Surrealism & The City: Is Fashion Art?

By On May 11, 2012 In Art, Editor's picks, Fashion

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Opening this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations poses the question, “Is fashion art?” Appropriate at a time when the Internet has connected even the most disparate of things, the exhibit probes fashion’s autonomy in an ever-coalescing world. Passing Roman monoliths, visitors are first confronted by what will be the exhibit’s guiding voice: videos of a trans-temporal dinner between two fashion designers from two different eras—Elsa Schiaparelli from the ’30s and Miuccia Prada from modern day–comparing notes on what it means to be a designer and how they relate, if not always, to one another. Throughout the subsequent rooms, their words reverberate and lift off in echoes that fall on the display placards, reminding us of their accords and disagreements that also line the hallways of the minimalist, marble setting.

Here, The GROUND walks through with the exhibit’s curator, Andrew Bolton, as he talks about the designers and their existential points-of-view.

“We start off with a disagreement between the two—the waist up, the waist down,” says Bolton, “two different zones of the body where the two women project their narrative attention.” In Schiap’s time, women were part of a Café Society where habitual sitting revealed only what was above the white mantle, hence Schiaparelli’s well-known jackets and unique hats. For Prada, growing up in ’70s feminism inspired a more conceptual idea of beauty, traveling southward to the area that connects women to life, the earth, and ownership of femininity. Skirts and shoes become focal points. Paired as if ensembles, fauna grow, insects and jeweled cabochons cascade, and the surrealist swirls of appliqué flow in both.

As we proceed, more similarities begin to emerge, like above in the “Exotic Body” that explores the designers’ mutual interest in dress forms of Eastern cultures. “The main similarities are more conceptual in a way,” Mr. Bolton points out. “Both women have been successful in challenging our expectations of what we mean by beauty, taste, and fashion in general. What’s extraordinary about this is that their provocations touch upon the same themes,” what he has defined as the exhibit’s seven fastening threads, including “Hard Chic,” “Naïf Chic” (pictured below), “Ugly Chic,” and the “Classical Body.” They only begin to differ when Surrealism rears its polarizing, psychological head.

“The main difference between these designers,” Bolton explains, “is their approach to the debate between art and fashion. Elsa Schiaparelli has always maintained that fashion is art, even collaborating with artists in her day,” like Dalí and Jean Cocteau. “Prada has steadfastly refused to admit that fashion is art,” because to her fashion is more in tuned with fast culture than any art form. “Many artists I know,” Prada says, “are envious of fashion’s immediacy. They’re also envious of fashion’s ability to shape identity.”

Schiaparelli: “Dress designing…is to me not a profession but an art.”

Prada: “Dress designing is creative, but it is not an art. Fashion designers make clothes and they have to sell them. We have less creative freedom than artists. But to be honest, whether fashion is art or whether even art is art doesn’t really interest me. Maybe nothing is art. Who cares?”

The last room of the exhibit, the “Surreal Body” finale, shows rows of encased garments that are paired with old photographs that fan their eyes. “When I look at the ‘lobster’ dress,” Miuccia mentions, referring to Schiaparelli’s iconic look, “I think it’s incredible. Basically, it’s pretty—it’s white, it’s organza—but by placing a lobster on the front it becomes very tough. It’s the absolute opposite of what should be done to a beautiful dress, which I like very much. It’s a very bold, brave statement – ironic and abstract, whimsical and intelligent.” But, yet, for Prada, it still isn’t art.

Surrealism was an art movement that began in the 1920′s and was led by the French writer, André Breton, and artists Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and René Magritte. Their images of melting clocks, cloudy eyes, and self-effacing pipes evoked internal preoccupations of the unconscious mind—personal, automatic and free form associations unrestrained by social edicts. That’s why placing prints of torn fabric on wedding dresses and shoes on the heads of society women seemed so radical a convention (even by today’s standards). Though Prada denies it, her bananas, monkeys and kitchen utensils reveal the same preoccupation. “In truth, I never look to Surrealism,” she protests. “Any references to it are unconscious and unintentional.” But these intuitive results only lead her back to the subconscious art movement, making her its qualified inheritor, in a way more so than her predecessor who was picking up on what was readily surrounding her.

What does Mr. Bolton think? “To me, art is about expressing ideas and concepts; it’s not about commercialism. But, if you have a painting, or a sculpture or even a dress that conveys an incredible intellectual concept and challenges existing ideas—to me, that’s art.” He’s apparently more Schiap than Miu Miu.

And, how about you? Are you a Schiaparelli or a Prada? Don’t worry if you don’t know yet. You’ll easily figure it out after watching these two fashion matriarchs debate in this engaging exhibit about Surrealism in the city.

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations
May 10-August 19, 2012
First floor, special exhibition galleries
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, NY

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