Notes from the Field: Schiaparelli and Prada at The Met’s Costume Institute

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” which opens today, May 10, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, has been long awaited by those eager to see firsthand the ties that bind these two women from very different generations. Elsa Schiaparelli came to fame in Paris amidst the Surrealist milieu of the 1920s and 1930s, at times working in collaboration Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. She entered the scene somewhat late in life, at least by the fashion industry’s youthful standards, launching her collection in 1926, at the ripe old age of 37. Miuccia Prada for her part followed suit (pun intended), showing her first collection, in 1988, at age 39. She rose rapidly in the ranks of the fashion elite, and is now a dominant global presence in fashion, despite being a self-professed proponent of “ugly” and “difficult” aesthetics. The coupling of these two designers brings to mind the seating chart of a very enviable dinner party whose host is savvy enough to know the pairing will make for great conversation, and this is exactly where the exhibition begins: with the women seated opposite one another at a dinner table. At the entrance to the show visitors are greeted by a film of Prada and Schiaparelli (who died in 1973; she is portrayed here by Judy Davis) discussing art, fashion, womanhood, youthful rebellion and the like. The staged setting, the projection of which dominates an otherwise darkened entryway, is a marvelous and sly introduction. As Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton recently noted, Schiaparelli designed clothing for the denizens of café culture who were accustomed to judging a woman’s outfit from the waist up as she sat ensconced at the restaurant table.

Beyond the filmed dinner conversation, an illuminated wall of Schiaparelli hats and Prada shoes—in profile—leads into a long catwalk of a hallway that is flanked by mannequins wearing both designers’ designs. Here the notable absence of plexiglass and a certain spaciousness of the showcases makes for an especially inviting display. Walking past each section—the area is organized by themes (Ugly Chic, Naif Chic) conceived by curators Bolton and Harold Koda—recalls strolling past an elegantly arranged department store arrangement, wherein 1930 meets 1999. Turning a corner into the final room of the exhibition the visitor quite literally enters a hall of mirrors in which orderly rows of mannequins support dresses, capes and skirts and seem to stand at rigid attention, ready to juxtapose themselves against the outfits of museum-goers shuffling through the gallery. Visitors for their part can’t help but become part of the aesthetic conversation and the curators likely wouldn’t have it any other way. Each display is playful and captivating and apt to spark lively debate. At a press preview earlier this week, there were many murmurs about the exhibition’s subtlety and intelligence, about the questions it raised, engaged and, in some cases, left unanswered for visitors to mull over after reemerging into the light of day. “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” certainly provokes visitors to consider the nature of artistic exchange and inspiration. Just as importantly, it tells a story about the enduring genealogies of women—their bodies and their costumes; the expectations set for them and the expectations they defied—through the 20th and into the 21st century.

“Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art until August 19, 2012. The exhibition catalog is available now from Yale University Press.

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