Subversive Chic: Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada


Fashion & Style

Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada use girlish sensibilities to subvert expectations of age-appropriate dressing.

With fashion, true love isn’t about the money. It’s about the conversation. By that I mean decoding the statements on the runway each season and bringing them into culture simply by going about my everyday life. Conversing with someone on the street using the lines and proportions of our clothing: “Nice denim rip. You layered two T-shirts? That collar/hemline/texture is slightly off, and I like it.” I learned how to read these cues and appreciate making odd bits look chic from studying the work of Miuccia Prada.

The other day, I tried explaining to a friend whose primary associations with Prada are 1998 Jay Z lyrics (“I like a lot of Prada, Alize and vodka”) why this summer I took pleasure in making a boys lacrosse penny elegant for evening. I picked it up in a Maryland thrift store for two dollars. To most, a practice jersey is as far from a fete like the MoMA’s Party in the Garden as one could get. In that crowd, if you say P.S. you mean Proenza Schouler, and Stella is followed by McCartney more often than Artois.

I wore it underneath a silk blazer, with a skirt of tiered fringe. The empowerment I felt was real—there is something about taking a garment of unexpected origin and making it reference something completely new (look at Alexander Wang’s brilliant athletic-inspired collection this season) that excites me.

I think of Prada as being synonymous with intelligence and controlled tension; the pith of confidence. Her clothes remind me that I haven’t seen everything, and even on a Hannah Horvath budget, I try to maintain allegiance to her pursuit of self-defined beauty. I feel strong taking a risk, and every morning I try to assemble a look that would make Miuccia say, This is right.

It’s an impossible conversation, but a pleasurable one. As is Prada’s Met-based chat with the woman from whom she inherited the feminist fashion mantle, Elsa Schiaparelli.

Elsa Schiaparelli, left; Miuccia Prada, right. The two women never met, but their designs are uncannily similar.

The two designers never met, but their histories are remarkably parallel: both were born to upper-crust Italian families led by scholar-patriarchs, weathered Catholic upbringings, and found fashion late. A jilted young Schiaparelli experienced the dawn of Dada in New York before moving to Paris, where she debuted her first couture collection at thirty-seven. Prada kindled counterculture while earning her Ph.D. in political science in Milan in the 1970s, studied mime for a half decade (I know), and then took over her family’s luxury-goods company. She got into ready-to-wear when she was thirty-nine.

Until curators Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda brought this Impossible Conversation to the Metropolitan Museum, not even Prada knew how kindred they are. Until the exhibition, she cited her famous Surrealist lip print from Spring 2000—a motif of floating red lips dotting pleated skirts—as a nod to Yves Saint Laurent. She hadn’t considered YSL was giving lip service to Schiap, who put the pucker on a suit at the urging of Dali. (Call it art for a really cute skirt’s sake.) There are many similar overlaps, which the curators group into categories like “Naif Chic,” saccharine clothes that Prada says explore “innocence as a choice”; “Hard Chic,” which showcases the designers’ interests in menswear and military uniforms; and “Ugly Chic,” items culled from the collections that intentionally subvert standards of feminine beauty, forgoing pink for palettes of neon bile and dirty sand.

Schiaparelli used decorative detailing as a response to 1930s café society; Prada's below-the-waist focus was a symbolic expression of modernity and femininity.

“What’s extraordinary is the way everything modern fits in with everything old,” Diana Vreeland, who was the editor of Vogue between our two Italians’ tenures, wrote in 1984, the year before Prada designed her first hit, a line of nylon handbags. “It’s all a matter of combining. There’s no beginning or end there—only continuity.”

In Schiaparelli’s time, smart fashion was shocking; she designed a felt hat in the shape of an inverted shoe, preserved beetles in chunky buttons, and incorporated fabrics from then-exotic locales like India. But for Prada, a shoe hat is too decorative (in the exhibition video, she uses the word stupid, and Schiap, played by actress Judy Davis, scowls), bugs are funnier rendered in leather, and since the Internet exists, India is too close. Schiaparelli definitely challenged her 1930s audience, but Prada makes us think a bit harder. She directs narrative attention below the waist, a rather serious region compared to the frill-ready neckline that Schiap favored. She attends to shoes—a necessity—decking them out with Mohawks and taillights. Something’s always off. You look once and think, Who would wear that? You look again: Give it to me.

Schiaparelli and Prada both played with scale, proportion, and illusions in their clothing.

Throwing associations off kilter, whether by combining disparate elements (example: Prada takes an apron and renders it in crystals) or reviving a reference to some forgotten trend (she brought back Annie Hall ties for Fall-Winter 2012! You’re welcome!), is a way to develop great fashion while winking across the street at frivolity, excess, and consumerism. In many ways, it’s the same excitement that jars you when a writer makes colloquial crassness you hate into beautiful prose. I am thinking specifically of Sam Lipsyte’s reappropriation of the awful c-word in this dialogue from The Ask:

“Okay, you wrinkled old spidercunt, have it your way.”
Francine sucked in her breath.
“Holy macadamias,” she said.
Claudia regarded me somewhat clinically.
I shrugged.

It’s shocking. Schiaparelli would approve. It’s a shame that she is more remembered for her Salvador Dali shoe hat—she was one of the first designers to dress celebrities—than for her audacious sartorial designs. But it’s fashion, not antiquities, so you can still acquire a pair of her outrageous glasses or her perfume. Even so, we’re lucky to have a show like this to remind us of her genius and a contemporary like Prada to remind us of her relevance. When you see someone take a risk in a look that works, you can almost read it: their easy weekend sweater (cool), paired with perfect trousers recalling Gatsby-era suiting (chic), and then platform gold sneakers that resurrect your awareness of the Spice Girls (spiderc—t).

Prada says it all: “More and more I want to be more like myself, more out, and say what I think.” Subvert what is expected of your attire, then shrug.

Katherine Bernard is a features associate at Vogue and the fiction editor of The Journal.

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through August 19.