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A Review and Preview of the Met's 'Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations' Exhibit

The Costume Institute's "Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations" exhibit--you know, the reason for that whole over-the-top Met Gala--opens

The Costume Institute's "Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations" exhibit--you know, the reason for that whole over-the-top Met Gala--opens this Thursday, May 10 and will run through August 19 at the Met. The exhibit explores the similarities between two powerful Italian women designers, Elsa Schiaparelli and Muiccia Prada. Based on Vanity Fair's "Impossible Interviews" from the 1930s, the exhibit meticulously and painstakingly weaves together the seemingly disparate and dissimilar work and lives of Prada and Schiapparelli through a video series of "impossible conversations" created by Costume Institute curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton with the help of filmmaker Baz Luhrman and acclaimed stage actress Judy Davis. Bolton interviewed Prada over the course of several months and spliced that footage together with Davis' whose script comes directly from Schiaparelli's autobiography Shocking Life.

As you can tell from that mouthful, the exhibit doesn't exactly have a simple elevator pitch. It's complicated and challenging and cerebral--just like Prada and Schiapparelli. I got a chance to preview the exhibit yesterday. It probably won't be the blockbuster that the McQueen retrospective was--in part because the exhibit is a bit more intellectual and difficult to grasp. The drama and sentimentality of the McQueen exhibit isn't there--but what I did come away with was a real satisfying sense of, to cop a Spice Girls phrase, girl power.

As Judith Thurman writes in the intro to the exhibit catalogue (she also wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker about the exhibit that's worth a read), "While most designers presume to tell women what makes them desirable to others, Schiaparelli and Prada are driven to keep asking, What makes a woman desirable to herself?" Fashion often gets a rep as a frivolous feminine pursuit. Not serious. Not important. Not something that "smart women" get too involved in. But this exhibit makes plain not only how smart and thoughtful and impressive Prada is and Schiaparelli was, but also that fashion is a serious subject worth grappling with.

So if you can get to New York before August 19, get yourself to the Met to see this exhibit. You'll want to talk about it for hours with your friends after seeing it and isn't that the best?

If you can't make it to NYC, click through for a preview including the fantastic "Impossible Conversations" videos starring Miuccia Prada and Judy Davis that accompany each section, via Vogue's YouTube, along with their captions from the exhibit (and some of my own commentary).

Photos: Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art


“Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” pairs designers separated by time but connected not only by their gender and their Italian heritage but also through their creative strategies, which both reflect and respond to the prevailing artistic, cultural, and political attitudes of their respective eras. Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) and Miuccia Prada (born 1949) are both known for their deliberate fashion provocations that confront normative conventions of taste, beauty, glamour, and femininity. However, even as their designs resist or violate established principles of modishness, they never forgo the realities or pragmatics of clothing.


‘Waist up/Waist down’ focuses on the primary zones of the body onto which the two designers project their narrative attention – the waist up for Schiaparelli and the waist down for Prada. Schiaparelli’s emphasis largely stems from the social needs of her day – specifically, the demands of Café Society. As women were usually seated in restaurants, decoration from the waist down was essentially redundant. Thus she devoted attention to jackets – often elaborately embroidered by Maison Lesage – that enhanced the visibility and photographic possibilities of the wearer. Prada’s interest in the area from the waist down is personal and instinctive. Believing that part of the body to be both dynamic yet grounded, she focuses on the dramatic possibilities of skirts. For Prada, skirts articulate and accentuate the natural vitality and spontaneity of the lower body. More than mere canvases for adornment, they provide her with an array of expressive sculptural forms and silhouettes that reflect an iconography of feminine identity.


This is a continuation of the Waist Up/Waist Down gallery. Easily one of my favorite parts of the exhibit. The shoes, the shoes.


“Hard Chic” comprises designs that reference menswear, military and service uniforms, and industrial materials and fastenings applied with deliberate severity and sobriety.

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The “Exotic Body” cites traditions outside the Western European system, with references to the regional styles of Asia.


“Naif Chic” takes the sugary sweetness of children’s clothes and transposes it unexpectedly and somewhat disconcertingly to the “not so young.”

In this video Prada says when she did her spring 2011 "bananas" collection "I was sure it was a total disaster but it turned out that people are much more ready to accept craziness than people think." Yep, we were ready to accept the crazy.


The “Classical Body" alludes to a pantheistic Arcadia and the opposition of Dionysian (wild, visceral, and ornate) and Apollonian (cerebral, restrained, and classicist) ideals.


“Ugly Chic” focuses on materials with colors and patterns in discordant combinations that are exploited for their transgressive, unaesthetic sensibilities.


The “Surreal Body” circumvents the conventional meanings conveyed by dress and asserts a sexual and psychological component through trompe l’oeil illusions and unexpected juxtapositions of materials and imagery.

My other favorite part of the exhibit. The room is deceptively small, made to look bigger by endless mirrors that confused me and will surely confuse many more museum goers (I managed to avoid walking into myself). And if you look closely, the black and white portraits of folks in Schiaparelli gowns wink at you ;)