Poiret: King of Fashion

May 9–August 5, 2007

Poiret and Chanel

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.