When you enter Impossible Conversations, the latest Costume Institute exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’re confronted by a dark, intimate room lit only by a bizarre film of two women sitting on opposing sides of a long dining table, sipping prosecco and hurling disjointed statements at one another. The conversational pair are Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, two women whose only separation, it would seem, is time. The film, created by Baz Luhrman, features actress Judy Davis (playing Schiaparelli) and Miuccia Prada engaging in a fantastical, imagined conversation that could’ve been real if it weren’t for a generational gap: the Italian-born fashion designers were born nearly 60 years apart.
The dichotomy in time is played up throughout the show, emphasizing the similar approaches both women took, and how societal conventions affected their work. In a section of the exhibition called Waist Up/Waist Down, the curators show how Schiaparelli focused her designs on a woman’s upper body, while Prada emphasized the hips and feet. Schiaparelli’s creations reflect the café society of the 1930s, when women primarily wanted to show off what could be seen when seated at a table. Embroidered, jeweled and detailed bodices and striking hats permeated Schiaparelli’s work, trappings that could’ve only been worn by a confident, cutting-edge woman. The infamous shoe hat Schiaparelli created with Salvador Dalí shows just how playful she was as a designer, producing work that was thoroughly ahead of her time.
There’s always a risk in associating two people, especially when one of them is no longer living, and at times, the connection felt forced and overwrought. For museum goers with little knowledge of Schiaparelli, the exhibition is a mind-blowing opportunity to appreciate her revolutionary work. No other 1930s fashion designer was applying oversized lobster graphics onto a silk frocks or printing Dalí-inspired slashes and tears onto a flesh-colored gown. For Prada, whose rise occurred in the 1990s, the absurdity of synthetic materials occasionally overshadow the designs, which looked all the more lifeless next to the depth in Schiaparelli’s work. Try as the curators might to emphasize the connections between the two, Schiaparelli’s work still shines bright while Prada’s designs often appeared dated.
Throughout the exhibition, Schiaparelli and Prada follow you everywhere — their voices, quotes and apparel line the walls, dissolving into a final surrealistic display of mirrored vitrines showcasing the accomplished garments of each designer. For all their similarities, the aesthetic choices of Schiaparelli and Prada are very different and often polarizing — that is the real conversation on view in this disorienting display of the playful designs of two boldly confident women.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.