Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations

Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations
By Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda.

Introduction by Judith Thurman.

New Haven and London: Yale University Press-Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012.

324 pages; 206 illustrations.


This summer, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art juxtaposed the works of two influential Italian women in fashion design: Elsa Schiaparelli, whose couture house closed in 1954, and Muiccia Prada, whose first collections appeared in the 1980s. Its accompanying Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, is more than a mere illustrative catalogue, but rather stands as a thoughtfully  produced book in its own right, pairing photographs of Schiaparelli’s 1930s designs with complementary or contrasting designs by Prada. Palm-sized books are sewn within the larger book’s margins, containing Schiaparelli’s and Prada’s imagined conversations, assembled through quotations from Schiaparelli’s memoir (she died in 1973) and interviews with Prada.

The concept of an “impossible conversation” takes its origin from a feature which used to run in Vanity Fair magazine in the 1930s, which matched disparate famous figures, such as Sigmund Freud and Jean Harlow, in imaginary and often comical exchanges (p. 22). Elsa Schiaparelli herself had appeared in 1936 in this original “impossible conversations” series, reprinted here. She tells Stalin, as both hover in parachutes over the USSR, “Look below you, Man of Steel. Look at the beauty parlours and permanent wave-machines springing up… In a few years, you won’t see kerchiefs on heads anymore.”

The curators’ decision to include Schiaparelli in this summer’s show partly stemmed from a practical reason: the Metropolitan Museum had recently acquired a number of Schiaparelli’s designs from the Brooklyn Museum. But the reasons for including Miucca Prada as the second “speaker” are never clearly explained. Prada’s responses in the conversation are often elusive, and she never lists Schiaparelli as a direct influence. The book’s division into thematic sections (such as “Ugly Chic”) try to find commonalities in the designers’ body of work in the way they view the female body or challenge traditional concepts of what is thought of as beautiful and attractive. Nonetheless, the overall impression is that despite superficial similarities, Elsa Schiaparelli and Miucca Prada’s designs have little in common.

For example, although disembodied, playful lips can be found embroidered on a Schiaparelli jacket from 1937 and printed on a Prada skirt of 2000, Schiaparelli’s designs are consciously part of the Surrealist art movement (her collaborators included Salvador Dalí), while Prada denies all such influence: “Many critics have said that my spring 2000 collection, which included prints of lips and hearts, referenced these surrealistic fashions. In truth, it referenced Yves Saint Laurent” (n.p.). The pairing of these two designers asks interesting questions of influence, continuity, and allusion in fashion. But in the end, Elsa Schiaparelli and Muicca Prada seem to prefer to express their ideas in monologues, not dialogues.