"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.