This question naturally comes to mind when one visits a current exhibition at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum. There, the Costume Institute has devoted a large space on the main floor to Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) and Miuccia Prada (1949-). The subtitle of the show, Impossible Conversations, underscores a unique feature of the exhibit: from start to finish, visitors hear and see the words of the two famous female designers engaged in an imaginary conversation across the table from each other. Schiaparelli’s ideas originated in her autobiography, Shocking Life, and her part is played by contemporary actress Judy Davis; Prada, of course, speaks for herself. The exhibit underscores the philosophical similarities between the two Italian women in seven themed galleries: "Waist Up/Waist Down," "Ugly Chic," "Hard Chic," "Naïf Chic," "The Classical Body," "The Exotic Body," and "The Surreal Body."
Co-curator Andrew Bolton has noted that Schiaparelli and Prada used “fashion as a vehicle to provoke, to confront normative conventions of taste, beauty, glamour, and femininity.” Schiaparelli’s designs were considered surrealist at the time and Prada's are said to be post-modern. There certainly are plenty of examples of provocative, non-traditional styles on the part of both designers. However, in my humble opinion, some designs by Schiaparelli (pronounced Skee-ah-pah-rell-ee) are more conventionally beautiful. Sure, one finds, here or there, outrageous creations like the Shoe Hat and the comical Lobster Dress Schiaparelli designed in collaboration with Salvador Dali and worn by Wallis Simpson, but there are also elegant jackets and dresses on display. One gets the feeling that Schiaparelli’s clothing might have actually been purchased and worn by ordinary women. In the picture below, you'll find some Schiaparelli jackets paired with Prada skirts as seen at the exhibit.
I don’t claim to understand fashion, but for me Prada’s designs weigh heavily on the “Ugly Chic” category. It’s true that some of her creations, such as the Flame Shoe, are artistically constructed; but tell me, can you really imagine them being worn on any occasion? Her color palate, too, seems to rely on brown; could there be a duller and less attractive color? Prada’s most successful season was apparently the year she brought out a series of animal prints. I must be missing something: I just can’t see wanting to wear clothing covered in monkeys and elephants. This type of apparel seems to be created merely for shock value.
I must be way too practical when it comes to clothing. At any rate, if you're in New York City any time between now and August 19th, drop in to the Metropolitan Museum and catch the exhibit for yourself. And then please let me know if you think any of it is art or even clothing that women would wear.