Notes on the Costume Institute Exhibition

Taster’s Choice

Elsa Schiaparelli insect necklace

In the best case scenario, a great fashion exhibition will not only serve as tantalizing eye candy, but will be transformative, provocative, enlightening, controversial, inspiring, and will challenge conventional perceptions of fashion, beauty, good taste, chic, and style. The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ground breaking Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit last year, accomplished all those things and, in my opinion, so did Rara Avis: Selections from the Iris Barrel Apfel Collection, 2005/2006.

I dare say that legions of women left the museum finding themselves overtaken with the urge to dust off their most fantastical, over-the-top accessories and, following in the lead of the daring Iris Apfel, pile them on with abandon. Of course, Ms. Apfel’s unapologetically unique, eccentric, holds no bar individual style is not for the faint of heart and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, nobody can question her well-informed and high taste level, or her dazzling sense of style. For her part, she has stated, “Taste you can learn, but style is like charisma. You know it when you see it.”

“Ugly Chic” Schiaparelli 1930s

So what is good taste, and who gets to decide if something is, or isn’t? According to the dictionary, it means “satisfying generally accepted social or aesthetic standards”, but there are many points of view. A while back, Azzedine Alaia criticized Vogue-taste-maker Anna Wintour, saying, “When I see how she is dressed, I don’t believe in her taste one second.” And, last summer, Giorgio Armani took jabs at Miuccia, saying she was “clever for her irony … and bad taste that becomes chic, but that her creations are sometimes ugly”. For her part, Miuccia once admitted,”I make ugly clothes from ugly material; simply bad taste but they end up looking good anyway”, referring to 1995’s “bad taste” collection. It featured such styles as Formica check design, which evokes the look of 1970s polyester.

Well, speaking of Miuccia, great fashion exhibitions, good taste vs. bad taste, and beauty vs. ugly, I attended the morning press preview for Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, and it promises to give us something to think about particularly where aesthetics are concerned.

Ugly Chic” Miuccia Prada fall/winter 2012-2013

Anna Wintour was turned out in a striking geometric coat ensemble by Prada (no surprise there), and Miuccia, while known for her skirts, opted for a brown pantsuit accessorized with a golden hued turban. The best way to describe the color would be to call it a rather odd, if not ugly shade of brown, which is not one bit surprising, since she has always championed “Ugly Chic”, and it just happens to be one of the themes in the exhibit.

There were comments by Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as Curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton. We learned that the latter two had wanted to do an exhibition that would pair two designers (particularly women) for quite some time. Thanks were given to the brilliant Australian director Baz Luhrmann whose stunning videos (casting actress Judy Davis in the role of Schiaparelli) made the “impossible possible”, and allowed for this ‘conversation’ between two strong and influential innovators to play out. Baz Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin, was lauded for creating the Schiaparelli inspired outfit worn by Ms. Davis, as well as the “moody and mysterious ambiance” of the dinner party. (This was described by Andrew Bolton as a “female version of  My Dinner with Andre except that in the movie the subject was theatre, and in this exhibition the subject is fashion). 

While Schiaparelli and Prada do not see eye-to-eye on everything (the late Schiaparelli felt that fashion WAS art, and Miuccia does not agree), one commonality which plays throughout the exhibit is the way in which they both “used fashion as a vehicle to prove, to confront, normative conventions of taste, beauty, glamour, and femininity” and to “provoke”, in the words of Andrew Bolton. 

Schiaparelli played by Judy Davis and Miuccia Prada

There are many trademark, telling quotes which are blown up and emblazoned on the walls and one of the most definitive, touches on the ‘ugly’ aspect of it all (neither woman could be considered a conventional beauty, and both subverted traditional ideals of beauty)

Prada:” If I’ve done anything, it’s to make ugly appealing. In fact, most of my work is concerned with destroying, – or at least deconstructing- conventional ideas of beauty, of the genetic appeal of the beautiful, glamorous bourgeois woman. Fashion fosters cliches of beauty, but I want to tear them apart.”

Schiaparelli: “I was always being told I was ugly … so I thought up ways of beautifying myself. To have a face covered with flowers … would indeed be a wonderful thing … with some difficulty, I obtained seeds from the gardener, and these planted in my throat, ears, mouth … alas, the result was merely to make me suffocate!”

Some of the decidedly offbeat, unusual elements which were inherent in both their designs, which many would not necessarily deem beautiful, chic, or tasteful in a traditional sense are the employment of surrealism and trompe l’oeil; the use of irreverent, playful prints featuring everything from over-sized ruby red lips and lipstick, to matchsticks, bananas, monkeys, carousels, circus horses, and cherubs (sometimes in garish colors no less); a penchant for innovative, often plasticized fabrics, some with the appeal of a common shower curtain; and the use of bugs and insects on clothing and accessories. Hands down the most macabre has to be Schiaparelli’s Insect Necklace, made of clear Rhodoid (cellulose acetate plastic) with pressed metal ornaments, which features a transparent foundation that creates the illusion that the insects are crawling directly on the skin of the wearer’s neck. (It had been pointed out that while this was macabre indeed, Schiaparelli was never “too heavy-handed: her choice of brightly colored, toy-like ornaments tempers the repugnant effect”).

Prada rats nest hair fall/winter 2009

Among other things, this exhibition perfectly illustrates that beauty, in all its forms, is not only subjective and indeed in the eyes of the beholder, but is quite democratic and comes in many guises. And it should serve to remind us that we needn’t be so hard on ourselves when we invariably fall short of unattainable ideals where physical beauty is concerned. The next time you think you’re having a Bad Hair Day, and can’t be seen in public, take a look at the runway pictures from Miuccia Prada’s fall/winter 2009 collection. She loved the unruly rat’s nest ‘undo’s’ so much, they were shown throughout.

As for my opinion about good taste vs. bad taste, let’s just say that I think Diana Vreeland said it best when she observed, “Bad taste is better than no taste”. Too much of a good thing is, well, too much of a good thing. While something that smacks of universally accepted good taste, might be just the thing for that job interview or board meeting (an Armani pantsuit for example- LOL), there are times when you want to add an element of ‘bad’ or ‘questionable’ taste. Surprising, unexpected mixes (high and low, day and night, soft and hard, masculine and feminine, street and couture, etc) help create an individual, personal look, and good taste/bad taste can be perfect together.

Finally, there is a time and place for everything. A time to be sober and serious, and a time to have fun, be amused, be amusing, and evening shocking! Life is too short not to have fun and fashion provides us with the basic ingredients to do just that. But as style icons past and present – Coco Chanel, Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, Diana Vreeland, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Iris Apfel, Kate Moss, etc. – well know, the key element is having a sense of the appropriate. In the end, knowing when and where is fundamental.

– Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.