Radical Chic

Walking through the impossibly good Met exhibit on Prada and Schiaparelli

According to the circular logic of the institutional theory of art, the fashion that makes up “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York qualifies as art merely because the art world has deemed it as such. Miuccia Prada, never one to follow, disagrees.

While Elsa Schiaparelli considered herself an artist and collaborated with Dalí to create iconic pieces such as her lobster dress and shoe hat, Prada rejects the “artist” label. As a collector herself, she’s no stranger to the rarefied art world, but she’s also a political Leftward-leaning former mime who loves fashion for its accessibility and democracy. “Everyone wears it, and everyone relates to it,” she says. In the exhibit’s video of an imagined conversation between the two designers, with Judy Davis playing Schiaparelli, Prada then seems to decide clothes are perhaps unworthy even of this level of seriousness. “Fashion is art, fashion is not art. But at the end, who cares?” she says.

“Impossible Conversations” has yet to realize the zeitgeist status achieved by last year’s “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” (good news for anyone who likes captions and personal space), but the visitors appear to care very much. With a sense of awe, respect, and longing, they wander the exhibit’s chambers, which are organized around the aesthetic principles of hard chic, ugly chic, and naïf chic, and feature contrasting examples of each from Schiaparelli’s and Prada’s collections.

Both women excelled at subverting prevailing notions of taste, and at creating complex yet wearable designs that often defy simple comparison. But the work is so visually appealing that, in the end, who cares? One notable difference does hold up throughout. As a product of Europe’s café culture, in which fashion below the waist went unseen while people sat for hours, Schiaparelli focused her attention on the upper body. Prada, on the other hand, prefers skirts and shoes, finding the space associated with “sexy stuff,” “giving birth,” and “being connected to the earth,” more dynamic.

Two days before agreeing to bob for French fries with Stephen Colbert at Long John Silvers (talk about accessibility!), Anna Wintour arrived at the Met Gala in a Prada lobster dress inspired by the original. For this, Schiaparelli abandoned her usual waist-up mentality, making the piece a perfect tribute to both designers. Wintour’s daughter, Bee Schaeffer, shone in a floral gown by a newer authority on ladylike dressing, Erdem.

You might be more likely to eat French fries than sport a custom-made design to the fashion event of the year, but you could bring your son or daughter to the exhibit. Between the playful prints of bananas, whimsical platform heels, and old-fashioned eveningwear, there’s much to entertain any would-be designer or lover of playing dress-up. What’s more, Prada and Schiaparelli are female role models for using their—dare we say art?—to create unique versions of beauty. “We must refuse the definition of glamour,” says Schiaparelli in the video, “without ever being any less glamorous.”