An improbable conversation: new Met exhibition attempts to mix and match Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada

A view of the 'Surreal Body' gallery (Grace-Yvette Gemmell)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

The French surrealist artist André Breton once wrote “beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.”

This year's Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibition, Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, (on view through August 19) appears to be drawing on the dictum of Schiaparelli's friend and sometime collaborator. 

If last year's blockbuster Alexander McQueen exhibition, Savage Beauty, examined that designer's reinvention of fashion through the lens of conflating traditional assumptions about beauty with the grotesque, pushing the limits of clothing design outside the wearable, this time around the appeal is more toward sentiment, juxtaposing the work of two pioneering Italian-born designers with an eye toward how they refigured fashion while still focused on wearability. 

Although they were born more than half a century apart—Elsa Schiaparelli in Rome in 1890, Miuccia Prada in Milan in 1949—the exhibition suggests common resonances in their very different approaches to and disdain for received notions of beauty, taste, femininity, and aesthetics. On view is an impressive survey of the two women’s creations, intermingling and pairing their designs rather than concentrating on the evolution of their individual ateliers. 

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Throughout the exhibition we eavesdrop on an imaginary series of conversations between the two designers projected on larger-than-life screens. The staged dialogues, directed by Baz Luhrmann specially for the exhibition, feature Australian actress Judy Davis as Schiaparelli in an awkwardly contrived tête-à-tête with a somewhat bored Miuccia Prada, playing herself. 

The exhibition takes its title from a series of illustrated Vanity Fair columns from the '30s entitled "Impossible Interviews." The satirical columns, illustrated by Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, paired unlikely personalities from diverse worlds in farcical fictional conversations that were often politically charged and scathingly critical under a veneer of humor. Wall text in the first room of the exhibition provides a pithy excerpt from one such column pairing Joseph Stalin with Schiaparelli, the two engaged in conversation while suspended in mid-parachute flight:

Stalin: What are you doing up here, Dressmaker?
Schiaparelli: I am getting a bird’s-eye view of your women’s fashions, Man of Steel.
Stalin: Can’t you leave our women alone?
Schiaparelli: They don’t want to be left alone. They want to look like the other women of the world.
Stalin: What! Like those hip-less, bust-less scarecrows of your dying civilizations?
Schiaparelli: Already they admire our mannequins and models. Sooner or later they’ll come to our ideals.
Stalin: Not while Soviet ideology persists.

In the next room, under the heading “Waist Up/Waist Down,” the wall text turns more serious, explaining how Prada has focused on fashioning garments to accentuate the lower half of a woman’s body, whereas Schiaparelli’s designs were concentrated on a woman’s upper half. Schiaparelli, we are told, along with her clientele, was steeped in café culture, where lower extremities were concealed beneath tables. Prada’s designs, in comparison, are posited as revolutionary and sexually liberating. “Waist down is more basic, more grounded,” we hear her pronouncing in response to Schiaparelli’s approach. “It’s about sex. It’s about making love. It’s about life. It’s about giving birth.” 

Alternating disembodied torsos wearing Schiaparelli’s designs are positioned next to half mannequins clad in Prada’s skirts, shorts, and trousers. A complementary case, “Neck Up/Knees Down” draws the same comparison with a display of Prada’s over-the-top shoes and Schiaparelli’s fantastic hats and neckpieces. 

The remaining rooms of the exhibition make similar attempts to compare and contrast the two designers: “Ugly Chic” draws a comparison between the manner in which both women subverted conventional notions of glamour and frumpiness; “Hard Chic” makes a similar claim about how both designers reinvented femininity; “Naïf Chic” takes a stab at revolutions in age-appropriate clothing; “Exotic Body” and “Surreal Body” are exactly what they sound like, with Schiaparelli’s designs being the only really appropriate pieces to include under the headings. Schiaparelli is quoted as having contended that a designer should “never adapt the dress to the body; teach the body how to adapt to the dress,” and her experiments in design certainly hold to that line of thinking.

"Dress designing is to me not a profession but an art,” Schiaparelli once said. Indeed, throughout her career she collaborated and ran with leading surrealist artists including Breton, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, Francis Picabia, and Man Ray, and some of her most well-known designs, many of which are on display in the exhibition, were created in collaboration with these artists, including her high-heeled shoe hat, as well as her infamous "lobster dress," created in collaboration with Dalí. Her collaborations with Jean Cocteau produced elaborately embroidered garments that translated his drawings into playful ‘sketches’ on fabric. Coco Chanel, one of Schiaparelli’s greatest rivals, dismissively referred to the designer as “that Italian artist who makes clothes.” 

A 1939 New Yorker profile of the designer had it that, "a frock from Schiaparelli ranks like a modern canvas." And, much like her surrealist contemporaries, the article goes on to say, “she has a gift, almost uncontrollable at times, for discovering beauty in lowly objects which have hitherto escaped attention by being universally useful.”

Shifting positions in relation to political ideologies in the 1930s also served as a major source of inspiration for Schiaparelli’s collections, which were particularly tuned in to the contemporary climate. “Fashion is born by small facts, trends, or even politics, never by trying to make little pleats and furbelows, by trinkets, by clothes easy to copy, or by the shortening or lengthening of a skirt,” she is reported to have said, and “in difficult times fashion is always outrageous.” Though given Schiaparelli’s predilection for all things shocking and ostentatious, fair weather also produced outrageous design in her atelier. Schiaparelli could neither sew nor draw. As such her design process was heavily conceptual. Her atelier interpreted whatever theme she came up with via a kind of free association reminiscent of the automatic writing techniques her surrealist cohort were practicing at the time. It is perhaps for this reason that she was one of the first designers to launch themed collections. Though this has become common practice in fashion today, at the time it was a quite unusual and revolutionary approach to collections. She culled diverse themes inspired by music, cities, astrology, pagan rites, the circus, and the theater as in her Commedia dell’ Arte collection.

Miuccia Prada, on the other hand, has repeatedly expressed her disdain for the conflation of art and fashion.

“I have never wanted to be an artist," she has said. "I’ve never wanted to be called an artist. The term itself seems old-fashioned. It’s a term that does not relate to modern times. And it’s too confining. What I love about fashion is its accessibility and its democracy. Everyone wears it, and everyone relates to it.” At the same time she's become an avid collector of contemporary art, opening her own gallery, Fondazione Prada, and even presenting the 2010 Turner Prize. Yet she insists, in quotes throughout the exhibition, that her collections draw inspiration not from specific cultural or political movements, but from deeply personal anecdotes and impressions.

Prada took over her family's garment business in 1978, and after making a series of innovations through the '80s, her designing came into its own through the 1990s, not only attaining wide popularity and acclaim, but making the company into an economic powerhouse (just last year, the company's profits jumped by 72 percent, as sales increased by 25 percent to $4.1 billion worldwide). And yet despite the grand differences in scale and perspective, Prada employs some of the same techniques as Schiaparelli, her designs often exalting the ordinary, employing unorthodox prints and patterns, and repurposing utilitarian garments such as aprons, scrubs and uniforms into the idiom of high fashion.

“If I have done anything,” she says, “it is to make ugly appealing. In fact, most of my work is concerned with destroying—or at least deconstructing—conventional ideas of beauty, of the generic appeal of the beautiful, glamorous, bourgeois woman. Fashion fosters clichés of beauty, but I want to tear them apart.” 

So we have two renegades, and admirable ones at that, but their respective revolts are undertaken with more dissimilarity than the exhibition would have one believe. Harold Koda, one of the show’s curators, admitted in a press preview this week that the conversations produced in the exhibit come off more like two women talking at each other rather than to each other. Yet one can still appreciate the attempt on the part of the curators, the Costume Institute’s Koda along with Andrew Bolton, to draw analogies between two women who turned their profession upside-down, often putting it at the service of larger social concerns.

“The pairing of Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada originally emerged out of rather superficial similarities, such as their gender, their Italian heritage, and their feminist posturings,” noted Bolton at the press preview. “Over the course of organizing the exhibition, however, more fundamental similarities emerged. For both Schiaparelli and Prada, fashion is a means to express rather complex ideas. [Both] use fashion as a vehicle to provoke, to confront normative conventions of taste, beauty, glamour, and femininity.” And indeed the exhibition is at its best where it counterpoises the designers in such a way as to suggest the continuity of subversion that runs through the work of both designers. 

One wonders why the Costume Institute does not take this a step further. I left the exhibition hungry for more context with which to understand how Schiaparelli and Prada came to resist and react to the modes and traditions that came before them. Given Schiaparelli’s close connection to the Surrealist movement, it would have been opportune to compare her designs with some pieces from the Metropolitan’s massive collection of surrealist art. And while the premise of the impossible conversation is a fascinating and amusing thought experiment in its original manifestation, here it seems a little silly. What’s more, the exhibition ultimately comes off as somewhat lopsided, with Schiaparelli looming much larger in terms of cultural import than Prada. 

Still, the takeaway from the exhibition seems to be that the worlds of both art and fashion have been drastically transformed over the decades separating the two designers. Schiaparelli was closely allied with avant-garde visual artists while still outfitting the great and the good, while Prada came on the scene at a time when there was precious little overlap between the super-commodified, industrialized fashion and art worlds (though certainly her designs would come to outfit those in all of today's moneyed professions). 

And though many may beg to differ, especially in light of the Costume Institute’s McQueen show, the exhibition seems to be asking us to agree to disagree on the meeting of art and fashion design. Or, as Miuccia Prada herself puts it in one of the exhibition’s imaginary conversations with Schiaparelli: “Fashion is art, fashion is not art. But at the end, who cares?”