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Meghan O'Keefe

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An Impossible Conversation About the Met's Spring 2012 Costume Institute Exhibit

Posted: 05/09/2012 4:53 pm

The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts a variety of fancy exhibits every year, but perhaps the most fancy is the Costume Institute's yearly exhibit.

This year's exhibit is called "Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations" and imagines the two female Italian designers having a conversation over a fancy meal that they never actually eat about fashion, their influences, their lives and their design philosophies. Their designs are also featured side by side so as to show the women's similar, yet sometimes opposing, takes on the female form.

What follows now is an impossible conversation about the exhibit itself. It is a conversation that would happen if the negative (read: contemptuous critic) and positive (read: supportive fangirl) sides to myself could extract themselves from my psyche and were caught on film by Baz Luhrmann.


Negative Me: It was too crowded to get a clear view of the entire exhibit, right?
Positive Me: Oh, I don't know. If you're patient and polite to the people around you, you could get around the throngs to see everything.
Negative Me: So, you have an opinion?
Positive Me: Oh yes! I really liked it. Schiaparelli's and Prada's work was exquisite.
Negative Me: The designers' work was gorgeous. The actual exhibit was crap.
Positive Me: No, it wasn't!
Negative Me: Yes, it was! It was designed by curators as a cutesy fan fiction experiment. I mean, filming Prada talking to Schiaparelli... but since Schiaparelli is dead, they got Judy Davis to play her? What does that have to do with fashion or design?
Positive Me: First of all, you better not be throwing any shade at Judy Davis. She was and is magnificent. I couldn't tell if she was sticking to some pre-ordained script or if she was improvising off of the clearly unrehearsed Prada.
Negative Me: Oh, don't get me wrong, Judy Davis is a goddess. She was amazing.
Positive Me: Wasn't she?
Negative Me: But why? Why set up a fake interview at all? It was pointless.
Positive Me: Well, I found it to be a theatrical interpretation of the larger metaphor that the exhibit represented.
Negative Me: Okay, that's bullshit.
Positive Me: The world was built on bullshit. Consider manure.
Negative Me: Manure smells bad. Explain your bullshit better and don't hide by being cute.
Positive Me: Okay, okay, okay. So, culturally and historically, the reason women care so much about fashion is that until very recently, we weren't allowed professional, legal or vocal ways of expressing ourselves. Fashion was a way of articulating our feelings about ourselves and our feelings about how we do or don't fit into our society.
Negative Me: Women love fashion because it's a way to adorn themselves to attract men sexually and to intimidate other women socially.
Positive Me: Sure, fashion is often used like that, but in the cases of female designers such as Schiaparelli and Prada, you can't deny that their designs must reflect their opinions of -- and aspirations for -- women.
Negative Me: I think you're overthinking this. I think you want an intellectual reason for why you like pretty dresses and sequins so much.
Positive Me: Just go with it for now.
Negative Me: Well, you're dragging me into it.
Positive Me: I'm gently directing. Anyway, when you look at the work of Schiaparelli and Prada as presented in this exhibit, you see that they work with very similar motifs, reflecting how they want similar things for women. They want women to escape conventionality and possess autonomous power.
Negative Me: That's not true. In the exhibit, Prada said that although she wants women to be powerful, she also wants them to be subservient to men.
Positive Me: She wants women to be everything and anything they want. In many circles that still is a revolutionary thought.
Negative Me: It seemed to me that Prada herself felt hindered by the opinions of others. Whereas Schiaperelli's inspiration came from confidence, Prada purposely avoided certain topics and materials and silouhettes so as not to feed certain critics. Prada seemed like she didn't have a definitive stance on what she wanted -- for women or her work -- but Schiaperelli did.
Positive Me: Well, not to be morbid...
Negative Me: You'd never want that.
Positive Me: No, but Schiaparelli is dead. Her work as a whole now exists as a definitive statement. Prada is still living and evolving. Also, Schiaparelli can't speak for herself anymore beyond what she left behind, so maybe she would disagree more.
Negative Me: This is the problem with letting an actress -- or a curator -- speak for a dead person. Especially if that dead person is supposed to have a discourse with a living person.
Positive Me: Well, I'm still not convinced it was a bad idea. I mean, the clothes themselves are similar, but incredibly different. I mean, you can see an obvious discourse in the design itself.
Negative Me: Seriously? The way it was curated made it look like Prada ripped off all of Schiaparelli's design ideas.
Positive Me: I think in art, the phrase is "was inspired by." For instance, the impossible conversation style of this piece was inspired by the exhibit.
Negative Me: Bitch, please, you didn't know what you were going to write about this week so you ripped off the exhibit.
Positive Me: Look, I thought it was really interesting how Schiaparelli thought the interesting part of a woman was above the waistline (face, mind, intellect) and Prada thought it was below (sex, reproduction, earthiness). That alone created a fascinating discourse on ideas of women.
Negative Me: That's a fancy way of saying that Schiaparelli was good with hats and jackets and Prada is good with shoes and skirts. Personally, I like purses.
Positive Me: Me too!
Negative Me: Purses were never addressed.
Positive Me: Well, they're accessories.
Negative Me: So are hats and shoes.
Positive Me: Hats were about Schiaparelli's connection to the head and shoes are about Prada's connection to the Earth.
Negative Me: This is bullshit again.
Positive Me: Purses only symbolize a woman's wealth and possessions -- which I think represent her independence.
Negative Me: Quit preaching. I'm the choir.
Positive Me: Hey, stop being mean! I'm on your side.
Negative Me: Back to the exhibit... If you're still hammering home the idea that the purpose of the exhibit was to show how fashion presents a way for women to have a voice, then why did the curators make it difficult to read and hear the women's actual words?
Positive Me: Well, they had the filmed interview portions throughout the exhibit and they had placards with quotes from both designers on the pieces shown. I don't see how they made it difficult to read and hear the designers.
Negative Me: Do you remember how you couldn't read the placards because they were on the ground and people were crowded around them?
Positive Me: Yes.
Negative Me: Do you remember how you couldn't see the film because the garments sometimes blocked your view of them?
Positive Me: Yes.
Negative Me: Do you remember how it was difficult to hear the film because of all the visitors around you complaining how they couldn't see the placards?
Positive Me: Yes.
Negative Me: What the hell was with those trompe l'oeil mirrors in the last room? You had to explain to two different little old ladies that they were mirrors.
Positive Me: Well, that was the "surreal body" room so the trompe l'oeil idea was clever.
Negative Me: That one little old lady almost walked into a mirror.
Positive Me: I stopped her!
Negative Me: You couldn't stop yourself from buying the book about the exhibit from the gift shop.
Positive Me: It was pretty! And I had 20% off for Member Discount Days!
Negative Me: Please make sure the internet knows that you've seen the exhibit because of the Met Member preview days. You did not get to go to the Met Ball because you are poor and unimportant.
Positive Me: I'm very unimportant. But I do pay my rent in NYC and I could afford Met Membership this year after taxes. So, I'll argue on the poor point.
Negative Me: You live in Queens and work an office job to pay your rent in Queens even though you're a writer. You're poor.
Positive Me: Okay. I'm poor.
Negative Me: So, did you see anything else interesting at the museum on your Personal Day from your office job, or did you just save little old ladies from walking into mirrors?
Positive Me: I saw the Rembrandt they're borrowing from Kenwood House.
Negative Me: And?
Positive Me: It's another picture of Rembrandt.
Negative Me: He did a lot of those. It's like, seriously, dude, stop being so self-obsessed. It's like you're a blogger or something.
Positive Me: I'm a blogger.
Negative Me: Yeah, and you're self-obsessed. You also don't know when to finish pieces or where to edit them.
Positive Me: Rembrandt was really self-obsessed, though.
Negative Me: Well, he's allowed to be. Unlike you, he was important.
Positive Me: I still really liked the exhibit. The clothes were very pretty and it made me feel inspired to go out and be a more powerful woman.
Negative Me: You just want to justify spending too much money on a summer wardrobe.
Positive Me: Yeah, pretty much, yes.

 

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