On the surface, these two fashionable individuals appear to have a lot in common. They share an Italian heritage, a passion for non-traditional thinking, and both have been severely influential in their design careers. However, as the Costume Institute delves deeper into the women behind their clothing, the resulting commonalities are less intentional and more organic. It’s a showcase of intriguing parallels, the roots of which lie in their similar rebel mentalities, objectives to empower women with their designs, and journeys through design careers, seeking innovation in everything from fabrics, prints, and embellishments.
Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) designed in Paris from the 1920s until 1954. Schiaparelli left Rome for London as a young woman and embarked on her design career when she couldn’t find clothing that suited her sense of style. She began designing hats and her work was heavily influenced by Surrealism as she famously collaborated with burgeoning artists, like Salvador Dali, of the time.
Miuccia Prada was born in 1949 as Schiaparelli’s career neared its close. She was a flower child that aligned with left-winged activists, graduated with a political science degree, and after a stint in the art of mime took over her family’s luggage business in 1978. The addition of handbag then shoe design eventually grew to the Prada fashion house of today. Prada is adamant regarding the distinction between fashion and art, and has never had the desire to interpret the latter into her collections.
Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann created the exhibit’s multimedia and dialogue between Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli (played by actress Judy Davis) takes place throughout the installation. They carry on their intimate discussions seated at opposite ends of a long table, toasting with flutes of prosecco. Seven themed galleries categorize the designers’ works, which consist of 100 designs and 40 accessories—Schiaparelli’s dating from the 1920s to 1950s, Prada’s from the '80s to present; including the upcoming Fall collection. Quotes from both designers and notes from the curators inform and guide visitors through the exhibition. “Waist Up/Waist Down” compares both designers’ emphasis of contrasting regions of the body. Schiaparelli focused on the upper body noting that society women of the era were often seen seated in public at cafés or restaurants. Prada fixates on the lower body explaining, “The waist down is more basic, more grounded. It’s about sex. It’s about making love. It’s about life. It’s about giving birth.” It’s also worth mentioning Schiaparelli’s affinity for hats and Prada’s for shoes.
The exhibition runs through August 19th at The Metropolitan Museum and its retrospective of each designer and the shared qualities that connect them through the decades is not to be missed.