Schiaparelli & Prada – The Art of Fashion for the Modern Age

Schiaparelli, the Art of Costume at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Given the role Surrealism and other art movements play in the designs of both Schiaparelli and Prada, it seems only fitting that their inventive creations be explored here at the Met,” said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art when he announced that Italian iconic fashion designers Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 – 1973) and Miuccia Prada (1949 -) are to be the subject of a landmark exhibition to be held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute in New York from May 10 to August 19 this year.

Schiaparelli and Prada are both women who imagined the art of fashion for the modern age. ‘Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations’ will explore the possible affinities that exist between these two dynamic doyennes of fashion, who were successful in different eras and in different ways.

It will illustrate how both women affected contemporary images of the female body in their own time, blurring the boundaries between reality and illusion while highlighting the natural and the artificial.

The exhibition to be held in the Metropolitan Museum’s first-floor galleries, will feature fabulous aspects of costume designed by Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973)that document the period from the late 1920s to the early 1950s when Schiaparelli reigned supreme. Then there will be those from Miuccia Prada tracing the more recent period from the late 1980s to the present day. 

Miuccia Prada’s seven young models chosen for her spring summer collection of 2009 are presented as glamorous futuristic images embellished with a metallic shine

Australian film director, screenwriter, and producer Baz Luhrmann will be a Creative Consultant to the event and Nathan Crowley it’s Production Designer. Inspired by Miguel Covarrubias’s “Impossible Interviews” for the society magazine Vanity Fair in the 1930s, the Metropolitan’s Costume Institute curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, will suggest new readings of the duo’s most innovative work, which will be set against a background of the art movements and cultural influences that influenced them both.

Costume is all about who we are…where we have been and where we are going…It has become impossible for us to make a distinction today between styles that will last, trends that will grow and the passing fancies of a season.

Fur and Feather Hat by Schiaparelli 1948

Costume is a footnote to culture, and today remains both a changing and eternal form of human expression.

Costume encompasses all that we wear, including objects for personal adornment such as jewellery, hats, gloves, shoes, accessories and today, undergarments, which would have been ‘unmentionable’ in Schiaparelli’s time.

The various aspects of costume have an interesting history and reflect our social growth conveying an image either purely for purposes of personal status or, to accommodate a desire to be distinguished from others in society.

Elsa Schiaparelli became one of the most revered costume designers between the two World Wars in Europe.

Born into an aristocratic family at Rome, she believed that the wealth, which had nurtured her upbringing and supplied her brilliant education, nevertheless stifled her creativity. So she set about removing herself from her luxurious surroundings, causing scandals, shocking society, marrying a Count, travelling to London and then New York en route to finally becoming the couturier she wanted to be at Paris.

Schiaparelli Sweater 1928

Interestingly it was knitwear that she first became renowned for.

Her first collection launched in 1927, featured ‘surrealist’ images. She worked with a number of contemporary artists, including prominent Surrealist painter Spanish Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989).

He inspired and helped her to develop her ideas. These artistic collaborations were vital to her work in progress. Her most famous dresses inspired by Dali are perhaps her best known.

They are the ‘Lobster Dress’, superbly simple with a crimson waistband and a large lobster painted by Dali on the skirt.

Then there was the Tears Dress, a slender blue evening gown, again with a Dali work with ‘real’ tears applied; the Skeleton Dress was a black crepe dress with quilted ribs, spine and leg bones.

The over the top ‘Shoe Hat’, which was basically a woman’s high heeled shoe designed by Dali to be worn on the head. It caused, as we can imagine, a sensation.

Elsa’s ‘pour le Sport’ collection included skiwear and linen dresses. She was the first to use coloured zippers and have them died to match her materials.

She created wonderful buttons, more like brooches

She invented culottes, the divided skirt that women around the world went wild for. When one was worn by Lili de Alvarez at Wimbledon in 1931, she shocked the tennis world.

Schiaparelli created a great many ‘firsts’ for the fashion industry, including inventing the first runway show, which was set to music using elongated shapeless women as models.

She designed ‘the wedge’ sole on shoes and produced the concept of mix and match sportswear, forty years ahead of when it would finally take the fashion world by storm.

In 1934 Time Magazine placed Chanel in the ‘second division’ of fashion’ while Schiaparelli was at the peak of her power and arbiter of ultra modern haute couture.

She was forced to flee Europe in 1940 when Paris fell, setting up shop in New York until it was all over where her innovations continued.

Rosebud Necklace Elsa Schiaparelli 1938

A rare, but complete example of The House of Schiaparelli Perfume, Shocking with its Torso bottle and Floral Brooch still intact. It was released in 1937, developed by perfumer Jean Carles, who also created Christian Dior Miss Dior

Elsa Schiaparelli’s shocking pink packaging for her all new Schiaparelli perfume line contained a bottle shaped like a woman’s torso and a fabulous flower brooch.

The torso had been sculpted for her by another woman who lived life on her own terms Leonor Fini (1907 – 1996), who had been introduced to Surrealism by Giorgio de Chirico the Italian grandfather of the movement.

Fini’s work was displayed at the Fantastic Dada and Surrealism Exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1936.

She fashioned the bottle for Schiaparelli based on the figure of voluptuous movie actress Mae West and predated Jean Paul Gaultier’s ‘classique’ woman’s torso by some fifty-eight years.

Schiaparelli provided the clothes for Zsa Zsa Gabor for the movie classic Moulin Rouge in 1952, which won an Academy Award for Costume Design that was presented to Marcel Vertes, the film’s official designer, while she remained in the background.

She embroidered linen shirts such as the “Cocteau” Evening Jacket in the fall of 1937.

This was both whimsical and innovative, produced in collaboration with French poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, playwright, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.

Fabulous Fleur de lys belt 1936 – 1937

It was embroidered with a pattern that reads simultaneously as a vase and two confronting faces.

Following the war the reaction to four years of suffering and privation took the form of a period of exaltation, creativity and joi de vivre. The new motto was ‘live and forget the past’. Etiquette changed so conformism was rejected and freedom of expression became the new rule.

The two World Wars war profoundly changed the role of women in society and their approach to fashion. They had enjoyed a taste of freedom and working whether in the fields, the factories, typing pools or the office, they did not want to return to only having a life at home. Dramatic social change was accompanied by the emergence and flourishing of a revolutionary style of fashion, design and illustration.

Necklace Leaves 1938 Schiaparelli Pagan Collection

Monkey Boots by Schiaparelli 1938 predating Alexander Wang and Helmut Lang by 75 years

Egalitarian ideals triumphed over aristocratic habits and the ability for more and more people to own an automobile also changed people’s aspirations and ways of life.

This was when Christian Dior’s whole new look rejected pre-war fashion, captivating the world with its simple stylish elegance especially when worn by classic beauties such as movie star Grace Kelly

After an extraordinary career in couture Elsa Schiaparelli left the world stage in 1954, the same year her greatest rival of between the wars the legendary Coco Chanel returned to the fashion world. Ironically Schiaparelli, who had once rejected wealth, retired because she could not deal with ‘austerity’ .

Perhaps the most famous of her rivals, Coco Chanel, who would deliver the ultimate compliment about her. She referred to Elsa Schiaparelli as ‘that Italian artist who makes clothes’.

Elsa Schiaparelli was a woman before her time and in honouring her legacy the Metropolitan Museum of Art is recognizing her enormous contribution to the international fashion industry we all now enjoy.

Her designs, and devil may care attitude had epitomized the art of modernity.

Prada’s divine shoes

Miuccia Prada, was born into the contemporary age following World War II, after also gaining an elite education. She found herself entering the world of fashion in 1978 when she was required to take over the luxury leather good company that her grandfather had founded in 1913, because it was in difficulties.

It had specialized in crafting goods from exotic materials from all around the world for a long time, and the rise and rise of high powered competitors, such as Gucci and Hermes, had nearly sent it to the wall. So when she took over no one from within the industry, expected much to happen as she was not known in the fashion world at the time.

Sadly for all the rest she had inherited grandfather’s innovative mind and sense of style and by 1978 was designing new leather goods. In 1988 she debuted her first womens wear collection and in 1989 her ‘ready to wear line, which was a minimalist reincarnation of 70’s chic.

It also announced that she would be a force to be reckoned with, presenting her own distinctive style. It really doesn’t matter though how much money you have behind you, without the talent to produce the goods and capture the public imagination it doesn’t happen. Prada did both.

Her husband Patrizio Bertelli became her business partner so that he could guide her growth to fame, which was based on her all new plain black backpack.

Prada ‘Hobo’ Bag

Launched in 1985 it was made from the same material used by the Italian Army and eventually became the very essence of early 90’s chic. By 1995 it was the ultimate accessory and at the top of every fashionista wish list.

In 1992 she introduced her secondary line called Miu Miu, named for her own nickname. Savvy, avant-garde, provocative and yet sophisticated sales skyrocketed. It became the premium status symbol for the 90’s.

In 1995, Prada, who is an art collector, co-founded the Fondazione Prada to support contemporary art by giving grants to artists wanting to create their dream project.

Since then she has appeared on the Forbes’s list of the World’s Richest People, has taken Manhattan by storm at the gala opening party for a new store in So Ho, and designed the costume worn by the musicians at Milan’s opera house.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour at the Milan fashion shows said to The New York Times,I told Miuccia today, You’re the only reason we all come to Milan,” adding, “She has become the lifeblood of the city”.

It was Wintour who was the inspiration for the cynical character of Miranda Priestly played so brilliantly by award winning actress Meryl Streep in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ made in 2006.

Coming from a privileged Milanese elite, Prada, who was a Communist leaning, Yves Saint Laurent admirer wearing heiress, was described in 2000 by The New York Times as “a woman who is not a natural designer, yet who has become a seer.”

She is renowned for loving fashion completely and being able to predict coming trends.

For the 2009 Spring Collection Prada selected seven young models and skilfully presented them in a range of glamorous futuristic images with metallic shine.

In 2012 they are all wearing hotrod-esque shoes and the handbags, shoes and outfits are of the moment. Prada has remarked that fashion, while ‘it’s a very nice part of your life… should be fun’.

Her work, she told Vogue in 2009, is “about what I like, but also analysing what is and isn’t trendy and why people like something, trying to find a way to look at it from outside, researching new ideas on beauty and femininity and the way it is perceived in contemporary culture.”

As the Director of the Met remarked,

Schiaparelli’s collaborations with Dalí and Cocteau as well as Prada’s Fondazione Prada push art and fashion ever closer, in a direct, synergistic, and culturally redefining relationship.”

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012

Where: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
When: May 10 – August 19, 2012

In the first floor Special Exhibition Galleries, iconic ensembles by Schiaparelli and Prada will be presented with videos of simulated conversations between the two designers directed by Baz Luhrmann, focusing on how both women explore similar themes in their work through very different approaches.

“Juxtaposing the work of Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada allows us to explore how the past enlightens the present and how the present enlivens the past,” said curator Harold Koda.

The connection of the historic to the modern highlights the affinities as well as the variances between two women who constantly subverted contemporary notions of taste, beauty, and glamour,” added curator Andrew Bolton.

Seven Themes will be explored:

“Waist Up/Waist Down” will look at Schiaparelli’s use of decorative detailing as a response to restaurant dressing in the heyday of 1930s café society, while showing Prada’s below-the-waist focus as a symbolic expression of modernity and femininity.

An accessories subsection of this gallery called “Neck Up/Knees Down” will showcase Schiaparelli’s hats and Prada’s footwear.

“Ugly Chic” will reveal how both women subvert ideals of beauty and glamour by playing with good and bad taste through color, prints, and textiles.

“Hard Chic” will explore the influence of uniforms and menswear to promote a minimal aesthetic that is intended to both deny and enhance femininity.

“Naïf Chic” will focus on Schiaparelli and Prada’s adoption of a girlish sensibility to subvert expectations of age-appropriate dressing.

“The Classical Body,” which also incorporates “The Pagan Body,” explores the designers’ engagement with antiquity through the gaze of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

“The Exotic Body” will explore the influence of Eastern cultures through fabrics such as lamé, and silhouettes such as saris and sarongs.

“The Surreal Body” in the final gallery will illustrate how both women affect contemporary images of the female body through Surrealistic practices such as displacement, playing with scale, and blurring the boundaries between reality and illusion as well as the natural and the artificial.

To celebrate the opening of the Cxhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the Museum’s Costume Institute’s Gala Benefit will take place on Monday, May 7, 2012.

Should be the swishest show of the season. Will be interesting to see if anyone turns up wearing vintage Schiaparelli, especially this stunning ‘autumn leaves’ necklace from Schiaparelli’s 1938 Collection.

The fundraising event is The Costume Institute’s main source of annual funding for exhibitions, acquisitions, and capital improvements.

Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of, will serve as Honorary Chair. Co-Chairs will be actress Carey Mulligan, designer Miuccia Prada and Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of Vogue.

The exhibition is made possible by Amazon.
Additional support is provided by Condé Nast.

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