Haunted by Prada: Meditation on an Ugly Pink Dress, Beauty, and a Missed Opportunity

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This isn’t the post I was going to write next. For one thing, it returns to themes I’ve covered a lot recently. For another, the fall semester starts next week and I have two brand new classes to prep for (not to mention two others that aren’t new). And most importantly, I’m not that interested in Fashion with a capital F. As is probably pretty clear from my previous posts, I’m much more interested in the politics of everyday engagements with clothing and appearance.

But then I saw The Dress. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The dress. The pink (and sometimes baby blue) Prada that’s haunting September issues across the globe. I can’t take my eyes off it. It confuses me and aggravates me and kind of excites me, and I have to keep looking.

In photo after photo, pale, whisper thin teens appear to stumble, dead-eyed down a runway as if they are the last survivors of an explosion at a Barbie factory.

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There were tiny plastic shoes everywhere!

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Why yes, we do have it in a pantsuit.

The dress is everywhere, and it’s a mess. What to make of it? The spaghetti straps and neckline almost recall Prada’s waif-in-a-slip-dress heritage from the 90s? But then there’s that kind of bell-shaped skirt that looks like if a four-year-old girl gave a balloon a makeover.

Vogue.com also noticed the collection’s many nods to Prada’s heyday. An article describing the designs observed, “There’s a generation of women who will smile at the nineties memories provoked by this show, and there’s a new generation who won’t read the nostalgic cues, and yet still jump at the wearability of the clothes.”

Yes! Sort of…Wait, did they say wearability? Wearable for who exactly?

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Who Wore It Best?

Elle Fanning at the Tig Premiere, Molly Ringwald in her Pretty in Pink vintage prom dress turned satin trash bag, or Bette Davis as Baby Jane?


It’s unflattering, cheap-looking, and appears both messy and stiffly uncomfortable.

Clearly this dress is meant to be funny and confusing. Vogue quoted Miuccia Prada describing her fall collection as “soft pop,” and “[v]ariations on beauty. A reflection on the flatness of presentation that we see today. What’s real, and what’s fake.” These words hang together as haphazardly as the embellishments on the dress itself. They sort of reference things I understand, but they don’t seem to be placed in any logical or aesthetic pattern. It’s a grab bag of vaguely meaningful language.

In other words, Miuccia Prada is “making fun of fashion” and creating deliberately ugly dresses too. The big fashion buzzword these days (because, ironically, capital F Fashion is always a little slow) is androgyny, yet this dress is so hyperbolically “Feminine” that it looks like the girl’s toy section at Target threw one last bacchanalian rager, and the runway is its Sunday morning walk of shame into history.

1399826062800424993The tiny, tiny models with their exaggerated “flatness of presentation” look like they can barely remain upright beneath the semiotic weight they’re carrying. The model in Teen Vogue actually had to sit down (on a pile of rose petals). I’m glad. I was worried about her. She looked like she needed a rest.

And this is where I think Prada missed an opportunity. And why I currently find “high fashion” kind of boring. Like Hollywood blockbuster movies, there’s too much money at stake to take real risks. The game is to appear to take risks that will make consumers gasp, but not enough to actually piss anyone off. And it’s hard to be really creative without risk. These dresses might make fun of normative fashion’s ideas of femininity, but they also don’t challenge them. There’s a reason we wore combat boots with our babydoll dresses in the 90s.

Every stylist on every catwalk and every magazine cover that featured this look made the bold choice of displaying it on extremely thin, predominantly pale, very young looking models. But if there is one aspect of 90s style that I’d rather not see Prada revive it’s the uniform celebration of the “waif” look. This is by no means a judgment of individual models, whose labor I absolutely respect. But, if Miuccia is really interested in “variations on beauty,” you know what would have actually been great? Seeing this dress – this disconcerting hyperbole – on a different kind of body. There is nothing inherently weak or infantilizing about pink bows and sparkles. We resignify these kinds of things all the time. In fact, until the 1920s or so pink was considered masculine because of its association with robustness and the flushed cheeks of exertion. So why not offer up a real challenge to what these signs mean? Why not put the dress on a truly athletic body or a transgender body? Or a fat body? Models like Tess Holliday or Nina Taylor for example certainly wouldn’t have looked like they were about to be crushed by a mountain of pink ribbons and rhinestones and gender expectations. If Prada could manage to design a woman’s dress that, you know, accommodated breasts, I think Holliday or Taylor or other non-normative models could have worn this super-femme pastiche in a way that embraced what was fun about it and challenged our assumptions about what it’s supposed to mean.

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Nina Taylor (image via Curvy Fashionista)

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Tess Holliday wearing her “Eff Your Beauty Standards” t-shirt. ❤

Addendum: The same day I published this post, this article came out in The Telegraph. It begins with Miuccia saying, “I hoped it looked ironic.” Our response is, “No, it didn’t.”

To be clear, I like the ugly pink dress. I enjoy it and appreciate it for what it is: a bit of a prank that’s also cleverly attention grabbing during a time when Prada really needs to boost declining revenue. But hyperbole isn’t the same as irony. To be ironic, there needs to be an implied contradiction. This line is just more – albeit a lot more – of the same.

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About saratatyana

Sara T. Bernstein, Ph.D. has been writing about and teaching media, cultural and fashion studies for over a decade. She's served as a contributor and reviews editor for the Fashion, Style and Popular Culture Journal, contributed to Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty and published essays on subjects ranging from fashion in the work of Charlotte Bronte, to the meaning of luxury, to feminist pedagogy. She teaches visual culture, media, and fashion studies at Pacific Northwest College of Art.
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