Currently Reading: Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations

One of my souvenirs of my NYC trip was this book from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The book is the companion to the exhibition of the same name that was held last summer at the Met’s Costume Institute.  Impossible Conversations was about the similarities and the differences of the two Italian designers, and by most accounts, the show was not a roaring success.   There were a series of themes, and for each a film was shown. An actress portraying Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada herself sat on opposite ends of a table “discussing” each topic.  I did not see the show, but many reviewers found it to be a bit weird, and definitely contrived.  I have watched Youtube bits, and they do come off as a bit awkward.

At any rate, after the Alexander McQueen blockbuster of 2011, it must have been a great disappointment for the Costume Institute.  The attendance was much less than expected, with hardly a line at most times, which was great for people who love to go and think about what is being presented.  When I was there last week, the museum store had huge stacks of the companion book which had been reduced to $10.   Oddly enough, the book is priced at $40.50 on the Met website, so if you are in the New York City area, I suggest you drop in to pick up a copy.

The book is also divided into the themes of the show, but instead of the impossible conversations, there are appropriate passages from Schiaparelli’s Shocking Life and from interviews with Miuccia Prada.  You really don’t get the feel of an actual conversation, which eliminates some of the criticism of the exhibition.  The book is well laid out, with the words of the designers being printed on little inserted pages.  The photographs are stunning, especially of the Prada clothing.  One thing that bothered me is that most of the Schiaparelli garments are shown in vintage black and white photos.  I would have preferred more colored modern photos of the clothes, but I can see that the purpose was to let the reader see the garments as they were actually worn.

You were often shown a detail in color, along with a vintage photo of the same garment.

It was the detail shots that really brought the clothes to life.  I’ve seen dozens of photos of the Prada dress on the left, but a close up shot shows the richness of the fabric and the embroidery.

To me, one the most interesting parts of the book was a discussion about Surrealism.  Schiaparelli, of course, embraced the label, but Prada insisted that she was not influenced by it, nor by Schiaparelli’s work.  Even her 2000 spring collection which included prints of lips and hearts was, she said, referencing Yves Saint Laurent.  The print on the cover of the book was actually from that collection, but it sure looks Schiap-inspired to me.

So, who says you can’t find a bargain in the city?

I also want to say a few words about the Met and the Costume Institute.  Am I the only person who thinks it is ridiculous that they have only one fashion exhibition a year, and that it is on display for a few short months?  The website says that it is due to the sensitive nature of textiles that items from the collection are rarely on view, but with over 35,000 objects, each could be on display only once every 50 years or so!  And now that the Costume Institute has possession of the fashion collection from the Brooklyn Museum, most of it will never again be on view.

It is great that so much of the collection of the Costume Institute is available to view online, but it just is not the same as seeing the object in person.  It really makes me appreciate the efforts of Kent State, The Mint Museum in Charlotte, and The Charleston Museum, who always have fashions and textiles on view.


Filed under Currently Reading, Designers, Viewpoint

6 responses to “Currently Reading: Schiaparelli & Prada: Impossible Conversations

  1. Teresa

    I would’ve loved to have seen this show so thank your for sharing parts of the book with me. I especially love the detail shots, which like you say you don’t get to see from the fashion photographs.


  2. Susan

    Our public library has a copy of High Style: Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Jan Glier Reeder. (2010) If we’re not going to see the Brooklyn clothes “in person”, now that they’ve been transferred to the Met, at least this book is very well done — 256 pp, full color illustrations. Pages 93 to 115 cover Schiaparelli in glorious color, including a photo of that scallop hemmed, black beaded jacket from your black & white photo — in Shocking Pink, and, in a 1940 color illustration, available also in “Sleeping Blue” — a kind of deep turquoise. The book is oddly organized (big & heavy, too.), but definitely worth checking out! I haven’t looked it up on Amazon.


  3. I’ve picked that book up many times but balked at the price. Great to read a review, thanks. I’ll look for it on sale. cheers


  4. I can speak to the frustration of costume. I know it is hard for everyone to understand costume. But I know for a fact the MET is fighting for real estate to even show their pieces. They are also in the midst of redoing their basement areas.
    In general costume shows are very expensive, and there is a lot of work that has to go into the piece (usually the work is more pricey than the actual costume, direct opposite for paintings). It is not like a piece of art that can be hung on the wall, and there are many in the field of art who do not understand or appreciate costume at all (EVEN though they are normally the most lucrative and well attended shows). They think it can be folded and shipped in a fedex box around the country. The mannequins alone start at 500 and that is for the cheapy ones, the good ones start at 3000.

    In the field there is a conservators saying that for every year on exhibit/ display that is ten years off the life of the piece. But a year is very long and harsh on costume. Think about all the things you do to your clothes, the dyes, the cleaning products, the stains, dry cleaning (or not cleaning at all). It is all compacted once that piece goes into a museum collection. Previous products can’t be undone, and sometimes that is the demise of the piece, and though it is in the collection it is no longer able to be dresses, as it can’t withstand the stress of it.

    It takes an army to put on a costume show, and when you don’t have the support or man power it just becomes very hard, and I don’t know that the MET would settle for a little show. It is something that all museums with costume collections face, and it is sad. Museums are probably a decade behind the curve, which makes its ranks a bit stodgy sometimes. Not that the MET is, but museums with costumes face many of these difficulties, which is why people will travel to see shows, because you can only get them where you can.

    I love your blog and really appreciate your photos. It is people like you, who can travel which help me see the shows around the country! Working for a museum is a labor of love, not a labor of reward. So I really appreciate you!


    • I appreciate your insights. I think you are correct in saying that you do not know if the Met would settle for a little show. The bar has been set quite high with the expectation of a “block-buster” year after year. I can only imagine how much greatly-needed revenue the large shows generate.

      Until about 5 years ago the Met did do two shows a year, the big summer show and then a smaller one in the winter. I’d love to see this schedule again.

      Another issue that might be coming into play is the idea of fashion as “ART.” The Met spends so much on the design and the backdrops and the props and on and on. And that can be good of course if it adds to the experience and the story, but often the clothes end up as just part of the spectacle. Honestly, what I really want is to just see the clothes. I’ve noticed that, generally speaking, history museums and museums that are dedicated just to fashion are more generous in showing their collections but without all the enhancements.

      And thanks so much for loving my blog! That means so much to me. I hope to be traveling even more in the coming months, so stay tuned for the next show and tell.


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