‘Ugly is attractive, ugly is exciting. Maybe because it is newer.' Miuccia Prada’s words kindled SHOWstudio’s 2014 project Ugly, which investigated fashion’s unstable relationship with taste through a series of essays, interviews and film.
Speaking to Lou Stoppard, the fashion historian and curator Valerie Steele explained that the ‘ugly’ is innovative and exciting, yet also cyclical. ‘Suddenly something will look right that looked ugly only a few months earlier. But of course, a few months later it may switch and start looking ugly again’.
There lies Prada’s longevity. And its power? As aptly concluded by Stoppard, ‘...ugliness, more than anything, empowers the wearer because you have to have such a huge amount of confidence, firstly to wear something that is jarring, but perhaps also something that other people just won’t get.’ Indeed, zipping up my own neon yellow Prada motocross racing vest, I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and therein lies a perverse joy.
In 2016, The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined exhibition opened at the Barbican. Co-curated by Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, the show presented 11 definitions of the word 'vulgar', one of which, ‘Oes and Spangles’, used Prada to illustrate bad taste in plain sight, the vulgar as a blindspot. Prada’s then-contemporary Spring/Summer 2014 ready-to-wear presentation had celebrated femininity through a series of murals adorning the walls of the Fondazione Prada, but more importantly, through coats and dresses encrusted with bejewelled and graphic printed bralets. This was more than underwear as outerwear, argued Clark and Phillips: these embellished bralets styled on top of overcoats symbolised Miuccia Prada’s politics. She ‘...reframed the aesthetic and symbolic potential of recasting the hidden and the intimate as external armour’. The designer made blatant references to the private female body, drawing attention to what good taste decrees should be hidden.
In fact, Prada has consistently made the 'vulgar' visible through ensembles of feminine separates. Aprons from Spring/Summer 2005 were replaced by corsets Spring/Summer 2006, then later cotton bustier belts wrapped round heavy utilitarian wool and shimmering brocade coats for Autumn/Winter 2016. Spring/Summer 2017 saw frou-frou lined bralets and skirts meet with Prada’s now archetypal banal prints, whilstAutumn/Winter 2017 explored the different facets of womanhood throughout history with jarring fabrications.
‘The whole point of my job is trying to understand how women can be powerful but also feminine, and be believed and stay respected when everyone assumes those things mean you don’t care about clothes,’ the designer said of her Autumn/Winter 2018 collection, which presented neon perspex fringing and Linea Rossa bucket hats. Through this, we see that notions of taste delimit possibilities, in masking the insidious social norms that keep us from questioning our allotted place.
Reconfigured feminine clichés retained their sting in February's Autumn/Winter 2020 collection, which featured heavy layering and jilted fabrications. We saw a Barbie-pink PVC sleeveless coat lined with brown shearling, while showgirl glitzy beaded fringing encrusted pockets on school-teacher grey tweeds: the trappings of femininity underpinned with the prosaic. Belted skirt suits–the uniform of the archetypal secretary–were transformed this time in a puffer-jacket material which spoke to urban adventure. Sharp greys and blacks were cut up by mint, yellow and red ribbed tights. Matted hair and fringing was uncomfortably clenched under belts, conveying a sense of almost martyred femininity - I'll cinch my waist and be womanly, but I won't make it palatable for your consumption. It was Prada ‘Ugly Chic’ of the nineties but with greater oomph.
Miuccia Prada forces us to rethink the boundaries of taste. The Prada woman instead exercises her liberty as she takes aesthetic choices as her own. There is an essential knowingness to Miuccia Prada’s ugly, resulting in the clothes often being described by critics as a reflection of their designer’s intellectualism. Prada knowingly exposes our own prejudices about bad taste, whilst also offering some control to what is both intangible and undefinable, which of course is in itself a privilege.
As Rebecca Gonsalves explained in her essay Women As Cartoons: ‘...fashion ugly isn’t just the antithesis of traditional ideas of beauty – its current incarnation alludes to intelligence and social comment heavily laced with irony.’ Miuccia Prada seasonally turns taste on its head: she spots the bad, the ugly and takes ownership rather than discarding it. She recognises the pleasure to be found in the vulgar, and encourages us to do the same. She uses ugliness to critique taste, rather than to back up her own. In Prada, The Vulgar exhibition text noted, we find a culturally sanctioned vulgarity. Miuccia Prada has mastered bad taste, and in doing so, masters good taste, revealing the former’s power. Prada refuses to let taste and prejudice run away with us.
In Alexander Fury’s essay on Miuccia Prada’s mastery of the ugly, he described Prada’s signature style as being ‘...psychological rather than physical’ in the ways that the designer forcefully convinces us to desire the undesirable. As Prada discards any rules on taste we may think we know, she remains to follow her own, to please oneself above all others. As fashion at large questions itself on how to create 'newness' in an age of eco-consciousness, Prada's intellectual mission to interrogate what conventional wisdom deems good or bad, ugly or desirable, acceptable or intolerable, seems more relevant than ever.