Exhibitions/ Poiret

Poiret: King of Fashion

May 9, 2007–August 5, 2007
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

More than any other designer of the twentieth century, Paul Poiret (1879–1944) elevated fashion to the status of an artform. Dress history credits Poiret with freeing women from corsets and with inventing such startling creations as "hobble" skirts, "harem" pantaloons, and "lampshade" tunics, but these details have detracted from Poiret's more significant achievements. Working with fabric directly on the body, Poiret pioneered a radical approach to dressmaking that relied on the skills of draping rather than tailoring and pattern making. Looking to antique and regional dress, Poiret advocated clothing cut along straight lines and constructed of rectangles. It was an approach that effectively established the paradigm of modern fashion, irrevocably changing the direction of costume history.

Poiret's modernity, however, and its impact on modernism—that is, "stylistic" modernism in its most restricted and traditional definition, as an industrial, mechanical aesthetic—has been overlooked because of his narrative and decorative strategies. Yet his modernity, expressed through the structural simplicity of his clothing, signifies a pivotal moment in the emergence of modernism. Equally significant is his vision of the modern woman, epitomized by his wife and muse, Denise. Slim, youthful, and uncorseted, she was the prototype of la garçonne. Poiret used her slender figure as the basis for his radically simplified constructions. In 1913 he told Vogue, "My wife is the inspiration for all my creations; she is the expression of all my ideals." If Poiret was the prophet of modernism, Denise was its most compelling incarnation.

Presented in a series of tableaux, the fifty ensembles on view highlight the multiple facets of Poiret's astonishing originality—including the beauty of his draped, unstructured clothes and his fascination with the Ballets Russes and the Wiener Werkstätte. The ensembles are complemented by illustrations, furniture, and other examples of the decorative arts that explicate Poiret's expansive artistic vision. At the core of the exhibition is a grouping of stunning creations that the Metropolitan Museum acquired in a much-heralded auction of clothing from Poiret's estate in Paris in May 2005. Poiret created these garments—many of which had never been photographed or put on public display—for his wife and muse Denise, who wore his designs without concession to prevailing tastes.

In addition to Poiret's design legacy, the exhibition also discusses his collaborations with such artists as Paul Iribe, George Barbier, and Georges Lepape. Poiret's designs are presented in a series of vignettes evocative of the drawings of these artists for such fashion periodicals as Art, Goût et Beauté; and La Gazette du bon ton. Two video installations in the exhibition display animations showing the radical modernity of Poiret's dress construction techniques.


The exhibition and its accompanying book are made possible by Balenciaga.

Additional support is provided by Condé Nast.

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Exhibition Objects

"A creative dressmaker is accustomed to foresee, and must be able to divine the trends that will inspire the day after to-morrow. He is prepared long before women themselves to accept the accidents and incidents that occur on the trajectory of evolution."

—Paul Poiret, The King of Fashion (1931)

Every decade has its seer, or sibyl, of style, a designer who, above all others, is able to divine the desires of women. In the 1910s this oracle was Paul Poiret, known in America as the "King of Fashion." Dress history credits Poiret with freeing women from corsets and with inventing such startling creations as "hobble" skirts, "harem" pantaloons, and "lampshade" tunics, but these details have detracted from Poiret's more significant achievements. Working with fabric directly on the body, Poiret pioneered a radical approach to dressmaking that relied on the skills of draping rather than tailoring and pattern making. Looking to antique and regional dress, Poiret advocated clothing cut along straight lines and constructed of rectangles. It was an approach that effectively established the paradigm of modern fashion, irrevocably changing the direction of costume history.

Poiret's modernity, however, and its impact on modernism—that is, "stylistic" modernism in its most restricted and traditional definition, as an industrial, mechanical aesthetic—has been overlooked because of his narrative and decorative strategies. Yet his modernity, expressed through the structural simplicity of his clothing, signifies a pivotal moment in the emergence of modernism. Equally significant is his vision of the modern woman, epitomized by his wife and muse, Denise. Slim, youthful, and uncorseted, she was the prototype of la garçonne. Poiret used her slender figure as the basis for his radically simplified constructions. In 1913 he told Vogue, "My wife is the inspiration for all my creations; she is the expression of all my ideals." If Poiret was the prophet of modernism, Denise was its most compelling incarnation.

The ubiquitous reach of Poiret's designs extended to every detail of a woman's wardrobe, including hats, shoes, fans, parasols, and even stockings. In their conception and production, Poiret's accessories were presented as unique works of art. A pair of shoes called "Le Bal," for instance, which were made by the great cobbler André Perugia for Denise Poiret in 1924, is completely overembroidered in colored seed beads in a pattern that depicts Paul Poiret on one foot and his wife on the other creating a sensation as they enter a crowded ball.

Poiret's hats, not unlike his fashions, were designed to arrest the eye and stun the senses. Although his atelier was capable of producing millinery that encompassed a wide range of materials and silhouettes, including cloches, turbans, jeweled headbands, and asymmetrically brimmed felts, he also worked with other milliners, most notably Madeleine Panizon. The famed milliner created several enchanting confections for Poiret's wife, such as the "Trocadéro" hat made from dyed, stripped, and clipped ostrich feathers. In its exotic plumage, it recalls the "Flonflon" headdress created in Poiret's maison de couture for his wife, which brings to mind eighteenth-century depictions of headdresses in allegories of the continents.

Denise Poiret herself was brilliant at combining accessories. A 1913 article in Vogue reported, "Mme. Poiret it was who first wore the plain satin slipper in vivid colors without buckle or bow, and the stocking to match the skirt color." The article went on to reveal that Poiret "introduced high, wrinkled morocco boots through his wife." Styled with a low heel and a square toe, they were made for her by the bottier Favereau. Vogue reported that Denise had versions in red, white, green, and yellow and that she wore them "wrinkled on the legs nearly to the knees." Even in footwear, it appears that Denise Poiret was the inspiration for some of her husband's greater flights of fancy.

Poiret's most radical achievement, underestimated by the designer himself, was his development of the chemise silhouette, which he introduced in 1910, perhaps as a response to his wife's second pregnancy. While other couturiers, including Lucile and Madeleine Vionnet, arguably might share credit with him for advocating the abolition of the corset, it is Poiret who, with the free-spirited confidence of his wife, Denise, created gowns that foresaw the styles of a decade later. With his T-shaped dresses in silk damask, the emancipation of the body was complete. Nowhere is the liberation of the style more evident than in the photographs of Denise en repose at the Plaza Hotel in New York during Poiret's first trip to America, in September 1913. The sinuous line of her body and the suppleness of her posture preclude the presence of any structural underpinnings.

Poiret's chemise dresses were even simpler in cut than the undergarments from which they were derived. Although the nineteenth-century chemise had a similar cut, Poiret eliminated the shaping of shoulder seams, the insertion of shoulder yokes and underarm gussets, and the accommodation of the bust through darts and inserts. His chemise was completely reductive, with the front cut like the back, except for the shaping of the neckline. So simple was its construction that the dress came to be known as the "robe de minute," as it took but half an hour to make. Any fit or transformation of the sacklike form was accomplished by knotting decorative sashes. When the gowns were introduced, Denise preferred the sash high at the waist. Later, however, in the 1920s, when she continued to wear the same gowns, she placed the sash fashionably low at the upper hipline.

Poiret's vision of modernity embraced not only fashion but also its representation. Early in his career Poiret recognized the potential of fashion illustration to evoke the look, sense, and mood of his costumes in ways that photography could not. Working with artists associated with the avant-garde, Poiret created a number of limited-edition deluxe albums in which the visual and the sartorial merged to create a unique and stylish brand of modernism.

Poiret collaborated with Paul Iribe on Les robes de Paul Poiret (1908) and with Georges Lepape on Les choses de Paul Poiret (1911). Reflecting the bold colors and abstract qualities of Poiret's fashions, both albums rely on the intricate stenciling technique known as pochoir, which involves hand-coloring, long considered impractical for fashion illustration. Shunning the stiff poses that were typical of fashion illustrations, Iribe and Lepape grouped their models in expressive combinations suggesting action, conversation, or introspection.

The albums inspired several luxurious periodicals, including Lucien Vogel's Gazette du bon ton. Modeled on Poiret's catalogues, it was illustrated with boldly colored pochoirs by artists such as Lepape, Charles Martin, Simone A. Puget, André-Édouard Marty, and Jean-Louis Boussingault. Poiret's fashions were featured in the Gazette from the outset and were key to the journal's au courant sophistication. Typically, they were depicted in modern contexts, such as the theater, restaurant, or nightclub, underscoring the mutually reinforcing modernisms of Poiret's fashions and the Gazette's illustrations.

Poiret's induction into couture began at the House of Doucet in 1898. Under the tutelage of its founder, Jacques Doucet, Poiret learned many of the business strategies that were later to define his couture practice, including developing the patronage of actresses to advertise his fashions both on and off the stage. With his astute acumen for publicity, Poiret understood, almost instinctively, the power of the stage to influence the direction of fashion. After Poiret founded his own maison de couture in 1903, the theater provided an opportunity for the couturier to introduce his more avant-garde designs into society.

During the two years Poiret worked at Doucet, he dressed many of the most famous actresses of the period, including Réjane and Sarah Bernhardt. When Poiret left Doucet and began working for the House of Worth in 1901, both actresses continued to patronize him, as they did when he opened his own atelier two years later. It was while he was at Worth that Poiret's reductive approach to construction, with its emphasis on Platonic geometry, began to emerge. Inspired by the essential flatness of the kimono, Poiret created a mantle with Chinese-style embroidery from one large rectangle of black wool. Although its structural simplicity proved too shocking for Worth's royal clients, the mantle later became the model for a series of cloaks entitled "Confucius." The version on display, the "Révérend" of 1905, was especially popular. Worn in the photograph by the British actress and courtesan Lillie Langtry, it is the earliest surviving example of Poiret's concept of dress based on geometric lines and flat construction.

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 that they are my fellow workers." Dismissing the sibling rivalries that have always dogged the fine and the applied arts, Poiret believed that art and fashion were not simply involved but indivisible. This belief was central to Poiret's vision of modernity, which, to a large extent, was achieved through his deployment of art discourse.

As well as presenting himself as an artist and a patron of the arts, Poiret promoted his fashions as unique and original works of art in and of themselves. He did so by marshaling the visual and the performing arts and by working with artists associated with the avant-garde. Among Poiret's various collaborations, the most enduring was with Raoul Dufy, whose career as a textile designer he helped launch. Such signature creations as "La Perse" coat, "La Rose d'Iribe" day dress, and the "Bois de Boulogne" dinner dress (which is made from a fabric that Dufy designed in conjunction with Bianchini-Férier) demonstrate how Dufy's flat, graphic patterns were ideally suited to Poiret's planar, abstract designs.

Dufy's textile prints reflected Poiret's preference for the artisanal. The postwar embrace of an industrial and mechanical modernity was antithetical to Poiret. Before the war, however, the art of the working man, like Dufy, or of the self-schooled, like Henri "Le Douanier" Rousseau—whom Poiret so admired that he created the "Homage à Rousseau" dress—was seen as modern in its repudiation of Belle Époque decadence and sophistication.

Poiret was proud of having introduced Paul Iribe to a wider audience through Les robes de Paul Poiret (1908). Distributed without charge to Poiret's elite clientele, the album, like Georges Lepape's Les choses de Paul Poiret published three years later, was exhibited at the Galerie Barbazanges, a commercial gallery on the premises of Poiret's couture house. It was Iribe who designed Poiret's rose motif, as depicted on "La Rose d'Iribe" dress and on the couturier's label.

In his memoirs, however, Poiret dismisses the implication that Iribe and Lepape were anything more than interpreters of his fully formed expressions. In his description of his collaboration with the two artists, they emerge as disseminators of his designs, representing his works through their talents as illustrators—never as creators of the designs themselves. The reality, however, was probably much more complicated.

The charming renderings by Iribe in Les robes de Paul Poiret and by Lepape in Les choses de Paul Poiret (and later in the Gazette du bon ton) convey a contextual reality for Poiret's exquisite creations. Comparing extant costumes to their representation, however, reveals that accuracy was sometimes sacrificed for dramatic intention. Nevertheless, Iribe's and Lepape's subtle stylistic elisions and exaggerations imbued Poiret's fashions with a seductive beauty not conveyed by the harsher documentary evidence of photography.

Poiret's radical approach to dress-making was inseparable from his ideas about the body, which found their ultimate expression in his advocacy of an uncorseted figure. While Poiret was not the only designer to promote an integrated and intelligible corporeality, he was among the first to link it to the naturalism of Greco-Roman dress.

The earliest display of his classical sensibility appeared in Poiret's fashions of 1906, the year he abandoned the corset. However, as seen in his "1811" dress, which reflects the proportions and cylindrical silhouette of the Directoire, it was classicism through the lens of the late eighteenth century. The same allusive, rather than academic, classicism is manifested in Poiret's "Théâtre des Champs-Élysées" evening dress, which Denise Poiret wore to the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps, marking the opening of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on April 1, 1913.

Denise's slender figure was the perfect canvas for Poiret's classicizing tendencies. Unlike the odalisques of the Belle Époque, she possessed a svelte, gamine beauty that conformed to the active body type emerging in the twentieth century. Among the more explicitly classical clothing that Poiret made for his wife was a series of provocative baby-doll-length nightdresses. With their one-shouldered necklines, they cite the bareness of the Amazon, who allowed one shoulder of her tunic to fall open, exposing her breast. These "classical" negligees recall the costume Denise wore to Poiret's classically inspired "Les Festes de Bacchus" party on June 20, 1912. Made from a fabric by Mariano Fortuny, a designer Poiret promoted in his maison de couture, Denise, in the role of Juno, queen of the gods, represented both the ideal of classical beauty and the paradigm of the modern woman.

In 1911 Poiret expanded his business as a couturier to include perfume and interior design. Naming his perfume company Rosine, after his first daughter, and his interior design business Martine, after his second, Poiret effectively invented the modern concept of "lifestyle marketing."

Poiret's diverse enterprises reflected his belief in the synthesis and harmony of artistic practices. It was a conviction he shared with the Wiener Werkstätte, whose members advocated the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art." While the Wiener Werkstätte tended to regard design as a means of social engineering and often imposed its own aesthetic preferences on its clients, Poiret felt that the total work of art was less a utopian ideal than the physical expression of a personal business empire applied to the feminine spheres of haute couture, perfumes, and the decorative arts.

Poiret upheld the allure of his Rosine and Martine products by highlighting their originality, uniqueness, and aesthetic qualities. His perfumes, which carried the poetic essence of his couture house, were presented in delicate flacons designed to harmonize with the scents they contained. As he did with his clothing, Poiret worked with artists and craftsmen—including Paul Iribe, Raoul Dufy, Georges Lepape, and, most consistently, Atelier Martine—in the design, packaging, and promotion of his perfumes. In their merging of artistry and enterprise, these products represented miniature masterpieces of early-twentieth-century avant-garde artistic production.

Poiret's interest in l'art de vivre found its most tangible expression in his highly theatrical costume parties. The most extravagant was "The Thousand and Second Night," which took place in the garden of his atelier on June 24, 1911, and revealed the strong influence of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes on the designer's imagination. In his memoirs, Poiret dismissed any relationship between his work and the artistry of Diaghilev's talented designer Léon Bakst. Yet the spectacular success of Schéhérazade, based on One Thousand and One Nights, a year before Poiret's lavish party makes clear that the designer was willing to parlay the excitement generated by the Russians to his own advantage.

Like Diaghilev's Schéhérazade, Poiret's "The Thousand and Second Night" party revolved around a fantastic evocation of the East. For the occasion, Poiret required his three hundred guests to dress up in Oriental costumes. Those who failed to do so were given the choice of leaving or outfitting themselves in Persian-style clothes designed by the couturier, including the highly controversial "harem" trousers that formed part of his spring 1911 collection. Poiret thus used the occasion of a private party, staged as a cross between an elaborate fashion show and an extravagant theatrical performance, to promote his latest creations.

Denise Poiret, who played the role of the "favorite" to Poiret's "sultan," endorsed her husband's "harem" trousers by wearing them under a wired skirted tunic. In 1913 Poiret launched this crinoline-hooped silhouette in a theatrical production of Jacques Richepin's historical drama Le Minaret and it appeared in Poiret's fashion collections later that year. A fancy-dress costume worn in the privacy of an exclusive party became the prototype for a "minaret" or "lampshade" tunic worn in a theatrical production. Thus publicized, the silhouette was then modified for the fashion public. The "Sorbet" ensemble, for which the illustrator Erté claimed authorship, was among the most popular of the silhouette's fashionable interpretations.

From just before World War I until the closure of his maison de couture in 1929, Poiret's strongest narrative thread was his fantasy of the seraglio and his Orientalizing evocations of the Near, Middle, and Far East that earned him the soubriquet "Pasha of Paris." For Poiret and other modernists, the imagery of Eastern cultures offered freedom from the traditions and conventions of the West.

Poiret's Orientalism first manifested itself in his use of color. In his memoir, Poiret records that his vivid palette was among his greatest innovations: "The taste for the refinements of the eighteenth century had led all women into a sort of deliquescence. Nuances of nymph's thigh, swooning mauves, tender blue hortensias, all that was soft, washed-out, and insipid, was held in honour. I threw into this sheepcote a few rough wolves; reds, greens, violets, royal blues, that made all the rest sing aloud." Bold colors were, in fact, popular from the mid-nineteenth century onward with the introduction of aniline dyes, but Poiret's originality was expressed in his exotically charged color combinations, a novelty that preceded the Ballets Russes' performance of Schéhérazade.

Poiret's most enduring and fundamental Orientalism, however, resides less in his vivid colors, or even in his opulent fabrics and lavish embroideries, than in the construction of his garments. The reductive planarity of such dress types as the caftan and the kimono, cut along straight lines and constructed of rectangles, inspired and influenced Poiret's radical changes of silhouette. In his typically sybaritic manner, however, Poiret tended to conflate Western and non-Western apparel traditions. While utilizing the geometric simplicity of regional costumes, Poiret introduced the shaping of Western dressmaking approaches to create garments that could exist only in the fictive, mythical East of his imagination.

Poiret's revival of historical visual tropes may be seen as an expression of his nationalist tendencies. The couturier was fiercely patriotic despite having been criticized during World War I for his German affinities, the result of a cartoon in the German magazine Simplicissimus that featured a hausfrau being assured by her soldier husband that she would soon get a new Poiret dress.

After the war, Poiret's patriotism was revealed in a series of designs that harked back to fashions from periods of extreme French pride. While continuing to produce dresses with high waists reflective of Directoire and Empire fashions, Poiret also made gowns with panniered and crinolined skirts that evoked Ancien Régime and Second Empire styles. Less directly Francophile were his citations of medieval and Renaissance costumes. In the dress Denise wore to the wedding of Germaine Boivin, her husband's niece, in 1921, Poiret merged elements of both periods with an Italianate flair. His historicism, like his Orientalism, was governed less by reverential accuracy than by artistic interpretation.

Like Poiret's prewar collections, those he produced in the 1920s were a synthesis of all his interests. Instead of having a unified theme, his presentations invariably contained styles referencing various periods and cultures and presenting radically differing silhouettes. Unlike his peers, Poiret insisted that the truly stylish woman should wear what suited her most, even if it contradicted prevailing trends. Thus, the diverse choices Poiret presented in his collections reflected his constant admonition to women to dress according to their own body type, coloring, and preference.

Poiret's technical and commercial innovations were fundamental to the emergence and development of modernism. Yet even though he had ushered in modernism, Poiret rejected its postwar embrace of the engineer aesthetic governed by functional rationality. In the face of modernism's repudiation of explicit narratives, decorative strategies, and historical references, Poiret continued to endorse the ideal of artistic originality and the aesthetic of artisanal workmanship.

Poiret's vision of beauty was also at odds with la garçonne, the feminine archetype of modernism. While Denise Poiret's slender, small-boned figure was the prototype for the boyish fashion silhouette, Poiret dismissed its postwar emphasis on androgyny, describing its followers as "cardboard women, with hollow silhouettes, angular shoulders and flat breasts. Cages lacking birds. Hives lacking bees." Poiret's ideal of beauty still clung to his wife's body type—slight but not bony, irrefutably feminine, and never masculinized.

Despite Poiret's rejection of modernism on the grounds of ideology and aesthetics, he still produced fashions of remarkable structural modernity. His "Pré Catelan" coat of 1918 and his "Irudrée" gown of about 1922, for instance, continued to be defined by an economy of cut. The "Irudrée," which recalls the gold lamé creations worn by Denise Poiret before World War I, is particularly noteworthy for its astonishing simplicity. The skirt is made from two pieces of fabric sewn selvedge to selvedge and gathered at the waist of the bodice. In turn, the bodice is made from one length of material with no side seams, and Poiret has used the selvedge of the material to define the neckline. Indeed, with its emphasis on process and truth to materials, the "Irudrée," despite the low-slung, tubular rouleau and its nod to the hip roll, or "farthingale," of the Renaissance, stands as icon of modernist design.

In a story, probably apocryphal, of a chance encounter between Poiret and Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel in the 1920s, Poiret inquired of the black-clad Chanel, "For whom, madame, do you mourn?" to which Chanel replied, "For you, monsieur." By the 1920s Poiret's designs, compared to those of Chanel, appear less in the vanguard. Anyone who lived through World War I would have been aware that the lives of women had been changed by the need to assume positions and responsibilities that had been the reserve of men. Poiret resisted the practicality, rationalization, and stylistic simplification to which couturiers like Chanel readily adapted.

While Chanel embraced the trend toward simple, youthful, and functional fashions, Poiret rejected the sportif modernism that he himself had pioneered. In spite of the modern, impersonal simplicity of what would become Chanel's "little black dress," Poiret never relinquished his belief that freedom in dress was to be found in styles that either predated or were outside the contemporary fashion system. Therefore, the radical innovations of his approach to the construction of dress and his essential modernity were obscured, and even obliterated, by his historicism and Orientalism.

Poiret was dumbfounded by the reverse chic of Chanel's seemingly plain garments in which the cachet resided in discreet, even hidden, couture finishes. For Poiret, the artistry of couture was always visible. His designs from the mid-1920s, in contrast to those from before and immediately after the war—which are characterized by a haphazard, even careless, execution—are refined in their finishing. Perhaps by that point in his career, Poiret sought to control his more theatrical impulses and conform to the standards of les petits mains. Poiret's emphasis on the decorative, however, as well as his lifelong assertion of his identity as an artist, which subordinated his pursuit of commercial success, minimized his impact on fashion in the 1920s. Until the close of his maison de couture in 1929, Poiret's designs were characterized by an increasing idiosyncrasy.