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May 10, 2012

“Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” Opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Maud Doyle | Arts + Culture, Fashion, Museums

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations
© Left: Portrait of Elsa Schiaparelli, 1932 / Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hoyningen-Huené/Vogue; Condé Nast. Right: Portrait of Miuccia Prada, 1999 / Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guido Harari/Contrasto/Redux

“Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” which opens today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, explores the parallels between groundbreaking Italian designers Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, whose work bookends a century.

By contrasting garments, ideas and quotes, curators Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda created an imaginary conversation between the two women, framing it all with a stunning video directed by Baz Luhrmann, in which Schiaparelli (played by Judy Davis) and Prada chat over dinner. In each of the exhibit’s four rooms, the women discuss their careers and inspirations, occasionally differing in opinion (Schiaparelli proclaims, “Celebrate the bust!” while Prada insists that more happens from the waist down).

The exhibition is all screens and mirrors, and the dark profundity of last year’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” is nowhere to be found. But the reflections and visual effects in “Impossible Conversations” demonstrate its point: Like the femme fatales of film noir, the women who wear Prada’s mirrored skirts or Schiaparelli’s gold-embroidered jackets shine a little too brightly to be seen clearly.

Prada’s ensembles, which comprise the majority of the exhibit, are almost exclusively taken from the last ten years, and Schiaparelli’s nearly all hail from the 1930s. But the similarities are clear. In the first room, called Waist Up, Waist Down, Schiaparelli hats match Prada shoes precisely, and her jackets pair so perfectly with skirts from the early aughts that the temporal discrepancy doesn’t register—at least until a jacket embroidered with golden palms is paired with palm-printed silk short-shorts.

In the final installment, a shadowy hall of mirrors reflects ensembles (bug necklaces, feathered capes) floating in plexiglass boxes and black-and-white digital images of Schiaparelli blinking eerily. It’s a display of intellectual femininity, complete with tricks, puns and allusions. Consider a floor-length black Schiaparelli gown from the 1930s, spotted with pink velvet flowers and lovely in its simplicity. Two of the flowers have extra petals, and their placement highlights breasts beneath. It’s a cheeky nod and shows how these clothes embody the most fascinating aspect of a woman’s allure: Nothing is what it seems. On view May 10–August 19; 1000 Fifth Ave.; 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org.