Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations

Waist Up/Waist Down gallery, featuring jackets by Schiaparelli and skirts by Prada. courtesy Met Museum
Whether the clothing is art in the Met Museum's Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations exhibition is itself fodder for the dramatized dialogue in filmed scenes by director Baz Luhrman (Schiaparelli is played with spark by Judy Davis) that are strategically projected behind the mannequins. But what can be said is that the Costume Institute takes its big annual exhibition very seriously (recall the Alexander McQueen exhibition, which broke all records), realizing such high-concept formulas and drawing together somewhat loose commonalities between designers in order to create debate and discussion.

Prada, 2005. Photo: Toby McFarlan Pond,
courtesy Met Mus
The show's organizers (Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton) craftily aligned Elsa Schiaparelli, more of an icon to the industry, with Miuccia Prada, a current household fashion name as famous for her utilitarian nylon backpack as her clothing. Both have tested the concept of femininity in women's fashion, moving away from lurid designs toward more modest, elegant, yet still indulgent creations. That said, each has created fantastical whimsies: headgear by Schiaparelli, and shoes by Prada including some with Cadillac tailfin heels, on ample display.

Schiaparelli specialized in the evening jacket, something that seems ripe for re-emergence. (Why shouldn't women be warm in cold weather? Oh, right, that would mean comfortable. Can't have that.) The jackets are usually dark, fitted, with padded shoulders to emphasize the waist, and often decorated with embroidery, elaborate buttons, or appliqued bits of whimsy, relating them conveniently to Prada's own svelte, embellished skirts.

The collection is divided into themes: hard, naif, classical, exotic, surreal. In this latter category, Schiap had the upper hand, actually collaborating with Dali on their famous shoe headpiece. And despite the convenience of having actual Surrealists in her phone book, she made wearable, timeless classics that could still be in production. The way they flatter the female form without being shameless contrasts with Prada's tendency to follow a schoolgirl's uniform's silhouette, with the focal point nearly always a knee-length A-line skirt
which sits atop the hipbone. She pairs these slender lines with clunky loafers for a very different kind of timelessness.

The exhibit culminates in a "hall of mirrors" room with plexiglass display cases, achieving the presumed goals of disorientation and making the space seem larger than it is. Each case holds a pair of outfits, one by each designer, plus a photo of Schiaparelli and a peer's artistic influence. It all combines with the beyond-the-grave dialogue enactments for a carnivalesque setting. And it's somewhat in tension with the clothing designs that are radical for being sumptuous, dignified, and ultimately extremely practical in a field that prides itself on objectifying and hobbling women in the name of freedom of choice. Now that's revolutionary.

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