By Michele Leight
"Fluid" is the first impression at
Paul Poiret: King of Fashion" currently on view at The Metropolitan
Museum of Art in New York. There are no pinched waists and exaggerated
posteriors. The colors and textures recall harems and "A
Thousand and One Nights," but these gorgeously attired ladies
are clearly emancipated. Reading the dates the gowns, coats and
accessories were created (1879-1944) comes as a shock, because
so many of them could be worn today. They must have set tongues
on fire in their day.
Together with the Vionnets, Paul Poiret has
been credited with liberating women from the strictures of corsets,
probably the greatest gift to womankind besides the right to vote.
It is hard to imagine that anyone actually invented an undergarment
as uncomfortable as a whalebone corset, but fashion has always
had its extremes, whereas style is enduring.
Poiret began his career at the House of Doucet
in 1898, where he learned business strategies critical to his
later success. During his two years at Doucet, he dressed legendary
performers like Sara Bernhardt and Rejane, absorbing the magic
of the stage to promote and influence fashion. In 1901 Poiret
left Doucet for the House of Worth, and both famous actresses
continued to patronize him, remaining loyal when he established
his own couture house - more of an atelier - in 1903.
Poiret's reductive approach to design emerged
while he was at the House of Worth, inspired primarily by the
flatness of the kimono. He created a mantle of black wool with
Chinese-style embroidery fashioned from one large rectangle. This
revolutionary approach was too daring for his royal clients, but
later became the model for his ground-breaking "Confucius"
Having grown up in the East, I was immediately
struck by Poiret's classical "draping," so reminiscent
of the Indian sari, and the flowing Greco-Roman tunics I have
always admired, which followed the form of the body, and without
Sinewy mannequins float naturally in beautifully
staged "vignettes" in the exhibition with backdrops
and genuine props that evoke Poiret's era. There are stylishly
modern sofas, desks, dressers, sconces and carpets, especially
reverent of artists and the cutting edge artisan's workshops of
Poiret's day, like Wiener Werkstatte. Some mannequins wear gorgeously
jeweled turbans and headbands that recall Gloria Swanson in "Sunset
Boulevard" and other Hollywood epics from bygone eras that
were also influenced by exotic cultures going as far back as Egyptian
and biblical times - like "Ben Hur," "Spartacus,"
"Cleopatra" and "The Ten Commandments."
Immediately upon entering the show there is
the romantic silhouette of a woman who appears to be from the
Edwardian era, (illustrated at the top of the story), with a large
ostrich feather hat and parasol. The coat, however, is newer,
more geometric and "flat" in appearance, and the waistline
and bustle is gone. It is of red wool and ivory silk damask, with
exquisite red silk floss embroidery detailing, reminiscent of
exotic cultures without losing it western flair.
This is Poiret's "Reverend" coat,
derived from his "Confucius" series, and created in
1905. It is the earliest surviving example of his work, and was
worn by the famous young actress and courtesan Lilly Langtry.
With admirable marketing savvy, the designer continued to solicit
the patronage of beautiful and famous actresses and dancers, who
advertised his new designs by wearing them in high profile situations,
much like Calvin Klein and Chanel's advertisements feature well
known models and Nicole Kidman today.
There was another, far more fascinating reason
for Poiret's reliance on flat geometric construction of his garments.
He could not sew. Necessity being the mother of invention, his
absence of training prompted and facilitated his daring technical
advances, which is well illustrated by a video animation at the
show. Only Poiret could have realized so much from a single, rectangular
piece of fabric, which miraculously turns into a coat called "Paris,"
dating to 1919, designed for his wife and muse, Denise, whom he
described to Vogue as "the inspiration for all my creations,
she is the expression of all my ideas." Slim - without being
androgynous - youthful and un-corseted, Denise epitomized the
modern woman. The video animation is by Softlab and the pattern
drawing by Jessica Regan.
In the absence of contemporary advertising
tools like TV, magazines or the internet, Poiret realized the
potential for fashion illustration to promote his "costumes."
From the outset of his career he worked with artists of the avant-garde,
like Paul Iribe (Les robes de Paul Poiret, 1908), and Georges
Lepape, (Les choses de Paul Poiret, 1911), to create stunning
fashion plates reflecting the bold colors and abstract qualities
of his designs, which were assembled into deluxe limited edition
albums. Some of these beautiful illustrations are shown here,
with many more on view at the show.
It is not hard to see why they made such an
impact. Relying on intricate stenciling techniques knows as pochoir
that were considered impractical for fashion illustration because
they involved hand coloring, the plates are extraordinarily animated
and cutting edge. Iribe and Lepape grouped the models in conversation
or introspection, and their Poiret-designed outfits were head-turners
- absolutely gorgeous.
The albums soon inspired luxurious periodicals,
including Lucien Vogel's Gazette du bon ton, which were based
on Poiret's catalogues and illustrated with boldly colored pochoirs
by a team of artists including Charles Martin, Georges Lepape,
Simone Puget, Andre Edouard Marty and others. Poiret's fashions
featured prominently in the publication and were set in the sophisticated,
modern venues of the theatre, restaurant or nightclub. Modernism
was therefore "doubly" reinforced by Poiret's designs
and the magazine's avant-garde portrayal of them.
Poiret worked closely with artists who became
indispensable collaborators, including Raoul Dufy, whose "Dufy
Coat" encompasses the artists flat, graphic patterns. For
Poiret, art and fashion were one, and as the years progressed
his highly individualistic creations generated some controversy
as famous artists claimed they were not appropriately credited
for their efforts.
Poiret's "Dufy Coat" or "Rousseau
Dress" (circa 1910) could be mistaken for clothing available
today at fine wearable-art stores along Madison Avenue, or Rodeo
Drive, with exclusive "one-of-a-kind" designer labels,
coveted by those with high profile lives who do not want to find
themselves in the same outfit as anyone else in the room. Poiret
may have inadvertently pioneered the "wearable-art"
clothing phenomenon, which persists today in the continued popularity
of vintage and "artist designed" clothing and accessories.
In his memoir "The King of Fashion,"
(1931), Poiret wrote:
"Am I a fool when I dream of putting art
into my dresses, a fool when I say dressmaking is an art? For
I have always loved painters, and felt on an equal footing with
them. It seems to be that we practice the same craft, and they
are my fellow workers."
Poiret helped launch Dufy's career as a graphic
artist, and his influence is pronounced in Poiret's "Bois
de Boulogne Dress," illustrated above, which is a tribute
to Le Douanier Rousseau, also a self-taught artist and much admired
by the designer. Created from stunning printed polychrome silk,
black silk tulle and black silk broadcloth, with textile design
by Raoul Dufy, it was manufactured by Bianchini-Ferier (French,
Poiret's designs celebrate embellishment of
an exotic, sophisticated, restrained variety - often with exquisite
embroidery and beading, flawless seams and hems, fantastic feathers,
pintucks and one of a kind buttons, bows and tassels. They were
forerunners of the haute couture creations that are visible on
runways today, almost a century after Paul Poiret created his
fashions. Their overt "artistry" is compelling, and
a reminder that handwork is becoming more and more rare in an
increasingly mechanized world.
Poiret loved artists and artisans, and of all
his collaborations with artists Poiret was most proud of his promotion
of Paul Iribe to a wider audience. It was Iribe who designed Poiret's
instantly recognizable "rose" motif, which is used as
Poiret's first manifestation of classical sensibility
appeared in 1906, the year that Poiret abandoned the corset, inspired
by his wife's slender figure. His "Theatre du Champs Elysee
Evening Dress," (illustrated), was worn by Denise Poiret
to Igor Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps, which marked the
opening of the Theatre des Champs-Elyssees on April 1, 1913, a
landmark Parisian event.
One of my favorite vignettes at the show features
the short, one-shouldered baby dolls - or nightdresses - in pale
pink that are both classical and modern, and direct descendants
of Amazonian warrior women attire. Poiret transformed them into
other worldly feminine tunics from fabric created by another legendary
designer of women's clothes - Mario Fortuny - a designer whom
Poiret promoted in his maison de couture, together with Iribe
and George Lepape.
Today, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein and many
high profile designers are the descendants of Poiret's "Lifestyle
Marketing." It is evident from the first vignette that Poiret
did not hesitate to incorporate accessories like umbrellas, perfumes,
and interior decorations into his fashion empire. Rather than
name it after himself, he chose his daughters' names, "Rosine
and Martine." In 1911, Poiret broke new ground and decided
to incorporate perfume and interior design into his business -
Rosine for perfumes, and Martine for interior design.
Such beautiful clothes required environments
to match - a synthesis and harmony of artistic practices, a belief
Poiret shared with Wiener Werkstatte. However, the latter regarded
design as a means of social engineering, and did not hesitate
to impose its own aesthetic preferences on its clients, whereas
Poiret was more preoccupied with haute couture, perfumes and the
decorative arts as they applied to women.
Overt references and interpretations of Orientalism
are felt at the outset of the show, and it is the most pervasive
impression of Poiret's oevre. In the vignette entitled "The
Thousand and Second Night," Poiret's fantasies and evocations
of the East are given full vent in gorgeous, sensuous creation
that ignite thoughts of the Arabian Nights and "The Rubayat
of Omar Khyaam." What better venue for such fantasies than
a costume party?
For his "Thousand and Second Night,"
an extravaganza where 300 guests were required to dress in Persian
style costumes, those who failed to do so were given the choice
of leaving, or costuming themselves in clothes designed by Poiret,
including controversial "harem" trousers that were part
of his spring 1913 collection. Although it was a private party,
this was a forerunner of the staged fashion shows of today, with
all the extravagance and magic of a live theatrical performance
that also served to publicize Poiret's latest creations - and
the guests got to be models!
"Thousand and Second Night" was heavily
influenced by Diaghilev's hugely successful "Scheherazade,"
from "One Thousand and One Nights"), a year earlier.
Although the influence of Leon Bakst is palpable, Poiret dismissed
any relationship between the talented designer and himself in
his memoirs. Bakst designed the costumes for Scheherazade.
Poiret was a "sultan" and his wife
Denise was his "favorite" wearing "harem"
trousers designed by her husband under a wired skirted tunic.
Two years later, this "costume" worn at a private fancy-dress
party became the prototype for a "lampshade" tunic launched
by Poiret in a theatrical production of a Jacques Richepin historical
drama, "Le Minaret," and included in his fashion collection
later that year.
The illustrator Erté claimed to be the
designer of the distinctive silhouette of the crinoline-hooped
"Sorbet" outfit. However, the bodice has a kimono neckline
typical of Poiret, while the underskirt is a development of his
iconic "hobble" skirt. Working close together with such
creative personalities had its down side, and Poiret had his fair
share of claims to defend himself against.
Poiret's orientalist evocations of the Near,
Middle and Far East earned him the title "Pasha of Paris,"
and this show is mouthwateringly exotic. The loose, comfortable
imagery of Eastern clothing offered the designer and other modernists
freedom from the conventions and constraints of the West - at
least in theory. The designer's unrestricted use of gorgeous color
is the most striking aspect of this show, and he considered it
among his greatest innovations in his memoirs.
Careful, insipid, "tasteful" colors
were swept away in favor of vivid juxtapositions in reds, greens,
violets and royal blues that instantly set the scene on fire.
His exotic color combinations (aided by the invention of aniline
dyes) preceded the Ballets Russes's performance of "Scheherazade,"
which caused quite a stir.
However, more than vivid colors and exotic,
embroidered fabrics, it was the pared down simplicity of the caftan
and the kimono - constructed of rectangles of fabric - that influenced
Poiret's innovative silhouette. His genius lay in the way he imbued
non-Western apparel with his own brand of geometric simplicity.
A wonderful example of this hybrid design is
his pink and lilac satin "Nenuphar" opera coat, (1911),
worn by Denise Poiret, and the pink and purple opera coat of 1910,
illustrated above. While these outfits could never be typecast
as Eastern, but they cut away the frills and furbelows of previous
Western silhouettes that totally overpowered women's bodies.
As the show progresses chronologically, the
iconic "chemise" dress emerges, which the designer himself
did not value as much as fashion history has done. Poiret introduced
the chemise in 1910, possibly as a response to his wife's second
pregnancy. While he had already set corsets aside - a welcome
evolution in women's fashion for which he shared credit with Lucile
and Madeleine Vionnet - the emancipation of the female body was
complete with the "T" shaped dress.
Poiret's chemises were even more reductive
than the undergarments that were their inspiration. Front and
back were cut identically, with no darts for the bust, shaping
of shoulder seams, or inserts. Necklines were the exception, and
sashes provided "shaping" depending whether they were
tied at the hip, or the waist. Poiret disliked androgynous silhouettes,
and he firmly embraced the feminine body in the ideal form represented
by his wife.
The charming yellow silk" mother-daughter"
chemises, circa 1920, are decorated with motifs of camels, palm
trees and pyramids, exotic additions to an otherwise spare fashion
Poiret was an avowed patriot and some of his
historical "revival" designs are interpretations of
his nationalist leanings. After WWI, some of these creations alluded
to fashions from periods of extreme French nationalism, while
he continued to design dresses with high "Directoire"
and "Empire" waists. He also created gowns with panniered
and crinolined skirts that recall ancien regime and Second Empire.
Poiret's Renaissance and Medieval costumes were less francophile
and were, like his orientalism, less accurate than they were artistically
Not one to advocate that any woman become a
slave to fashion, Poiret's diverse styles offered a wide variety
of outfits to suit all tastes. Unlike his design peers, Poiret
offered the radical idea that the truly stylish woman should wear
what suited her most - even if it contradicted the prevailing
trend. The diverse choices reflected his belief that women should
dress according to their own body type, coloring and preference.
Despite the fact that Poiret's technical and
commercial innovations were critical to the emergence of modernism
in fashion, the designer rejected the post-war aesthetic of the
engineer governed by functional rationality. There is so much
fantasy in Poiret's "oeuvre," and he firmly upheld the
ideal of artistic originality and artisanal workmanship.
The illustrations below demonstrates the intricacy
and finesse of his modernist gowns, which are so avant-garde they
could be worn today, and they bear an uncanny resemblance to a
towering arbiter of style who represented the next generation
- Coco Chanel.
The two designers did meet by chance in the
1920s, an event that has been well documented by fashion historians.
When Poiret sarcastically asked a typically black-clad Chanel:
"For whom do you mourn?"
She replied: "For you, Monsieur."
Chanel was not put down easily.
Despite Poiret's mockery of Chanel's "little
black dress" there is more than a hint of the older designer's
influence in its elegant, spare lines and fine attention to detail.
Poiret was dumbfounded by Chanel's "reverse chic," characterized
by meticulously concealed couture finishes. Chanel's coats and
jackets were so finely made they could be worn inside, or out.
The lining was as important as the rest of the outfit. Poiret's
emphasis was on the decorative, and his artistry was overt, visible.
Poiret introduced clothing that hung from the
shoulders, heralding a new era in women's fashions. Chanel took
it from there, creating the paradigm of modern fashion as we know
In a review of "Chanel" at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, (see The City Review article)
I was struck by the exoticism of several of the " interpretations"
for the House of Chanel by the contemporary fashion designer Karl
Lagerfeld. The reader may find more than a hint of Poiret in the
luxe fabrics in his "Coromandel" outfits, and the dazzling
Mughal and Japanese inspired outfits designed by Coco Chanel herself,
which he "tweaked" into contemporary wearability.
Perhaps Lagerfeld understood the enormous influence
Poiret had on Chanel, who lived in stricter times than we do now
- she was a "new woman," and therefore had to be more
careful in how she projected herself. In a world filled with male
designers, perhaps Chanel reigned in her exotic fantasies, fearful
of appearing too decorative or overtly feminine - just as contemporary
businesswomen often wear dark, severe, almost man-tailored suits
devoid of ornamentation because they want to be taken as seriously
as their male counterparts.
Chanel's luxe silks and brocades, and the gorgeous
Coromandel screen that dominated her home - and which she adored
- were forays into other cultures most likely inspired by the
legendary Poiret. Chanel kept the luxury under control, lean,
like her supremely elegant Art Deco living room that was as slick
and monochromatic as Poiret's interiors pulsated with warm, vivid
colors gleaned from the rich palette rooted in the imagination
of the artist.
It is in the details that Poiret's enormous
influence on Chanel is most evident. She introduced her now iconic
accessories - the quilted handbags with metal chain, the two-
tone pumps, and "Chanel No. 5," a perfume that still
flies off the shelves across the globe. She "mass-produced"
make-up, packaging her lipsticks and rouges in slick, lacquer
black cases, delivering to customers in her now legendary simple
black and white packaging.
Chanel's perfume bottles were works of art,
but the were clean lined, influenced by Art Deco, and more easily
reproducible than Poiret's exquisitely decorated perfume bottles
with silk tassels, that were artisanal, and hand-wrought. The
idea, however, is the same, and Poiret did it first. Mass production
was against everything Poiret stood for, while democratic Chanel
wanted fashion to be affordable and available for anyone who desired
Long before globalization, Poiret fused elements
of different cultures into a single outfit, a trend that is common
among top fashion designers today. More importantly, designer
"lifestyle marketing" - make-up, perfume, clothing,
one-of-a-kind pillows, "designer" bed linens, wallpapers,
umbrellas and accessories - is now an international phenomenon.
"Designer" fashions and products
- many from a single brand name like Prada, Louis Vuitton or Chanel
- are available at airport boutiques, department stores and specialty
shops across the world.