With Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley never quite outmatched as the ultimate emblems of American cool, there's a reason fashion and music are hung up on the 1950s, constantly reimagining the fine line between that decade's overt feminine innocence and its darker allures. Because the era signifies the ultimate juxtaposition of domesticity and danger, culture is addicted to it. And so is fashion: particularly Miuccia Prada, the Italian designer who generally dictates where fashion navigates every season and who is hooked to the notion of subverting the era's sweetness.
For Spring 2012, she plunged straight into the heart of pin-up and hot rod subcultures, making you wish Lady Gaga and Beyoncé's "Telephone" video could be re-released in its honor. The palette incorporated more of Prada's signature colorblocking, itself a recurring theme on other runways this season, but the collection's inspiration came through on the literal prints, which featured actual cars, shooting flames and all. Cat eye glasses and head scarves completed the illusion; the entire display was a tribute to fast cars and the even faster women who ride them. A subway grate - a reference to Marilyn's iconic wind-fueled upskirt shot - was included on the runway, though Miuccia wisely refrained from any special effects. The suggestion alone was enough.
The naughty/nice vintage interplay Prada specializes is a more nuanced take on the same dialogue pop stars have been generating with their visuals for years. Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry, Lily Allen, Gaga, of course, as well as an entire new crop of indie singer-songwriters have all enjoyed a romp through Mad Men territory, posing as pastel-clad bobby soxers or housewives-in-training, all disguising their inner Betty Page. The clips for Spears' cheery spite anthem "If U Seek Amy," Gaga and Beyoncé's coy-turned-homicidal "Telephone," or Aguilera's cherry-poppin' "Candyman" trade in regards retro as camp, and camp as a virtue.
Interestingly, for all its cheekiness, like the trembling pop of Lana Del Ray or Cults, the declawing charm of Prada's latest collection is that its potential shock value can also come off as totally demure. The women Miuccia dresses do prefer skirts to trousers, but also don't mind going braless under a sheer top (either because she is fearless or not quite nubile enough to care). Prada's dream girl is preferrably young and discreet; she's also brainy but provocative, and a little difficult to read. Elle Fanning could be her because she's feckless, but so could Roisin Murphy, by virtue of the mutual post-everything eccentricity she shares with the designer. That kind of boundless versatility is something most pop acts can only dream of achieving.