Fugue State

I took half of Friday to recharge my batteries and see The Met’s annual collaboration with The Costume Institute, called “Impossible Conversations: Schiaparelli and Prada.”

A little background: Elsa Schiaparelli was a designer whose heyday was during the 1930s-60s. She had a playful sensitivity about her that belied fashion’s then-more utilitarian purpose; rather than using fashion as a reflection of the times, she used it to drive aesthetic sensitivity. It all makes sense when you consider that she collaborated multiple times with Salvador Dali, a visual artist who put his views to work for clients as varied as Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney.

Elsa Schiaparelli

Here’s Salvador Dali’s “Eye” painting, 1945

And here’s one of Schiaparelli’s hats, called the “Eyelash,” which is meant to evoke the idea of the whole head as an eye.

Miuccia Prada is one of our contemporary designers, of course. You’ve all seen her logo:

photo via VocialWeb.it

And some of her work:

image via catwalkqueen.tv

Here’s where it gets tricky. The exhibit is called “Impossible Conversations” because clearly it’s impossible for the living, breathing Prada to have a conversation with the long-gone Schiaparelli. But it’s also modeled after a Vanity Fair column that used to run in the 1930s called “Impossible Interviews,” which featured caricatures of unlikely conversationalists (John D. Rockfeller and Joseph Stalin, for instance). The caricatures, painted by Miguel Covarrubias, were accompanied by text by Corey Ford, a regular contributor to the magazine. (For more on the “Impossible Interviews” and a snippet of text, go to the Norman Rockwell Center’s great page on it.)

Okay, that was a lot of background.

It’s an interesting premise, even if the title of the thing–and its invited comparison to the Vanity Fair feature–encourages the underlying belief that Schiaparelli and Prada have deeply conflicting ideas on fashion. (They do, but they’re not as wide in scope as, say, communism and capitalism.) Also, the Vanity Fair column seemed to be entirely tongue-in-cheek, and totally absurdist, whereas this exhibit is entirely earnest.

But it was a disappointment. It starts off with a video of Prada and Schiaparelli sitting at a huge Italianate table having drinks. I thought we’d have recordings of Schiaparelli’s voice with maybe some still photographs at her end of the table (why else is that table so damned long?), but no, it’s Australian actress Judy Davis, giving it her all in an updo and a severe black dress.

Actress Judy Davis (photo via au.ibtimes.com)

Prada, for her part, is just Prada. And it was interesting to hear her talk about what it was like to labeled “minimalist,” and how, as a child, she hid behind things and eventually used fashion as a way to “out” herself. (She doesn’t mean outing as from the closet; she means she found a way to express herself.)

But here’s the thing: it IS possible for even a fine art exhibit to think too much of itself, and I think that’s what happened here. The whole thing is way too meta: Here’s an art exhibit riffing off a magazine column that riffed off of real life. And  snippets of the film play all the way through the exhibit, creating a fugue-like atmosphere that distracted entirely from the beauty of the work. All I could hear was Davis’ Italian-ate accent grinding its way through my brain.

So there you are, trying to see why it is these two designers have been paired together, but the clips play throughout, making it really hard to concentrate on some of the statements that Schiaparelli actually made about her work, which are printed at the foot of some of the items. (The script of the film varies just slightly from the actual text of Schiaparelli’s own commentary, whereas Prada’s commentary seems to be taken verbatim from the script, or vice-versa. The whole thing is just too much.)

So what was missing for me? Schiaparelli did some amazing work. She has her relatively tame lobster dress, which was a gorgeous piece of white organza that had a huge lobster printed on it; and her work was incredibly playful–check out these acrobat buttons:

But the exhibit didn’t have what I think is one of her most interesting works, the skeleton dress:

Skeleton Dress image via pumpkincat2010.wordpress.com

And I’m pretty sure it didn’t even include the lobster dress, but instead included an image of it.

I think the most glaring omission of the exhibit was the express exclusion of any mention of the gorgeous masks, all created in the spirit of surrealism by British hairstylist Guido Palau. Here are a few snaps from StyleRumor.com

I would have loved to have seen an artist’s statement from Palau, at least, on these masks. (I think it’s a testimony to their awesomeness that, by the time I got to the Met mini-shop at the end of the exhibit, they’d sold out of the postcards that featured the masks. And it’s worth mentioning, too, that Palau did the masks for the Met’s exhibit on Alexander McQueen last year.)

In the end, I’m glad I went. But I was left with the impression that, rather than wanting to highlight the importance of these two designers to fashion, The Met went the route of highlighting its own importance to the world of fashion exhibits.

The whole exhibit ends with a snippet of film in which Schiaparelli/Davis questions whether she and Prada would have been friends or foes if they had lived during the same era. Prada laughs and says, “No, Schiap, no!”

In the end, I think it’s perhaps this false familiarity, the use of the diminutive where permission to use it most certainly hasn’t been granted,  that signifies everything that grates about this exhibit. Schiaparelli’s work perhaps deserves an exhibit of its own. She doesn’t need a backdrop for us to appreciate her designs and artistry. She certainly doesn’t need Baz Luhrman (I KNOW!!), Judy Davis, scriptwriters, and trick photos* to enthrall us.

It’s questionable that she even needs Miuccia Prada.

*If you go, take a close look at the black-and-white photos of Schiaparelli’s work. Just stand there awhile. Trust me.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

4 Responses to Fugue State
  1. Kara says:

    Wow, you must really think very little of Hitchcock and Disney to refer to them as “clients” of Dali for their collaborations.

  2. Yi Shun Lai says:

    Not, actually. My clients are kings, in my book.

  3. laura says:

    i thought the exhibit was interesting but small,, i was expecting much more like pasts costume institute exhibits.

    • Yi Shun Lai says:

      Hi Laura! Thanks for reading! Yes, the previous exhibits have been really expansive, it seems. I do think they unnecessarily limited the scope of it by trying to shoehorn it in so many ways…

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