‘Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations’ Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute

The Costume Institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has unveiled its Spring 2012 exhibition, ‘Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations’. The exhibition, open to public until 19 August 2012, explores the affinities between Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) and Miuccia Prada, two influential Italian female designers from different eras.

Schiaparelli, who worked in Paris from the 1920s until her house closed in 1954, was associated closely with the Surrealist movement and created iconic pieces such as the ‘tear’ dress, the ‘shoe’ hat, and the ‘bug’ necklace. Prada, who holds a degree in political science, took over her family’s Milan-based business in 1978, and focuses on fashion that reflects the eclectic nature of Postmodernism.

Inspired by Miguel Covarrubias’s satirical ‘Impossible Interviews’ for Vanity Fair in the 1930s, curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton orchestrate conversations between these iconic women to suggest new readings of the designers’ most innovative work. Film director, screenwriter, and producer Baz Luhrmann is the exhibition’s creative consultant, and has created a series of filmed elements for the exhibition. The production design for the films is by Luhrmann’s long-time collaborator, Catherine Martin. The exhibition design is realised by Nathan Crowley, who was also creative consultant for the Met’s exhibitions ‘Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy’, and ‘American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity’. All mannequin head treatments and masks are designed by Guido Palau.

The exhibition, in the Metropolitan Museum’s first-floor special exhibition galleries, features approximately 100 designs and 40 accessories by Schiaparelli from the late 1920s to the early 1950s, and by Miuccia Prada from the late 1980s to the present, drawn from The Costume Institute’s collection and the Prada Archive, as well as other institutions and private collections. Eight short videos created by Luhrmann, in which Prada talks with Schiaparelli (played by actress Judy Davis) animate the entry gallery and the seven themed sections of the exhibition and provide the thread that connects the objects. In the films, “Schiap” and Prada are seated at a dining table in dialogue that has been created using paraphrased excerpts from Schiaparelli’s autobiography, Shocking Life, and Prada’s filmed remarks. Visitors will have the impression of eavesdropping on a meeting of two great fashion minds.

The section of the exhibition entitled ‘Waist Up/Waist Down’ looks at Schiaparelli’s use of decorative detailing as a response to restaurant dressing in the heyday of 1930s café society, while showing Prada’s below-the-waist focus as a symbolic expression of modernity and femininity. An accessories subsection of this gallery, called ‘Neck Up/Knees Down’, showcases Schiaparelli’s hats and Prada’s footwear.

Ugly Chic’ reveals how both women subvert ideals of beauty and glamour by playing with good and bad taste through colour, prints, and textiles. ‘Hard Chic’ explores the influence of uniforms and menswear to promote a minimal aesthetic that is intended to both deny and enhance femininity, whereas ‘Naïf Chic’ focuses on Schiaparelli and Prada’s adoption of a girlish sensibility to subvert expectations of age-appropriate dressing.

Classical Body’ explores the designers’ engagement with antiquity through the gaze of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. ‘Exotic Body’ touches on the influence of Eastern cultures through fabrics such as lamé, and silhouettes such as saris and sarongs. ‘Surreal Body’, in the final gallery, illustrates how both women affect contemporary images of the female body through Surrealistic practices such as displacement, playing with scale, and blurring the boundaries between reality and illusion, natural and artificial.