The King Is Dead

With his extravagant designs, Paul Poiret ruled the world of fashion—until modern simplicity did him in.
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Chanel’s next lover was the rather more supportive British coal scion Arthur “Boy” Capel. She went with him to Paris and began selling hats, at first from Balsan’s apartment on the Boule­vard Malesherbes (Chanel’s private affairs tended to be complicated). Business was brisk: While Poiret and his ilk were pretending to be pashas and geishas, Chanel was opening a boutique in Deauville where, in addition to her trademark austere hats, she sold such groundbreaking garments as turtleneck sweaters. Axel Madsen, in his Chanel: A Woman of Her Own, sums up Chanel’s impertinence neatly:

In 1913, knits were considered unsuitable and too limp and lifeless for anything but underwear, flannel too working class or masculine, to be stylish for women. She made jersey chic with her simple gray and navy dresses that were quite unlike anything women had worn before. It would all look elementary in retrospect, but at the time nothing guaranteed that a demanding patrician clientele would accept the notion that natural casualness underscored femininity, that a secure woman could afford not to accentuate her charms.

There is an extraordinary photograph of Chanel from this era: She stands outside her Deauville shop in an oversize belted cardigan, her hands jammed in its pockets, and a pristine skirt; on her head is a simple broad-brimmed hat. This outfit, with perhaps a few minor adjustments (the skirt is extremely long), could have been worn on the street in 1970, or 2007, and not raised much of an eyebrow. The same, of course, cannot be said for Poiret’s over-the-top ensembles, though in other ways he was dazzlingly modern. By 1911, he had more or less invented what is now known as lifestyle marketing, setting up a school for working-class girls who had artistic talent—he called them Martines, after his second daughter—to produce furniture, carpets, and glassware. Poiret also introduced a signature perfume, Rosine (named after another daughter), packaged with his usual extravagance; subsequent scents were presented in bottles made of Murano blown glass or topped with tricolored cockades or ivory stoppers. He may have picked up the ball, but Chanel ran with it: In 1921, she came out with Chanel No. 5, which is still considered the most successful fragrance of all time and is sold to this day in an unadorned square flacon.

Poiret’s fancy frocks and matching divans, his perfumes with names like “Minaret” and “Fanfan la Tulipe,” were intended for a woman with the time, resources, and desire to swan around the house in an outfit shaped like a sorbet cup, smelling like Scheherazade. The Chanel girl, on the other hand, could slip into one of those famous little black dresses, authentic or imitation (they were copied almost immediately, a development the farsighted Chanel wrote off as a good thing), toss a fake-gold chain over her head (costume jewelry was another Chanel innovation), and jump on the Métro.

Poiret did not take this lying down. As Baudot writes, he loathed these new women, these “undernourished telegraph boys dressed in black jersey”; Madsen says Poiret’s term for the styles favored by Chanel’s slender, preternaturally youthful flappers was “misérabilisme de luxe.” Deslandres has the last word—she describes a chance meeting, possibly apocryphal, between Poiret and a black-clad Chanel on a Paris street:

“Well, Mademoiselle, who are you in mourning for?” he is said to have asked the young Chanel one day …

“For you, dear Monsieur!”

By 1930, it was all over for Poiret. He had wagered that 20th-century women would want to turn themselves into sumptuous art objects and fantastical divas, but he bet on the wrong horse. He lost his fashion house to creditors, his assets were sold off, and he was reduced to relative penury. (Even so, his old insouciance remained intact: Deslandres writes that when he was given 40,000 francs by well-meaning friends to pay off debts, he immediately set out for the shops of the Rue Royale and the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and was 10,000 in the hole by the time he got home.)

Poiret died in 1944, at least partially from a broken heart. Five months later, Chanel was detained by the Comité d’Epuration and called to account for her appalling wartime record, most of which consisted of living high on the hog at the Ritz with a German officer. According to Madsen,

The way Cecil Beaton heard it, when Coco was asked if it were true that she had consorted with a German, she replied, “Really, sir, a woman of my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has a chance of a lover.”

It was rumored that only the intervention of Winston Churchill, a friend from prewar days, saved her from having her head shaved.

Of course, the visitors milling around at the Met were mostly ignorant of this ignominious biography. What they did know is that they can wear utilitarian fabrics practically anywhere, that at least where clothing is concerned, the line between rich and poor has been almost completely obliterated, and that the contemporary fetish for comfort is now shared by people from all social classes. But cozy as they may have been in their pajama-like ensembles, they do not account for the entire fashion landscape. There are still a few of us who follow Poiret’s lead, who deck ourselves out in satin and spangles for the sheer joy of dressing up, inconvenient as this may be when you have to strap on a seat belt or go through airport security.

After my visit to the museum, I wandered down my favorite shopping streets, where Poiret’s heartbeat, though faint, is still audible. I could hear it in John Galliano’s artfully embroidered kimono coats, in Roberto Cavalli’s heavily embellished, so-bad-it’s-good sports­wear, and in the glittery designs of Christian La­croix. But perhaps no one embodies the spirit of Poiret as completely as the Belgian designer Dries Van Noten, who commands an impressive amount of real estate at Barneys. Van Noten thinks nothing of slathering beads and smocking on toga-length tunics, and more often than not includes a cocoon coat or two in his collections.

At Barneys, still basking in the glow of the Met exhibit, I decided to try on a high-waisted, heavily appliquéd Van Noten dress that bore a slight resemblance to that Poiret-Dufy coat at the museum. When I came out of the fitting room, I thought it looked pretty good. But even I, who cling so tenaciously to my fancy-dress principles, couldn’t help but wonder how much cooler it might be with a pair of jeans pulled on underneath and a T-shirt peeking out from its strappy bodice.

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