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.

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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.