Until August 19, 2012, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is hosting a special exhibit entitled Impossible Conversations. The premise is a conversation between Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 – 1973) and Miuccia Prada (1949) that never took place. The two women were both born in Milan and shared a multitude of similarities, although their careers were separated by fifty years. The show is based around a movie of this conversation, with Schiaparelli played by an actress and Prada speaking for herself. A noted director with an eye for costume design in his own films, Baz Luhrmann of Moulin Rouge fame, lent his talents behind the camera. The movie is shown in continuous loops through the seven groupings of the exhibit: “Waist Up/Waist Down,” “Ugly Chic,” “Hard Chic,” “Naïf Chic,” “The Classical Body,” “The Exotic Body,” and “The Surreal Body.”
While I definitely preferred the creations of Paris-based Schiaparelli, I was fascinated by the overlap between the two designers, despite their philosophical differences. The designs of one designer were juxtaposed against those of the other and the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. For instance, in “Waist Up/Waist Down” Schiaparelli’s brilliant embellished jackets were the perfect item for the Café Society of the 1930s when women had to look good sitting at a restaurant table. Prada’s details were saved for the bottom half – skirts, pants, and shoes did the talking. It was amazing how a Schiaparelli idea was reflected in a Prada design that was fifty, sixty, or seventy years older. In the final display case, there was a Prada dress from the 2004-5 Autumn/Winter collection with trompe l’oeil printed pleats next to a Schiparelli dress with the same mix of fun and fresh from 1931. Amazing.
Today’s expression, la conversation mondaine (lah kon-ver-sa-see-ohn mondane) literally means “worldly conversation” but is used to mean “polite conversation.” The worldly women Schiaparelli designed for were experts at this type of polite dialogue and they knew how to turn heads while doing it.