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Humour in fashion: a historical perspective

Fashion and humour: A brief history

Humour is very commonly used in the fashion world today. But how did it all begin?

We’re going to have a brief look at (some of) the history of how humour became an essential element of the modern fashion toolkit. We are going to start with Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaism movement, which, from the early 1910s, challenged the very concept of what is ‘art’ and, in doing so, introduced humour into the history of modern art.

Humour reached the world of fashion specifically through the Surrealists, who were the natural offspring of Duchamp and Dada. Particularly, Elsa Schiaparelli’s work in the 40s, challenged the idea of what is ‘beautiful’ through many of the conventions of humour. Following the surrealist movement was the Punk subculture that developed in the latter half of the 20th century, notably with Vivienne Westwood in the 70s. Since then, humour has become a common token in the language of contemporary fashion.

Dada Spirit and Marcel Duchamp

Understanding how humour entered the design vocabulary of fashion requires us to first understand how it entered art at all. To do so, we must look back to the radical legacy of Marcel Duchamp and the ‘Dada’ art movement.

Marcel Duchamp was one of the most significant pioneers of ‘Dada,’ which was an art movement that sought to question and destroy many of the supposed ‘fundamental’ and long-held assumptions about what art should be, and how it should be made, and why.


This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

And so, humour was introduced to modern art through Dada and Marcel Duchamp, who completely threw out all once-established aesthetic and artistic values. Through his work, he utilized many humour techniques including:

  • Double Meaning + Play on Words
  • Ambiguity
  • Displacements
  • Representation through the Opposite

These are some of the humour techniques explicitly identified by Freud in his work on humour. Note that Freud argued that jokes were similar to dreams, as they were the result of letting in so-called ‘forbidden thoughts and feelings’ which society suppresses in the conscious mind. This is important for understanding how Duchamp’s comical spirit travelled from art into fashion through his natural offspring, the Surrealists.

Reflective questions

  • Have you ever distorted or altered an image or object to poke fun such as Duchamp when he draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa?
  • How would you describe your humour?

Please share your answers with your peers in the comments down below.


  1. Freud and the language of Humour:
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