Prada and Schiaparelli : Fashion and Art

In June of 2012, I took the bus from Baltimore to New York to spend the weekend with friends. On the way, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and saw the exhibition Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations. I didn’t know much about Elsa Schiaparelli at the time, but I knew about Prada from the pages of Vogue magazine. The premise of the exhibition was to put the two designers in conversation. The curators, Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, saw a clear dialogue between the two designers and the different motifs featured in their designs. I remember desperately wanting some of the clothes on display. A few years later, at a Saks Off Fifth Avenue outlet store, I found one of the Prada dresses from the exhibition-- a sleeveless sack dress covered in oversize paillettes.

Looking back on the exhibition, I think what is more interesting than this imagined dialogue between the designers, is the fact that the curators opened up a larger dialogue about fashion’s place in the museum. Schiaparelli is associated with couture. Couture is easy to associate with fine art. The garments are labor intensive, one-of-a-kind creations. We don’t see couture on the streets everyday. But ready-to-wear is a completely different thing. Prada is mass produced and has stores all over the world. You can buy Prada at a department store, or second hand on eBay. You can get a fake Prada bag on a street corner in downtown Los Angeles or New York City. Putting ready-to-wear on display in a museum truly asks us to consider the question, is fashion art?

Women’s ready-to-wear came about in the early twentieth century. Before that, women would make their own garments, and alter them as styles changed. If they were wealthy, they worked with a tailor or a designer on custom clothing. And as styles changed, they would just purchase something new. Today’s ready-to-wear is made to sell. It is trend driven, although it can also be a place to dream, reflect, and transport. It is seen in the pages of magazines. It is sold to you through photoshoots, advertisements, and department store window displays.

It seems easy to overlook ready-to-wear, and dismiss it from being art. It is not as fanciful as couture. It is not as ornate or complicated in construction. But is that what it means for fashion to be art? Construction and embellishment? There is thought and care in ready-to-wear. Although it may be easy to sum it up as trend oriented, I believe there is something more there. One has to notice, to pay attention to what people are wearing and how they are wearing their clothes. Ready-to-wear is about noticing. It is about digesting what has been noticed, processing it, and doing something with it. Much like art. It is a way of processing our reality of the everyday.

But what happens when an institution, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, puts a garment on display, that only last year you could buy at Bloomingdales or Nordstrom?

Marcel Duchamp coined the term ‘readymade’ to refer to the art objects he created with mass manufactured goods that he put his name to. The fashion designer designs the ready-to-wear garment, and then the brand name is sewn into it. Printmakers work in editions. They may make an edition of a certain number of prints, and that is how many prints they make. Ready-to-wear is similar. A collection shows on a runway, and buyers from various stores place orders for a certain number of each item. That number is what gets produced.

Taking a garment from the store clothing rack into the museum elevates that garment. It says “Hey! Look at this object. This person is doing/saying something important with this object!”. It makes us pay attention to the garment and the designer. Much like taking a painting or sculpture from the artists studio, or storage, and putting it on display. Showing that work makes us see it in a different way, and it makes us see our lives, or other objects in a new way.

In March of 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed the installation of the closet of Sara Berman-- who had passed away in 2004 and was the mother of the artist Maira Kalman. The installation is a literal recreation of her closet, with all her clothing neatly folded up and stored on the shelves. You could only view the closet by standing just outside the door frame. The only way to see the contents of the closet was in the catalog for the show, which was an inventory of all the items in the closet.

Looking at the folded up clothing on the shelves of Sara Berman’s closet, I begin to think about the bigger statements we make with our garments. They are a tool for self-expression, self-deception, and communication. They act as a security blanket and a second skin. They can scream on our behalf, or they can whisper. We live our lives surrounded by clothing. We are intimately familiar with our clothing, and our clothing is intimately familiar with our bodies.

The installation of Sara Berman’s closet has me realizing that asking ‘is fashion art?’ is not even the right question to consider. The question furthers the dichotomy between fashion and art, trying to legitimize fashion by talking about it through the lens of fine art mediums such as painting and sculpture, instead of recognizing it as its own ‘thing’.