Fashion and Social Context

Schiaperelli and Prada at the Met’s Costume Institute

LIKE MANY AWAITING ENTRY into the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” I was looking forward to an explanation for the pairing together of these two designers, and also anticipating the “impossible conversation” between the two, forseeing only unwavering disagreement… The avant-garde-inspired Schiaparelli, with her intricate, one-of-a-kind and often impractical garments, captured the imagination (and the collaboration) of Surrealist artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, and eschewed any attempt to broaden or commercialize her empire. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous Miuccia Prada, one of the most recognized names in luxury fashion today, has become synonymous with both haute-couture and high-end retail, creating a worldwide empire that has redefined and redistributed fashion to the masses.

Schiaparelli was a sculptor who became a fashion designer, but never ceased to see herself primarily as an artist. Prada, meanwhile, scoffs at any attempt of labeling either her designs or herself as “artistic,” and embraces her identity as a designer of clothes. Schiaparelli’s designs were unique and often difficult to wear. Prada designs for the average woman – one with an upscale bank account, of course – and her designs reflect this universality. Whereas one hovers on the fringes of the art world, the other is the watchword for mainstream clothing. So, despite the continued assertion that this was to be a “conversation,” I approached the exhibit as something more like a championship boxing match: Schiaparelli vs. Prada, for the title “Most Influential Italian Designer.” Who would win?

At the entrance to the exhibit I was met by an enormous video screen that attempted to answer the question. Miuccia Prada sits on one end of the table, and, thanks to some cinematic trickery, Else Schiaparelli – played by the divine Judy Davis complete with swirled marcel waves and goth-porcelain skin – sits on the other.  Directed by Baz Luhrmann (also the creative director of the exhibit), the ladies talk shop, covering beauty, fashion, art, inspirations, the pressures of society, and being a woman in business. The brief dialogue between the designers on what they have in common and where they differ, introduces each section of glass-walled garments.

Entering the exhibit, the differences are immediately apparent in rows of skirts – all Prada, more inspired by the bottom half of a woman’s form. These are matched with blazers and blouses – all Schiaparelli, whose Café-Society clients were most often photographed from the waist up. Rows of accessories in glass cases follow, curiously inert as most accessories are when isolated from a full ensemble. The Prada shoes mounted under the Schiaparelli hats are indicative of each designer’s approach to the fashion fetish of her era – and how the women who collected them changed as well, away from the hat-and-glove era of the 1950’s to the athletic, sexually active woman of today. Glass cases of gowns and separates, categorized by style and influence show how each woman re-invented not only fashion, but the very aesthetics of taste. For example, Schiaparelli’s circus-themed show of 1938 was revolutionary simply because the circus had always been considered too lowbrow for the worlds of fashion and art. Meanwhile, Prada, who most notoriously hates designing evening gowns, introduced the world to the “ugly chic” of browns and olives, of rough-hewn materials and dresses that did not cling to the female form and redefined beauty. Each designer was her own best muse: Schiaparelli with her flair for the theatric and her fanciful designs, and Prada with her everywoman-brand of luxury, every piece a signifier class, or money – and occasionally both.

I could not pretend to come here without a bias. My allegiance was solidly with Schiaparelli, the artist-turned-reluctant businesswoman. Coming of age in the 1990’s, I saw the rigid tyranny of label fashion gave way to numerous options – grunge, goth, vintage – for personal expression, only to find the return of label-as-couture as the millennium approached and passed (Hilfiger, Gucci, and numerous celebrity-driven vanity brands). Prada rode that label wave, but unlike others, such as Juicy or Guess, managed to both survive and remain close to couturier ideals of restrained glamour and impeccable tailoring. Nonetheless, for those who valued creativity with our personal style, wearing Prada was no different than wearing another label—that is, embracing a commercialized, mainstream, money-dictated idea of fashion.


Schiaparelli, however,  heralded from the golden age of couture. Drawing upon her original dreams of becoming a sculptor, she remained true to her artistic ideals even as her medium changed from clay to cloth, and her canvas, from paper to the female form. Her most famous pieces are iconic and one-of-a-kind—a pristine white evening gown with an enormous red lobster painted on, (courtesy of Salvador Dali), a hat shaped like an upside-down high-heeled shoe or a satin glove, bracelets made with giant beads shaped like fruits and vegetables. She epitomized the idea of fashion as self-expression, as personal and unique as any other artistic creation – an idea that is still embraced, but far less easy to achieve, in today’s commercialized fashion world. It was the romance of customized, personalized fashion, the designer and the muse – a romance I was happy to still embrace.

However, in some glass cases, Prada and Schiaparelli’s dresses stood side by side, so similar in colors, draping, embellishment that it quickly became a game to see who designed what before reading the placards. It was a game I got wrong just often enough to make me revise my notion of the eccentric Schiaparelli and cosmopolitan Prada as complete opposites.  If Schiaparelli’s influence was theoretical – one would be hard-pressed to find a single modern-day designer who refutes the genius of her innovations – Prada’s influence is diffused more thoroughly throughout of more layers of society. The devil might wear Prada, but so might the checkout girl at your grocery store, because she read that Beyonce does. And while it’s easy for me to be drawn towards Schiaparelli’s vision and her desire to elevate fashion design to the world of art, I must admit that Prada’s creations allow the woman to wear her clothes, rather than have the clothes wearing the woman.

In his movies, Baz Luhrmann shows an affinity for the complex – but distills for easier digestion by the largest common denominator, and the videos are no different. The meeting of these headstrong and visionary women is neither a conversation nor championship bout, but simply a self-congratulatory bonding session, a sort of girl-powered handshake reaching over from 2012 back to 1925, both relentless in their determination to find agreement and get along famously. But is agreement so important? One wished the fabulously opinionated Schiaparelli would let loose a witty criticism or two, just to keep things spicy.

Indeed, while the exhibit shows the similar themes these women explored, it leaves out any context that influenced or inspired the designers.  Schiaparelli was able to launch her unique vision precisely because of the time and place she lived in—Europe, between, during and after world wars, before the launch of a world-wide clothing industry, where fashions were still shown in private rooms and couture clothing was reserved for the wealthy few. In our day, it’s less likely she would even have designed clothes, except for the occasional performance piece for Lady Gaga, given how much of her day now would be spent on merchandising and diffusion lines for Target.

Meanwhile, could Prada have survived in earlier times? Probably not. In the 1940’s, what was beautiful, in good taste, in high society, followed the lives of the “jet set” and upper-class society, with little deviation or dissention. For a woman who loathes the idea of designing a so-called “beautiful” evening gown – and one who began her career in the “ugly-chic” heyday of the 1970’s – the world of the pre-war couturier based on the whims and demand of the very few, would seem like the worse kind of creative oppression. However, Schiaparelli’s creativity depended on these sartorial parameters; within them, she was able shock, amuse and inspire. Prada’s creativity originates more from the psychology of the masses, of designing something universal, but not generic; aspirational, but not inaccessible. They did not simply design for a particular woman; they designed for a particular woman who could exist at no other time.

While fashion is still considered a form of personal expression, the rise of stylists as a necessary force in both fashion and media seems to be moving fashion away from art and towards a science. While the label domination of the 1980’s and 2000’s might have passed – for now – fashion is still commodified, organized, dictated, and diagrammed for the average woman. Designers without an eye on retail and the “average woman” risk painting themselves into an elitist corner. Fashion might be a form expression, but it has become less personal even as the options multiply, which is perhaps why Schiaparelli endures as a fashion ideal. With only one true rival – Coco Chanel – and willing to sacrifice business and profit to stay true to her art and vision, Schiaparelli is both designer and bohemian fantasy.

Even so, a Schiaparelli dress is still a Schiaparelli dress; a label no different from Prada’s. Indeed, since her vision was so unique, her designs so revolutionary, her styling so exuberant, it becomes hard to imagine wearing Schiaparelli as a form of “personal” expression when each piece is so viscerally connected to its creator. Leaving the exhibit, I realized that part of me had been unabashedly window-shopping the collection. There were beautiful garments all around me, but half of the designs proclaimed their designer too boisterously and the other half far too prosaically.

And yet, even this is a sign of the times. A Prada garment is open to customization; how it is worn still depends on the styling of the wearer, with stylists whispering the latest trends from the wings. A Schiaparelli garment is a complete outfit in and of itself, with the styling done by the designer herself. In this era of endless options, it’s the simpler, more generic garment that sells the best. But regardless of what trend is upon us in the next decade, what we wear – and how we wear it – remains one of the most basic, immediate and undeniable signifiers of who we are.  From that perspective it becomes perhaps the most  universal art form, practiced by all classes, in all environments, by individuals, constantly communicating whom we are – and whom we want to be. Whether fashion is an art or not, it remains vital to how we define ourselves.

And it’s unlikely that either Prada or Schiaparelli would disagree…or disapprove.