Adorned in Dreams, Elizabeth Wilson quotes anthropologist Ted Polhemus, who asks, “Can we really assume that the limits and boundaries of the human body itself are obvious? Does ‘the body’ end with the skin, or should we include hair, nails?” Wilson goes on herself to argue that “dress is the frontier between the self and the not-self.” All of these clothes complicate those boundaries and frontiers – throwing up further questions about where bodies begin and end, and what a garment can hint at about the self who wears it.

Besides, there’s a very particular pleasure to be found in seeing the everyday inner and outer workings we all possess elevated to something gorgeous. In her recently released book Constellations, relentless in its excavations of pain, limitations and physical possibilities, Irish author Sinéad Gleeson exclaims: “hail the body’s own geography.” She describes “latitude tendons, longitude veins. The textured terrain: soft rind of skin, rope hair, sandpaper stubble.”

It’s a terrain we continue to be compelled and confused by. One that designers and artists have done marvelous things with: a spine becoming supple in silk, hands rendered elegant and eerie in printed suede, or as in the case of Tom Ford’s necklace for YSL in 2003, a beating heart becoming something suddenly opulent, atria and ventricles refigured in a vivid flash of jewels.