The King Is Dead

With his extravagant designs, Paul Poiret ruled the world of fashion—until modern simplicity did him in.

This past summer, on a perfect afternoon, I stopped by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to gaze with intense desire at a 1911 Paul Poiret evening coat made of printed velvet designed by Raoul Dufy and featuring humongous sleeves and a turquoise lining still vibrant nearly 100 years on. I am a notorious overdresser, and on this particular day I was wearing a black silk chiffon smock over a Liberty of London petticoat along with a pair of scarlet leggings and bronze dance slippers, an ensemble that would have made Poiret blush with pleasure. All around me swirled other visitors, most dressed in jeans and T-shirts, some even unashamedly sporting that contemporary badge of sartorial inelegance, the water bottle. They may have been looking with appreciation at the Poiret creations on display—his cylindrical gold-metallic “Irudrée” evening dress with its queer puffy roll around the hips, his ankle-length mauve-and-gold “day” dress (what a day that must have been), his famous “sorbet” ensemble with its hoop-skirted tunic—but unlike me and a handful of other quirky dressers around town, these blue-jeaned water-bottle guzzlers were not costumed for the first reel of a Fellini film. Though they might never know it, they were the spiritual descendants of Coco Chanel, the subject of a previous retrospective at the Met and in Poiret’s lifetime his greatest rival.

The exhibit at the Met was titled “Poiret: King of Fashion,” which is also the name of the designer’s 1931 autobiography, and in the decade leading up to the First World War, he really did hold sway in the court of style. As the curators of the show, Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, write in the preface to the Met’s recently published Poiret,

In freeing women from corsets and dissolving the fortified grandeur of the obdurate, hyperbolic silhouette, Poiret effected a concomitant revolution in dressmaking, one that shifted the emphasis away from the skills of tailoring to … the skills of draping.

Which is an elaborate way of saying that Poiret liberated women from the stifling, tight-waisted, hoop-skirted monstrosities of the 19th century, basically discarding the notorious S-shaped silhouette, padded fore and aft, which Poiret himself once wrote made women seem to be “divided in two and … dragging an anchor.” In its place, he offered simple empire-waisted dresses, cocoon coats, and dolman sleeves in bold clashing colors inspired by the costumes of the Ballets Russes, rendered in fabrics sumptuous enough for a seraglio.

Though these new styles caused a sensation when they were introduced early in the 20th century, Poiret’s contributions are frequently overlooked today. His name does not necessarily come to mind when one is ticking off the shape-shifters of the past 100-odd years, a roster that begins with Worth’s hoop skirts, moves to the incendiary Chanel, acknowledges the sur­realist Schiapa­relli, nods to Dior’s New Look, and then explodes into a thousand pieces during the fashion revolution of the 1960s. And yet Poiret’s role, though not always acknowledged, is as significant as those of the other dazzlers.

Poiret was born in Paris in 1879. He was a dreamy youth, and to push him into the real world, his father sent him to work as a delivery boy for a firm of umbrella makers. According to François Baudot’s brisk if slender Poiret (every book ever written about Poiret, it seems, is titled “Poiret”),

At some point, his sisters gave him a small wooden figure … In his room, during the evenings, he fashioned stunning outfits out of scraps of silk he picked up in the umbrella factory.

Poiret soon ditched the doll in favor of live mannequins. He served apprenticeships at two eminent couture houses, Doucet and Worth, where his revolutionary impulses shortly emerged: While at Worth, he made a plain black wool cloak cut like a kimono for the Russian princess Bariatinsky; Koda and Bolton recount that when the princess saw it, she cried out, “What horror; with us, when there are low fellows who run after our sledges and annoy us, we have their heads cut off, and we put them in sacks just like that.”

Clearly, someone designing these kinds of clothes needed to be his own boss. In 1903, with money lent by his mother, Poiret went into business on his own, opening a shop on the Rue Auber from which to promulgate his transgressive ideas, among them designs based on the Directoire dresses of the late 18th century, with raised waists that resided just under the bosom and skirts that fell straight. He also experimented with lamp-shade tunics and hobble skirts. (“Yes, I freed the bust but I shackled the legs,” Poiret said of the latter innovation.) More radical still was his attitude toward underwear: In place of the whalebone corset reviled by everyone from doctors to suffragists, Poiret proffered the soft cache-corset, a precursor of the brassiere; a wide, stiff belt took the place of tight lacings. Instead of those gigantic hats that could sport everything from a couple of egret feathers to an entire dead animal, Poiret recommended a neat and trim Indian turban. Nor was that the end of his fascination with clothing from the four corners of the Earth: Other ensembles echoed Middle Eastern dancing girls, Ukrainian peasants, Bedouins in striped burnooses, and Isadora Duncanesque Greek youths.

In 1911, at the height of his creative powers, Poiret held his notorious “Thousand and Second Night” party. Yvonne Deslandres’ description of this event, in her definitive Poiret, gives some idea of what he considered a good time. “Persian orchestras sheltered in copses; there were parrots in trees studded with a thousand twinkling lights, pink ibis, multicolored cushions …” In the shank of the evening, “the sultan—Poiret himself”—rescued his wife and favorite model, Denise, who had been languishing dramatically in a gilded cage.


designed this ensemble for
his wife to wear to his infamous
"Thousand and Second Night" party,
in Paris, 1911. Copyright note.

The year Poiret threw his party, Coco Chanel was 28. If he was the quintessential Parisian (in his autobiography, he describes himself as “a Parisian from the heart of Paris”), she was the fiercely ambitious arriviste. In so many ways, they were almost comically opposite: He was a big, gregarious bear; she was sharp-elbowed and slender, flat of hips and chest, possessed of the physique that would triumph as the universal ideal in the unfolding century. He adored the bright hues of the Ballets Russes; among her major contributions to fashion was a reliance on black. By the time she arrived in Paris, Chanel had already lived several lifetimes, having grown up as a charity pupil in an orphanage in central France, then pursued a minimally successful career as a gommeuse, a sort of saucy cabaret singer, before falling in with Etienne Balsan, a wealthy if not particularly scintillating horseman. The other women in Balsan’s circle—actresses, demimondaines—greatly admired Coco’s underplayed personal style, which in-cluded masculine tweeds, crisp white blouses, and relatively unadorned hats at a time when most women were virtually entombed in piles of feathers and lace. Despite their interest, when a bored Chanel begged Balsan to launch her in the fashion business, he was less than enthusiastic.

*Reproduction, including downloading of LePape works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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Lynn Yaeger writes about style and fashion for The Village Voice. She lives in New York City.

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