Friday, July 3, 2009

Savoir Faire Without the Corset

What can you say about a man who had such a sway over fashion and style that he liberated women from the corset of the 19th Century only to shackle their legs with the hobble skirt in the 20th? C’est Magnifique! He styled himself as the “King of Fashion” and practically dictated style before World War 1, only to die poverty stricken and in obscurity on 1944. He was influenced by many and in turn was the source of inspiration for other designers such as Schiaparelli who had closets full of his clothes.
Paul Poiret born in 1879 went on to become the driving force behind Parisian fashion in the early 20th Century. He trained with Jacques Doucet (another arbiter of savoir faire and style) and then left there for Worth (the doyenne of the haute mode), finally opening on his own in 1903. Throwing all the rules out the window of his Rue Arbor premises, he freed women from the restraints of the corset creating directoire style dresses with brilliant uses of colour, fabric and texture. Inspired by Leon Bakst and the Ballets Russe, Poiret’s style was a riot of orientalism and exoticism. Nothing was left untried. His sense of colour and texture were unrivalled, and the exotic was hunted out to try and then be unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Although appearing extremely complicated and extravagant the cut was on the other hand extremely simple, with dresses created from rectangles of fabric being draped on the body.

From abolishing the corset he went further with hobble skirts, "harem" pantaloons, and "lampshade" tunics, using the fabulous soirées he threw in his garden to promote such whimsies. His most famous soirée was The Thousand and Second Night party he threw in 1911 with himself playing the part of a sultan with his wife Denise dressed in a tunic dress playing his favourite slave girl. Apperntly she was carried into the party encased in a gilded cage, and then set free by her husband. In cases in which guests attended improperly attired, they were requested to either outfit themselves in some of Poiret's 'Persian' outfits, or leave.

His wife played a major part in his success, by being his muse, and modelling his creations.

Poiret’s aim was not only to influence fashion! He wanted to tell you how to live! Poiret's house expanded to encompass furniture, decor, and fragrance in addition to clothing. In 1911, he established the company Parfums de Rosine, named for his eldest daughter. Poiret's name was never linked to the company, but it was effectively the first fragrance launched by a designer.

He launched the Ecole Martine, named for his second daughter, to provide artistically inclined, working-class girls with trade skills and income. Martine provided furniture, wallpapers, rugs and every other decorating item for the complete Poiret look.

Unfortunately post war Europe and the public were not akin or sympathetic to Poiret’s style. New designers like Chanel (curse her) sounded the death knell for this fertile mind. Chanel designed smart functional clothes which women preferred. Poiret referred to her style as “poverty deluxe”. Legend has it that Chanel, dressed in black, once met Poiret and he asked: “Madame, for whom do you mourn?” She replied: “Why monsieur, I mourn for you!”

Poiret was out of fashion, in debt, and lacking support from his business partners, and he soon left his fashion house. In 1929, the house itself was closed, and its leftover clothes were sold by the kilogram as rags. When Poiret died in 1944, his genius had been forgotten. Luckily through a recent exhibition in New York we had the good fortune of looking upon a lost and forgotten empire.

As a footnote, one of my most prized possessions is a first edition copy of one his auto biographical works, “My First 50 Years”.


  1. Ah....Poiret! I've long been a fan? (too flighty a word) of his and his time.

  2. Me too, I guess devotee would be a more apt word. He was certainly a genius!

  3. Certainly a genius, and you've taught me a lot more about this great man (and his arch rival Coco) for which I thank you. You've provided such a fantastic selection of illustrations too, most of which I've never seen before. A beautiful blog.

  4. well, gee...look at that, I already did comment back in 2009.
    I do love me some Poiret.


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