Impossible Conversations and a Piece of the Sari

The second time,I noticed what had escaped me the first time: interpretations of saris from India.

Written by Shefalee Vasudev | New Delhi | Published: July 5, 2012 7:48:05 pm

For the last two months,I had been keenly waiting to step into the special exhibit titled Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. It had attracted a lot of attention even before it actually went up on display and provoked a debate. When I finally did step into this fashion exhibition in the Met last Saturday,what held me was the curator’s ingenuity to deconstruct the work and ideas of these two rebellious,iconic,Italian designers separated by a few decades in age,both very influential names in global fashion.

Inspired by Miguel Covarrubias’s “Impossible Interviews” for Vanity Fair in the 1930s,the exhibition features conversations between couturier Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada and provokes new interpretations of their most innovative work. Iconic ensembles by the two are presented with videos of conversations between them directed by Baz Luhrmann,focusing on how both women explore similar themes in their work through very different approaches. Besides exhibiting clothes by the two with similar inspirations (pairing how the two used unimaginably exciting buttons,patterns that broke through conventional clutter of their respective age,the use of gold and decadent embroidery etc),one part of the exhibit had been divided into Waist Up and Waist Down.

Schiaparelli,the older couturier,a contemporary of Coco Chanel and one of the most important fashion figures between the two World Wars admitted often enough that she used fashion to go against the tide of acceptable women’s dressing in her age,had been curated through garments Waist Up. Born to wealthy parents,she was raised in luxury which she found stifling but when she was sent to a convent she went on a hunger strike. One of the quotes the curator retained was about Schiaparelli creating garments for women in the Café Age. The most that women socialised in the thirties and the forties was to sit out in cafes with friends who belonged to similar privileges. The lower half of their garments was not visible or available to the scrutinising eye. So in those days,she concentrated on creating jackets and other Waist Up garments that spoke a language of their own—her famous mutton chop sleeves (jackets with heavy shoulder pads creating a slimming effect towards the waist as they tapered down).

On the other hand,Prada who has always believed that the body in fashion is the body in movement and has been one of the most liberal fashion voices in the world,has been interpreted through Waist Down garments–long and short skirts,tights,trousers and other bottom half garments. The video records the two talking about everything from shape,convention,the classical body idolised in fashion to the surreal body created and celebrated by the two rolled in the background in the dark lit lobbies of the exhibition.

I went back to this area twice,once to watch,second time to take notes. The second time,I noticed what had escaped me the first time: interpretations of saris from India. Let me just quote from what I read at the exhibit– it sums up why India was an overdone muse,long before India flew in the eyes of the world with its new cultural and economic power. From Elsa Schiaparelli: “For my collection (Stop,Look and Listen) fantasy and ingenuity broke forth,with complete indifference not merely to what people would say but even to what was practical. I sought an absolute freedom of expression and a daredevil approach. With no fear. Among other items,this notable collection gave forth embroidered sarees.”

And from Miuccia Prada: “I rarely look to China,to India to Africa. Or wherever for direct citations. I found this approach too predictable. In fact,I find one of the dresses—a gold sari dress in my Spring 2004 collection too predictable. It was actually inspired by Fifites haute couture. I look at it now,though,I hate it.”

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