The Costume Institute's new exhibition is a happy collision of fashion titans. Decades apart, Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada are joined in a conceit devised by Met curators, Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda: a filmed dialogue, directed by Baz Luhrman, inspired by Louis Malle's two-hander, Dinner With Andre -- only this is two women talking, both Italian and interested in clothes. Hence Impossible Conversations: Judy Davis is cast as Schiaparelli and Prada is, well, herself. Their discourse is projected, heard over the mannequins sporting their shoes, dresses, ensembles, and hats. Provocative pairings make for exhibition as theater.
The Met seized the moment when they acquired a Schiaparelli collection from the Brooklyn Museum and did not want to duplicate an exhibition perfected elsewhere. The accompanying catalogue features Judith Thurman's wittily titled essay, "Twin Peaks," offering thematic direction and the ES-MP dialogue in short page inserts. Affinities as modernists and feminists emerge as virtual truth. The Futurists and Surrealists are important influences, as are Asian cultures. No surprise, each changed the way women dress in significant ways: among other ingenuities, Schiaparelli was responsible for wraparound dresses, culottes, swimsuits with a built-in bra, wedge heels, the power suit. Prada could be industrial, tailored, severe, but with irony. "The virginal convent girl" in pleats and knee socks, the "virtuous matron in twin sets and pearls" are referenced and subverted in her signature designs. Dowdy chic is chic still. Differences speak to the times: Schiaparelli dressed women for dinner and so emphasized jackets, what's worn above the waist, adorning with, say, monkey fur. Prada goes for the skirt, embellished in an assortment of mirror shards, spangles, kitchen utensils.
Schiaparelli thought fashion was art. Prada finds that equation impractical for today's world. Fashion is about selling dresses. And other stuff too: the Met gift shops offer her pricy totes, scarves, lobster and banana earrings in bright red and yellow plastic.
As I traveled past Bergdorf's on the #4 bus down Fifth Avenue, I saw the Prada-decked windows. She might as well have said fashion is about merchandising, branding. This woman speaks what she knows, and does it very well.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.