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Subversion by design

2012.07.09. 05:41 Aurora1

Two iconic designers, one long dead, engage in an 'impossible conversation' in a new exhibition.

EVERYONE knows the devil wears Prada, but who on earth is Schiaparelli? I am just old enough to remember the flamboyant Italian designer, who died in 1973, as the impossibly glamorous fashion icon who invented a colour, ''shocking pink''.

However, the fortysomething friends who recently accompanied me to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to the exhibition that showcases Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada had never heard of her. Neither, I suspect, had Malia Obama, the President's daughter, who, accompanied by a few pals and an even larger contingent of Secret Service agents, wandered through the exhibition the second time I visited.

Modern women have no idea how much of their sartorial freedom they owe to this idiosyncratic and endlessly inventive designer. It was a revelation to me too that Schiaparelli created many of the practical garments that gave women freedom to move and thus be independent.

Without her there would be no wraparound dresses, overalls, jump suits, culottes, wedge heels, swimsuits with built-in bras, mix and match separates - or power suits. She created dresses with large pockets so women could dispense with handbags - just as in 1985, seven years after inheriting her family's luggage company, Prada invented the lightweight nylon backpacks that gave women a comparable freedom.

Schiaparelli gave the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford a sexy swagger with outfits that epitomised power and were a far cry from the insipid femininity that had until then defined Hollywood fashions. At the same time, Schiaparelli, like Prada, was a subversive who ridiculed and parodied conventional ideas of beauty - and even mocked her wealthy clients.

Art museums long ago discovered the powerful allure of staging exhibitions of frocks and other fashion accoutrements. Think of the crowds that poured into Sydney's Powerhouse Museum in 2007 to see Princess Diana's wedding dress, or the popularity of the Madonna costumes exhibited in Chadstone in 2010. Currently a show of Christian Louboutin's trademark red-soled stilettos is breaking all attendance records for London's Design Museum. It seems we can't get enough of fabulous outfits, especially when they have adorned famous bodies.

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