Impossible Conversations, Undeniable Influence: Schiaparelli & Prada at the MET
I recently attended the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Spring 2012 Costume Institute exhibition, Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, a beautiful collection that examines the work and influences of two iconic designers. “Invincible female self-possession is a central theme of the joint retrospective,” so of course, I loved it.
Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973), one of the most prominent figures in fashion, was a true nonconformist who used clothing as an expression of her unique ideas by playing with juxtapositions of colors, shapes and textures. During her peak creative period in the 1930s, her salon overflowed with the wild and whimsical and attracted clients as eclectic as Wallis Simpson and Mae West. Miuccia Prada (b. 1949) is a world-renown fashion designer, whose unconventional education (PhD in Political Science and a student of mime) paved the way to the creative visionary of the haute couture design powerhouse that she is today.
Separated by a generation, their paths to fashion share striking similarities. “Neither woman set out in life to design clothes, or even learned to sew. They were both ardent rebels and feminists who came of age at moments of ferment in art and politics that ratified their disdain for conformity.”
From the MET catalogue:
- “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, explores the striking affinities between Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, two Italian designers from different eras. Inspired by Miguel Covarrubias’s “Impossible Interviews” for Vanity Fair in the 1930s, the exhibition features orchestrated conversations between these iconic women to suggest new readings of their most innovative work. Iconic ensembles are presented with videos of simulated conversations between Schiaparelli and Prada directed by Baz Luhrmann, focusing on how both women explore similar themes in their work through very different approaches.”
The exhibit is grouped into themes: Waist Up/Waist Down, Neck Up/Knees Down, Ugly Chic, Hard Chic, Naïf Chic, The Classical Body, The Exotic Body, and The Surreal Body.
Waist up/Waist Down spoke to me the most because of how differently the two designers project their attention to the female form. For Schiaparelli, the emphasis on the waist up was born out of the cafe society of her day; “since women were seated in restaurants, decoration from the waist down was essentially redundant.” Prada’s focus on the waist down, demonstrated by her love of skirts and shoes, is a more progressive and feminine approach. She is quoted as saying that the waist down represents “sex.” She notes, “it’s about life; It’s about giving birth.” I loved seeing such a bold display reflect the different attitudes of women’s roles in society during each of their respective times.
Fashion as Art
Schiaparelli has said, simply, “Fashion is art.” Her contemporary, Coco Chanel, referred to Schiaparelli as “that Italian artist who makes clothes.” Schiaparelli’s collaborations with surrealist Salvador Dali further exemplify her philosophy. On display is the “Tears Dress” (1938), featuring trompe l’oeil rips carefully cut out and lined in pink and magenta. “The print was intended to give the illusion of torn animal flesh, the tears printed to represent fur on the reverse of the fabric and suggest that the dress was made of animal pelts turned inside out.” There is also a photo of Wallis Simpson in the “Lobster Dress” (1937), a whimsical white silk evening dress featuring a giant lobster, one of Dali’s best known motifs, which he painted on the skirt. Both dresses embody the incongruity and spontaneity of the surrealist movement.
Prada, on the other hand, rejects the title “artist.” Of her clothes on display in Classical Body she has said that she never liked these works because they were too beautiful. “Fashion fosters clichés of beauty, but I want to tear them apart.” Never losing sight of the business aspect of fashion, she says, “Dress designing is creative, but it is not art. Fashion designers make clothes, and they have to sell them. We have less creative freedom than artists. But to be honest, whether fashion is art or whether even art is art doesn’t really interest me. Maybe nothing is art. Who cares!”
I was charmed by Prada’s pragmatism with respect to the term “artist” because I’ve often struggled with the word – specifically, the casualness with which we throw it around and the elitism and excuses for poor behavior that often accompany it. In my humble opinion, the title “artist” should be reserved for use by others, not to refer to oneself. But I digress….brava, Miuccia!
The show “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” continues through Aug. 19, 2012. Check it out!