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Poiret: King of Fashion
The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
May 9 to August 5, 2007

Reverend Coat

Reverend Coat

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" cloak.

Silk damask and chiffron dresses

Orange silk damask dress and Orange chiffon dress, 1913

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 constricting movement.

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."

Fashion plate

Fashion plate

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.

Rousseau dress

Rousseau dress, circa 1910

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, founded 1880).

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 his label.

Opera coat

Opera coat, yellow satin, pale blue silk overlaid with gold file embroidery, and black silk velvet. Purchase, Irene Lewishon Trust Gift, 1982

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.

Theatre des Champs Elysees evening dress

"Theatre des Champs Elysee evening dress"

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.

Mademoiselle day dress

"Mademoiselle day dress"

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.

Bouclier day dress

"Bouclier day dress"

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?

Fancy dress costume 1913

"Fancy dress costume," 1913

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.


"Sorbet," 1913

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.

Opera coats

"Nenuphar" opera coat, 1911, left, pink opera coat, 1910, right

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.

Day dress, 1912

"Day Dress," 1912

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.

"Fils du Ciel, Paisley Jacquard Jacket and Feuille d'Automne"

"Fils du Ciel" dress, 1923, left, "Paisley Jacquard Jacket," 1912, center, and "Feuille d'Automne," 1916, right

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 sensibility.

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 interpreted.

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.

1925 evening dresses

"Evening Dress," 1925, gold lame and gold black lace, left, and "Evening Dress," 1925, black lace with black and silver paillette embroidery

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 it today.

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 it.

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.

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