Fashion Tribe

'Impossible Conversations' at the Met

June 7th, 2012

metPhotos courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Naïf Chic gallery view, with Schiaparelli's circus-themed designs at left, and Prada's banana and monkey prints at right.

"Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations"
Metropolitan Museum of Art
On view May 10 through Aug. 19, 2012

This time around, my trip to New York coincided with the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Spring 2012 Costume Institute exhibition, "Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations."

It's an inspired exhibition that brings together two fashion geniuses whose designs are perfectly MFEO, despite their having been born nearly 60 years apart. Miuccia Prada started working in her family's bag manufacturing business in 1979, three years after Elsa Schiaparelli's death.

In exploring the affinities between the two Italian designers, I was intrigued by "Waist Up/Waist Down" pairing of Schiaparelli's tops, jackets and capes, with Prada's skirts. In many instances, they appeared to be a perfect "match." Schiaparelli's use of decorative detailing through the bodice was a response to cafe society of the 1930, when elite women had to put on a good show from the waist up, while seated at cafe tables. Meanwhile, Prada chose to simplify the top while employing a below-the-waist focus as an expression of freedom, modernity and femininity.

Inspired by Miguel Covarrubias's "Impossible Interviews" for Vanity Fair in the 1930s, the exhibition opens with one of many filmed conversations between the two legends, directed by Baz Luhrmann, with Schiaparelli played by Judy Davis, her comments taken from her autobiography "Shocking Life."


At left, portrait of Elsa Schiaparelli, 1932, by George Hoyningen-Huené. Courtesy of Hoyningen-Huené/Vogue/Condé Nast Archive © Condé Nast. At right, portrait of Miuccia Prada, 1999, by Guido Harari. Courtesy of Guido Harari/Contrasto/Redux.

Both profess to have been terrors as children, always questioning and going against the grain. It was interesting to hear Prada talk about how she initially was pegged as a minimalist, hiding behind black, streamlined designs. In Luhrmann's film, Schiaparelli tells her, "You can't hide forever," and we are seeing her fantasies emerge. I also like that they push beyond the boundaries of what is "acceptable" and never took the easy way out in designing stereotypically pretty pieces. A gold dress in "The Exotic Body" segment was among the beautiful pieces shown, but Prada said she hates to look at it now. It was an attempt to reflect Asian inspiration that, examined critically, was too literal. But it's one any woman, including me, would wear in a heartbeat.

Anyone into fashion today knows Miuccia Prada's work, but Elsa Schiaparelli is lesser known. She was a rival of Chanel whose extravagant and often flamboyant designs was heavily influenced by her Surrealist collaborators. However, she was unable to adjust to post-war austerity and was eclipsed by Chanel. Over the years, I'd come to think of her more as an accessory and jewelry designer, so seeing the extent of her clothing designs firsthand was a revelation.

The exhibition features about 100 designs and 40 accessories by Schiaparelli from the late 1920s to the early 1950s and by Prada from the late 1980s to the present. Signature pieces by both designers are arranged in seven themed galleries: "Waist Up/Waist Down," "Ugly Chic," "Hard Chic," "Naïf Chic," "The Classical Body," "The Exotic Body," and "The Surreal Body."

At the entry to the exhibition, Elsa Schiaparelli (played by Judy Davis) and Miuccia Prada are seated at a table, engaged in a conversation. The late Schiaparelli's remarks are taken from her autobiography, "Shocking Life."

met4© 2012 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents, left
The exhibition showed several "conversations" between Schiaparelli's tops, and Prada's bottoms. At left, Diana Vreeland in Elsa Schiaparelli, Harper's Bazaar, April 1937. Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe,
Louise Dahl-Wolfe Archive At right, a Prada skirt from Spring/Summer 2005. This is one I had tried on and loved, though sadly, couldn't afford.

Partial view of the "Waist Up/Waist Down" gallery.

met shoes:hatsTop-and-bottom juxtapositions extended to Prada footwear shown with Schiaparelli hats in the gallery, "Neck Up/Knees Down."

shoe hatSchiaparelli's shoe hat, created in collaboration with Salvador Dali.

met3Elsa Schiaparelli in Elsa Schiaparelli, Autumn 1931; photograph by Man Ray © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP. At left, Miuccia Prada Autumn/Winter 2004–5; Photograph © Toby McFarlan Pond. Both incorporate trompe l'oeil pleats.

One Response to “'Impossible Conversations' at the Met”

  1. Dallavere:

    I haven't seen these videos the idea seems fauulobs but I know of the exhibition and can only have hoped that I could attend to see it in person. I have to agree with the waist up/waist down theme, isn't that why so much black is worn from the waist down because really once you're seated no one sees it or notices and the focus is definitely on the waist up! Wonderful Post I'll be looking at the videos when I have some spare time! Thanks Ada X

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