Alex and I went to the Schiaparelli/Prada exhibit at the Met last week. The exhibit is smaller and more lighthearted than last year’s incredible McQueen hagiographic extravaganza, but that seemed fitting, perhaps more so for Prada than for Schiaparelli.
Extravagant, however, might be the word to describe the videos projected throughout the show. They were huge, and they were crazy. When you enter, before you see a single dress, shoe, or hat, you are confronted by this:
(I bring you our somewhat blurry iPhone photos at great personal risk, because the guards were constantly reminding us that there is NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED.)
The videos featured Prada in conversation with “Elsa Schiaparelli” played with high campiness by Judy Davis.
On the one hand, it was great to hear the designers’ words (Schiaparelli’s script was drawn from her writing), and the video was fun, weird, and surreal in a way that seemed perfectly in tune with both designers’ styles. They are based on the “Impossible Interview” pieces that Miguel Covarrubias did for Vanity Fair in the ’30s, one of which was a conversation between Schiaparelli and Stalin:
On the other hand, the videos were somewhat awkward–it’s strange to see a person just speaking as herself alongside an actress giving voice to a character. They were also distracting. Alex felt this more than I did, but, to some extent, the videos made it difficult to pay attention to the clothing, both because they aggressively interpreted the objects in front of us, and because they were often projected behind the clothes, so that when you looked at the clothing, you were forced to watch (and listen to) the video at the same time.
The videos really brought up the question of this juxtaposition of designers. Why compare Prada and Schiaparelli, other than the fact that they are both Italian women? And by what standards? Prada herself said as much to Women’s Wear Daily before the show opened: “It’s too formal. They are focused on similarities, comparing feather with feather, ethnic with ethnic, but they are not taking into consideration that we are talking about two different eras, and that [Schiaparelli and I] are total opposite. I told them, but they don’t care.” She then refines her comment, with a truly masterful back-handed compliment: “Mrs. Prada confirmed that she admires the total curatorial independence of the museum to the extent that they almost did not take into consideration her vision.”
There are, it’s true, many formal and aesthetic similarities. In the shoes and the hats above, you can see a sort of whimsy, and a disregard for conventional beauty. But this, of course, means something very different now than it did when Schiaparelli was working. In one of the videos, Schiaparelli asserts that fashion designers are artists (see Ben McCoy’s post on Schiaparelli for more on her collaboration with Dali, and fashion as surrealist art), and Prada firmly rejects this idea. The word “artist” is old-fashioned, she says, and she has no desire to be one. This may seem odd, because Prada and Schiaparelli both have, at times, a weird, surreal almost anti-fashion aesthetic:
But the difference is, of course, late-capitalism. Prada’s rejection of the word “artist” has to do, I think, with a rejection of an idea about the avant-garde. In another video, Schiaparelli talks about her desire to “shock” with her clothes, and Prada immediately says that shocking has become impossible–or, maybe better, it has become boring. Innovation has become so imperative, and occurs so quickly, that it is no longer revolutionary to make something radically new. And what was once radically new–shocking–no longer carries the same radical charge. Case in point, Schiaparelli’s lambchop hat:
Don’t get me wrong: it was still exciting to see some of these zany Schiaparelli things, and they still have an element of crazy. It’s just that craziness doesn’t feel so… crazy anymore. This, maybe, is why Prada’s work seems less about a violent, shocking “ugliness” (even though the show tries to make a case for her clothing as embracing the ugly), and more about a sort of frumpiness. Prada’s silhouettes are often odd, but they seem to be more about returning to older forms, being thoughtful about materials, and incorporating more utilitarian styles into high fashion. And this isn’t ugly. It’s just not sexy, which is something Prada seems not especially concerened with being, either as a person or a designer.
Prada likes to explore women’s obsessions–fur, gold, etc.–in ways that detach them from both sex and luxury. Or so she says–there’s not enough time here to talk about what it means to be anti-luxury when you are, you know, Miuccia Prada.
Even Prada’s weirdness, and Schiaparelli’s shocking qualities, seem sort of approachable when you just look at the clothes. Judith thurman pointed this out in her review of the show: ”It is more elegant than revolutionary. The curators’ erudite critical framework, and the spirited quotations from both designers which pepper the galleries, are illuminating about the power and history of fashion in a way that the exhibits aren’t. Without Andrew Bolton’s wall notes to remind you how subversive Schiaparelli was, or how singular Prada is, season after season, you troll the galleries in a trance of shop-lust, just thinking stupidly, ‘I want this!’ And there isn’t much that a reasonably confident woman of any age couldn’t wear.”
Maybe it’s still possible to shock–maybe the McQueen exhibit showed us that. But this show, almost in spite of itself, makes you wonder not abut the possibility, but about the value of shock in a world that makes it just another commodity.