Ugly Chic: Schiaparelli and Prada's Catwalk Catfight

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By Mona Molarsky As celebrities trouped up the red carpet to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute gala on May 7th, it was hard to imagine anything subversive could be happening anywhere in the museum. Paparazzi clicked and video cameras live-streamed, while Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, led a parade of stars who showed off their designer dresses. They were there for the opening of the exhibit, "Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations," that celebrates two of the most influential designers of the last hundred years.
The exhibit itself is so linked to the gala's glamour you can almost see champagne bubbles fizzing in the display cases. But the carefully curated show-which imagines a time-traveling conversation between designers Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada-wants us to know that the two transcend glitter. Harold Koda, the curator-in-charge of the Costume Institute, sees the women, who never met and were born 60 years apart, as kindred subversive spirits, "conceptual and esthetic provocateurs."
To make the case, the show uses wall texts and video vignettes in which the actress Judy Davis, playing Schiaparelli with a wicked glint in her eye, converses with the real life Prada. Everywhere you turn at the exhibit, the word "transgressive" seems to be on somebody's lips.[Soft Break]
Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) worked with artists Salvador Dalí and Jean Cocteau during the 1930s to create such Surrealist-inflected couture as a hat shaped like a lamb cutlet and a dress that mimicked torn flesh. Fashion is art, Schiaparelli, argued in her autobiography, parts of which are quoted in the exhibit. She admitted that, despite the wackiness of her designs, her greatest fans were "the ultra-smart and conservative women, wives of diplomats and bankers, millionaires and artists."
Miuccia Prada (b. 1949) was a political activist and a member of the Italian Communist Party during her twenties. She got a doctorate in political science before taking over her wealthy Milanese family's luxury goods business in 1978. In the wall texts she talks about designing clothes that "reference" the films of Luis Buñuel and Michelangelo Antonioni, and their "representations of the bourgeoisie."
Since the late 1980s, Prada has transfixed the fashion press with her clothing and accessories for the luxury market, which they dubbed "ugly chic" due to the dismal color combinations and Prada's refusal to flatter the female form. It's a term Prada has fully embraced. "If I have done anything," she says, "It is to make ugly appealing."
Not all Prada's designs fit this description. At the Met, viewers exclaimed over the beauty of a gold cocktail dress made of sari silk. But Prada has since renounced the frock as "predictable." Of her popular spring 2000 collection, praised by some for classic chic and glamour, Prada says, "It was based on the pretense of propriety, the façade of the bourgeoisie."
It's a weird mind game, in which every assumption gets inverted. Yet Prada's frequent references to the bourgeoisie suggest that, despite her protestations, the upper class she comes from still has her in a headlock. Not all that surprising, given that it is, of course, her market.
One wall in the show is devoted simply to accessories: humorous Schiaparelli hats and campy Prada shoes. Both poke fun at high fashion and the moneyed customers who buy it. Schiaparelli's black hat that's shaped like a shoe must have provoked hilarity when it was first shown in 1937. The contemporary equivalents are Prada's 2012 patent leather "Cadillac" sling-backs with silver fins and red plastic taillights, and the five-inch, "Hotrod" wedges with red-and-white "flames" shooting out the back. They look like something Italian futurist Umberto Boccioni might have cooked up with the help of Marvel Comics.
These high-heeled jokes are currently for sale in Prada stores, at prices approaching $1200. It may be the first time that visitors to the Met can buy pieces from a current exhibit in nearby retail outlets. Yet few have complained about this nexus of art and commerce.
( heart of the show is the section devoted to "Ugly Chic," a term that describes the bulk of both designers' work. A three-piece ensemble Prada did in the mid-nineties sums it up. The skirt, jacket and top combo, printed in imitation tweed, in clashing shades of chartreuse, avocado and peridot, looks like a Salvation Army special. At a thrift shop, back in the day, it might have cost $5. Prada sold hers for thousands.
That collection "was an exercise in elevating cheap and obsolete patterns into high fashion," she explains in the wall text. "Bad taste is part of our culture." Well, yes. But usually only the poor are forced to wear humiliation on their backs. Somehow, Prada has convinced the rich to do likewise.
In the '30s, Schiaparelli did less egregiously ugly versions on the same theme. She designed a green sweater with trompe l'oeil collar, cuffs and tie. And there was her famous lobster dress, a pretty organza frock, emblazoned with a giant red crustacean.
Whatever the tacky decorations, Schiaparelli always employed top craftsmen to tailor her garments to the female form. In contrast, Prada's clothes tend to have a dowdy line that conjures up images of harried housewives, Catholic schoolgirls and disheveled cross-dressers.
"I do clothes in theory," she once said. "Deep down, I'm not interested if they look good on the body." Spoken like the academic she once was and a true conceptualist. Yet one suspects there's more to the story.
Despite their limited sensual appeal and the sky-high prices, Prada's products sell well. Well enough to support a global network of close to 500 Prada stores and put Miuccia on the Forbes Billionaires List with a net worth of $6.8 billion. The Prada company has thrived by convincing people who have more money than they know what to do with to spend it on clothes that make them look not only hideous but idiotic. She knows what she's doing, of course.
Between the wars, Schiaparelli did much the same. During the Depression, as millions struggled to eat and Europe veered toward Fascism, she dressed a moneyed few in garments that seemed to comment archly on their owners' cluelessness. In 1937, shortly before marrying the Duke of Windsor and traveling to Bavaria to meet Adolph Hitler, Wallis Simpson modeled Schiaparelli's lobster dress for Vogue magazine. The photo, by Cecil Beaton, is displayed in the show, with no historical context. Yet it is only with some context that the complex relationship between the designers and their customers makes sense.
It has always been a delicate dance between the buyers and the folks that cater to them. In their designs, Schiaparelli and Prada have made these age-old tensions more explicit than most. Yet their dependence on the class that feeds and fetes them means designers can never truly subvert high fashion. As for the curators and the fashionistas, who talk of "provocations" and "the normative conventions of taste," they know its just flirtation. To truly deconstruct would be to self-destruct.
For the gala, Miuccia Prada re-imagined Schiaparelli's red lobster as a glittering, golden creature that swirled down Anna Wintour's long white gown. Topped with sparkling jewelry and an elegant white jacket, the predator was as denatured as a crustacean can get. Lobster? What lobster? All is safe at Vogue and the House of Prada, where the profits keep pouring in.

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