The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent opening by way of the Costume Institute presents innovators Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada as paramount designers and three-dimensional women. Entitled Impossible Conversations, the exhibition is framed by seven short films depicting conversations between Prada and Schiaparelli (played by actress Judy Davis) over glasses of champagne. The films were produced by filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, the creative consultant for the exhibition, with lines culled from Schiaparelli’s autobiography, Shocking Life, and Prada’s own remarks. These enlivened conversations consider the concerns and intentions of each designer, both in the grander scheme of fashion and within their respective outputs.
Impossible Conversations highlights two distinct eras of fashion’s historical timeline: the 1920s through 1950s and the 1990s through the present. Both women were absorbed by fashion in a fell swoop: Schiaparelli by the Café society of the 1920s and Prada by the translation of the sleek design from handbags to women’s wear in the 1980s. Investigations of body and the assorted definitions of chic suggest similarities in core beliefs but a variation of intention.
An emphasis on unaesthetic melding with luxurious obsessions like fur, feathers, and gold is felt throughout the exhibition. Schiaparelli’s wool day suits and Prada’s black nylon basics reveal an ever-present tension between masculine and feminine. Both women yearned to “make men more human and the women more powerful,” according to Prada. Clothing served as a component of self, an embodiment of prismatic personalities. Good and bad taste were regularly challenged by both designers to stretch luxury beyond the stereotypes of glamour. Both designers put forth novel mutations of antiquity while acknowledging the “body as a carrier of narratives,” past and present.
Distinctions emerge in their opinions of beauty and art, however. Whereas Schiaparelli obsessed over clothing as a frame for the female form, Prada despises clichés of beauty and even avoids draping and bias cuts all together. Prada also argues that ‘new’ simply does not exist anymore in the vocabulary of fashion design. Schiaparelli’s fixation on global influences were exotic and fairly untapped in the midst of the World Wars, which informed her understanding of ‘new.’ In the midst of this global age, Prada also deems the terms ‘artist’ confining and pompous. Although Schiaparelli adored the term for it’s emphasis on freedom and collaboration, Prada finds the immediacy and accessibility of fashion more important than its elevation to the status of art. Impossible Conversations, according to Harold Koda at the Costume Institute, “allows us to explore how the past enlightens the present and how the present enlivens the past.” Fueled by their desire to clothe a transcendent yet grounded woman, Schiaparelli and Prada altered the climate of fashion with wild convictions that continue to enchant the modern woman.
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