Schiaparelli and Prada: Sneak a Peek at the Met’s ‘Impossible Conversations’

(All photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“I never thought people would want to wear clothes with monkeys and bananas on them,” said Miuccia Prada of her spring 2011 collection, a retail smash that featured madcap cotton separates printed with baroque scrolls, embroidered monkeys, and thick stripes. And the bananas? A wink at Carmen Miranda and Josephine Baker. More than 70 years earlier, when Miranda was still working the carnaval circuit in her native Brazil, Elsa Schiaparelli was feeling a circus theme. The designer described her summer 1938 collection as the “most riotous and swaggering” one she had ever created, and illustrator Christian Berard immortalized the “circus parade at Schiaparelli’s” in Vogue. “Clowns, elephants, horses, decorated the prints with the words ‘Attention a la Peinture,'” said Schiaparelli of her Barnum-infused couture. “Balloons for bags, spats for gloves, ice-cream cones for hats, and trained Vasling dogs and mischievous monkeys.” The two fanciful collections meet at long last in the “Naïf Chic” gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s spring Costume Institute exhibition, “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations,” which opens today.

Curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton reveal the striking similarities between Schiaparelli and Prada by focusing on seven areas of aesthetic kinship, from “Ugly Chic” and “Hard Chic” to “The Classical Body” and “The Surreal Body.” That last one is the showstopper, celebrated in a final gallery of mirrors (pictured directly above) that tricks the eye into perceiving an infinity of Dali collaborations, trompe l’oeil accents, furs, feathers, and pailletes, which Prada believes are irresistible to women. (“Paillettes are a typical form of eveningwear,” the designer has said. “Because I hate eveningwear, I try to make pailletes problematic—by making them so big or so heavy, for instance, that they become problematic.”) It can be a challenge to tell a Prada from a Schiaparelli, particularly when hefty fabrics and exotic textures are involved, but as Judith Thurman writes in an essay in the masterpiece of an exhibition catalogue designed by Abbott Miller of Pentagram, “Prada’s citations of Schiaparelli are an exercise in sampling, not imitation. They enrich and complicate, rather than merely translate her models, and they illustrate the way that critics and artists of every generation reinvent the formal language they inherit.” Prada is neither a copycat nor someone who is interested in translating the work of the contemporary artists she collects into covetable clothing. For her, art is an entirely separate barrel of monkeys.

“Waist Up/Waist Down” looks at Schiaparelli’s use of decorative detailing as a response to restaurant dressing in the heyday of 1930s café society, while showing Prada’s below-the-waist focus as a symbolic expression of modernity and femininity. An accessories subsection of this gallery called “Neck Up/Knees Down” showcases Schiaparelli’s hats and Prada’s footwear.

A gallery view of “The Exotic Body,” which explores the influence of Eastern cultures through fabrics such as lamé, and silhouettes such as saris and sarongs.