Early in the morning, the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City are empty, save for a few pigeons. The sun begins to rise above the Neoclassical stone building, casting a dark shadow over the gurgling fountains and cobblestones. Wearing my vintage Parisian dress and placing one kitten heel in front of the other, I walk up the steps excited for the morning ahead.
For the next two weeks, the Met will hold a members-only viewing of the "Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations" exhibit every morning from 8:30 to 9:30 before the museum opens. I've seen the exhibit once before, but I was accompanied by hundreds of other fashion enthusiasts. Today, I would be able to get a closer look.
As you enter the exhibit, your eyes meet the large projection of Elsa Schiaparelli (played by actress Judy Davis) and Miuccia Prada discussing their pasts and their views of fashion and design over a long rectangular table. Schiapparelli's very short, dark and stylized hair gives her a strong presence across the table from the elegant, more understated Prada. A rebellious soul, Schiaparelli ran away from home to New York City in 1921 with a man she loved, but by the time their child was born, her husband had left her. Throughout her time in New York and later in Paris, she became good friends with artists and photographers like Man Ray and Salvador Dali, whose lobster phone sculpture became the inspiration behind her famous lobster dress.
Prada, surprisingly, began her creative career at Teatro Piccolo where she studied and performed as a mime and became a champion for women's rights in the 1970s. In 1985, while working at her family's business of manufacturing luxury leather bags, Prada designed a line of black, finely woven nylon handbags that instantly became a hit, paving the way for her classic and minimalist luxury designs.
While Prada's designs have focused on the movement created when a woman walks, Schiaparelli's eye was more interested in designing for women sitting down. Social lives of Parisian women in the 1930s revolved around sitting in restaurants and cafes. Hence the contrast between the two designers: Prada designs for the waist down, Schiaparelli designed for the waist up.
The first room of the exhibit pairs Prada's skirts, trousers and shoes with Schiaparelli's tops, coats and hats. Neither designer was afraid to push the boundaries - Prada designed shoes resembling a 1950's pink Cadillac, complete with taillights, and Schiaparelli designed a shoe hat, with heel sticking up off the side.
The dressed body is also comprised of three types. Designs considered for the exotic body come from Eastern Asian and Oriental inspirations. Classical body designs tend to be the most appealing to consumers - simple, elegant lines flatter the body. The third type, which filled the entire third room, is the surreal body. These designs are inspired by dream-like qualities and resemble the surrealist art movement of the early 20th century.
It is in this third room that you get to see Schiaparelli's famous lobster dress, although only in a black and white photo. Materials used for these designs include a lot of fur and hair and feathers and bottle caps and plastic fringe. Schiaparelli often modeled her own designs for photos taken by Man Ray and Dali.
Prada did not believe fashion should be referred to as an art. She believed it was much more restricted because the designer has to think of the customer, and therefore has less creative freedom than an artist. However, I have to agree with Schiaparelli, who said, "Dress designing is to me not a profession but an art."