Olivia O’Kane – Middle ground

things 19/20

Waist down: Skirts by Miuccia Prada

I’ve always worn skirts. Even way back, in the days when trousers seemed to signal a kind of liberation for women, I was a reluctant wearer of pants, which always seemed to me to betoken constriction rather than freedom. All that material, moulded to you; all that tightness around the middle and the thighs, compared to the lovely freedom of a good skirt. Not to mention to forgiving nature of a skirt as one’s figure varies through different configurations of eating and exercise, or distance in time, pre- or post, from giving birth.

Family photographs show the adolescent me in lumpy, homemade skirts; university snaps in brightly coloured ethnic skirts; early working-life pictures in pencil skirts (still mainly homemade, but I seem to have got better at it by then); pregnant portraits in expandable skirts that elegantly accommodated my daily changing shape. All of which makes me, I discover, a cohort of Miuccia Prada, for whom the skirt is the very foundation of the womanly wardrobe.

Where Prada is concerned, I can’t really say I was an early adopter. Despite my own maths-nerd provenance, Miuccia Prada’s geek-chic look of the early nineties – all off-colours like orange and slub green, and strange proportions that only seemed to look good on the rake-thinnest of bodies – didn’t appeal. I suppose I was still trapped in an extreme minimalism that led me, like the mediaeval philosopher William of Ockham, to believe that plurality should not be assumed without necessity (in other words, don’t make things more complicated than you have to); and, like Henry Ford, to favour any colour as long as it’s black. It was our shared love of uniform that brought Miuccia and me together – the black techno fabrics, endlessly varied but endlessly the same, that seemed a useful device for hiding your identity rather than flaunting it.

For Miuccia Prada, fashion is an act of rebellion. And Waist down. Skirts by Miuccia Prada offers a chronology of her skirts that demonstrates how such a rebellion is most interesting when it is against oneself. My first taste of the Prada uniform turned out to be the first step on a very slippery path of assumed identities, and the evidence was there in the SoHo Prada store, where I saw the show for everyone to see.

A chequered silk skirt that branched out from black to daring shades of grey and brown was followed, in a giant leap, by a reversible chiffon-and-gold skirt (spring/summer 2002), a brocade mini skirt (spring/summer 2003) and a blue and- silver brocade skirt derived from the art of mediaeval Florentine weavers (autumn/winter 2004) – most, if not all, of which would surely offend against the spirit of any sumptuary laws governing luxury in dress, and echo the days, as 18th century London probate inventories record, when it was considered perfectly normal for an item of clothing to cost more than a portrait in oils.

And that’s not counting the skirts that got away. The exhibition also showed skirts that celebrated picture- postcard views of Italian cities, and skirts printed with Piranesian views of classical ruins; skirts encrusted with mirrors and Svarowski crystals and skirts decorated with patches of plastic; and even a skirt made of long metal chains. Among my favourites, because of its ridiculously exaggerated celebration of the moment – surely it could be worn only once, and standing up, for how could you clean it, let alone sit down in it? – is a peacock feather skirt (spring/summer 2004). For those who take their disguise really seriously, sixty-five of the skirts on display were on sale in limited editions of no more than three, for prices ranging from $4,000 to $30,000. (To put that in perspective, by the way, $14,000 was not, apparently, too much to pay for one of spring/summer 2006’s beaded skirts, although to enquire as to their price tended to elicit a tremor of something close to humour from the shop staff.)

Perhaps it’s the variations on a typeform that make these skirts so appealing – they are, after all, only skirts; and they’re all, to return to my maths-geek days, pretty much topologically equivalent, approximating to a tube – or perhaps it’s their historical references, and the thought of other women over the centuries choosing to reinvent themselves, and their present moments, by adorning them with these beautiful garments.

Although I wear my clothes year after year, they are – unlike jewellery, for example, or houses, or paintings or books – essentially ephemeral. We can rest secure in the knowledge that, after our nearest and dearest have finished with them, they will not last beyond a season or two in the dressing-upbox. They are ours (and yours, my daughters, for whom I keep my favourites), and ours only; and they will not outlast our memory.

Waist down: Skirts by Miuccia Prada

Prada Epicenter,Aoyama, Tokyo, Japan
13 November 2004 – 16 January 2005

Shanghai Peace Hotel, Shanghai, China
18 – 31 May 2005

Prada Epicenter, 575 Broadway, New York, USA
19 April – 31 May 2006

Prada Epicenter, North Rodeo Drive,
Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, USA
14 July – 27 August 2008

Prada Transformer, Seoul, Korea
25 April – 24 May 2009

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