Paul Poiret – The “New Look”

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In a previous post, it was noted that Paul Poiret was one of the leading figures in re-defining female fashion in the first decades of the 20th Century. In contrast to the previous styles of the 1880s and 90s (and even early 1900s, for that matter), Poiret pushed for a loose, flowing silhouette and this became especially evident after 1910. Moreover, Poiret’s designs increasingly began to look towards non-Western sources such as those found in North Africa, the Middle East, Southwest Asia, China, and Japan for inspiration, a trend that was to become part of the broader cultural trend of Orientalism. Below is just one example of Poiret’s work that’s influenced by non-Western themes:

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Paul Poiret, Fancy Dress Costume, 1911; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1983.8a, b)

Poiret 1911

Poiret 1911

Poiret 1911

Close-Up View

Poiret 1911

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This outfit was originally created by Poiret for his 1002 Nights party in 1911, a public relations event that was used to promote his oriental-inspired fashions, and as such was based on Middle Eastern designs as filtered through Western perceptions and was an attempt to invoke the fantastical elements found in the Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights). The jeweling and fabrics of this outfit was exquisite but probably the most notable feature is the basic design: the use of harem pants. While pants on females is commonplace today, it was not so in the early 20th Century and in fact was considered radical, if not downright subversive.

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Orientalism was to exert an increasingly powerful influence in Poiret’s designs throughout the Teens and and while much of it was a passing fad, the basic ideas remained behind to be taken further by other designers. This has just been a brief look at some of the basic design ideas that formed the basis for Poiret’s work and in future posts we’ll be exploring these further. Enjoy! 🙂

The King Of Fashion – Paul Poiret

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Paul Poiret was one of the most influential designers of the early 20th Century and one whose influence lives on to this day. Self-styled “the King of Fashion,” Poiret’s designs marked a sharp break with the conventions that had developed during the late 19th Century and while some of his claims were somewhat exaggerated, it’s safe to say that many of his ideas marked the profound re-defining of the female fashion with an emphasis on more loose, flowing styles that did not directly involve rigid body sculpting based on the corset. Of course it could be argued that while outward appearances changed, underneath foundation garments were still extensively used- basically, the body sculpting went underground, so to say. But nevertheless, with Poiret we see an emphasis on free movement and all that implied.

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Poiret is also somewhat enigmatic with the seemingly contradictory nature of some of his innovations. While on the one hand he proclaimed that he had freed women from the rigid confines of the corset, he also introduced the hobble skirt which brought rigidity and confinement in another form. In looking at his life, we see that Poiret developed many of the marketing techniques that have become standard in the fashion industry. At the same time, we also see Poiret’s belief in his own infallibility clouding his judgement to the point where he stopped developing as a designer and ultimately leading to his downfall.

Poiret’s life is a fascinating mix of the fantastical and the commonplace and rife with seeming contradictions and as such, are worthy of further investigation and in the months to come, I’ll be sharing my findings here. Stay tuned for more! 🙂

Let’s Do It Again- Adam’s Atelier Travels To Costume College

After last year’s success, I will once again be presenting at Costume College for 2017. For 2017, I will be giving an expanded version of the presentation I gave last year on US Army uniforms of the First World War Era from 1915 through 1918. Also, I will be giving presentations on Paul Poiret, entitled The King of Fashion: Paul Poiret and His World and a presentation on French couture of the late 19th Century entitled Early French Couture. It promises to be a full plate for 2017 and there’s a lot of work to be done getting prepared. 🙂

So what is Costume College? Well, it’s an event devoted to costuming in it’s many forms, whether historical, fantasy, or somewhere in between. Classes and presentations consist of both lecture and hands-on workshop formats and are all taught by volunteers. From my perspective, it give us an opportunity to present topics of interest to myself and otherwise get a view of current trends and ideas in the costume world.

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Overall, it’s an interesting experience and one that I would highly recommend for anyone interested in the costuming in its various aspects.

Adam Group 1918

Stay tuned for further developments!

1914 – Couturiers Under Arms

On August 2, 1914, France formally began mobilizing its forces in response to Germany’s declaration of war. As part of the mobilization process, reservists were recalled to the Army and soon all of France was in turmoil as men reported to their pre-assigned deports and were issued their uniforms, arms, and equipment. One such reservist was Paul Poiret and on August 4 he reported for duty, having first closed his couture house.

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From “The Robes of Paul Poiret” (1908), illustrated by Paul Iribe.

When war broke out, Poiret was 35 years old and still had an outstanding reserve obligation so he very quickly found himself in uniform. By his own admission, he was a somewhat indifferent soldier when he had initially entered the Army in 1900 to fulfill his military service obligation, characterizing it as a complete waste of time (in 1900, all French males had a military service obligation of two years active service although under certain circumstances, some soldiers only had to serve for one year). But that was in peacetime; things were different now that a war was on and France was being invaded.

After a series of misadventures due to bureaucratic foul-ups, Poiret was assigned the task of working on the production of uniforms and one of his most notable achievements was creating a new design for a greatcoat that saved four hours of labor and nearly a yard of fabric. Moreover, Poiret was instrumental in setting up a production facility for producing greatcoats that employed many of his former employees who had been put out of work with the closure of Poiret’s fashion house.

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The P1914 Greatcoat, First Pattern (aka “The Poiret”). Poiret was instrumental in designing this coat and facilitating its production.

Ironically, when Poiret initially arrived at his regiment, his occupation was noted in military records as being that of a tailor- no doubt pigeonholed as a result of his work as a couturier- and set to work as a regimental tailor, responsible to ensuring that soldiers’ uniforms fit correctly to regulation. Ironically, he had no skill in this area and when he attempted to inform the military authorities, he was dismissed as a malcontent and trouble-maker (during this time, many fashion designers have little or no sewing ability and even today, this is common in the fashion industry).  Eventually, the situation was resolved but it added to Poiret’s dislike of the military.

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Paul Poiret in uniform, Vogue, October 15, 1914

Poiret eventually re-opened his fashion house in 1919 but the damage had been done, both in terms of the direct effects of lost business and more indirectly in that he had become increasingly out of touch with fashion developments (four years is a long time in the fashion industry). Worse, Poiret had been unable to exercise much influence over developments in fashion and it simply moved on without him (most notably, new designers such as Coco Chanel were able to take advantage of wartime conditions to establish herself as a new force in the French fashion industry). Although Poiret was still able to create a number of striking designs during the 1920s, he was never able to achieve the over-arching prominence he had enjoyed prior to the war.

The Philosophy Of Paul Poiret – Principles Of Correct Dress

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Paul Poiret was one of the most influential designers during the early 20th Century and he played a major role in shaping haute couture and the fashion industry as we know it today. Most notably, Poiret helped ensure the demise of the corset, and especially it’s most recent incarnation in the form of the s-bend corset, and introduced new designs that moved fashion away from highly structured silhouettes to more loose ones based on draping rather than tailoring. Also, Poiret was noted for the development of the hobble skirt and the “lampshade dress” as well as incorporating oriental elements in his designs.

Here we see just one example of the “lampshade” dress style from 1912:

However, lost in all of Poiret’s achievements is consideration of his ideas, or “philosophy” were about dress itself. One charge that is often laid on haute couture and their designers is that wealth automatically equates to good or “correct” dress. To Poiret:

This art has little in common with money. The woman whose resources are limited has no more cause for being dowdily dressed than the woman who is rich has reason to believe that she is beautifully gowned. Except in so far as money can procure the services of a good dressmaker, of an artist who can judge his customer’s style and garb her accordingly, the wealthy woman stands no better chance of being correctly dressed than the woman who must turn every penny before spending it. [1]

While the above is almost a truism when it comes to fashion, at least today, it’s still revealing coming from the man who had crowned himself the “King of Fashion.” Poiret further expands on this theme, stating that dressing is:

…not an easy art to acquire. It demands a certain amount of intelligence, certain gifts, some of them among the rarest, perhaps—it requires a real appreciation of harmony, of colors, ingenious ideas, absolute tact, and, above all, a love of the beautiful and clear perception of values. It may be resumed in two words, good taste. [2]

So, what is “good taste” to Poiret?

Taste is by no means developed by riches; on the contrary, the increasing demands of luxury are killing the art of dressing. Luxury and good taste are in inverse proportion to each other. The one will kill the other as machinery is crowding out handwork. In fact, it has come so far that many persons confuse the two terms. Because a material is expensive they find it beautiful; because it is cheap they think it must be ugly. [3]

The above is as true today as it was back then and we see it in the fashion nearly every day. Naturally, “good taste” can be somewhat subjective, depending on time and place but it still gets to the idea that one cannot simply buy their way into good taste, or by extension, good fashion.

Here we see a sample of the fashion illustrations that Poiret commissioned by various avant garde artists such as Paul Iribe. Here we see a definite revival of the simple vertical lines of the empire dress style:

Poiret also notes that:

In order not to appear entirely at odds with her surroundings and the place where she lives, a woman is obliged to follow fashions to a certain extent. But let that be within certain bounds. What does it matter if tight skirts be the fashion if your figure demands a wide one? Is it not important to dress so as to bring out your good points rather than to reveal the bad? Can any idea of being fashionable make up for the fact of being ridiculous? [4]

And there it it- Poiret gets to the heart of the matter by pointing out that fashion is about emphasizing one’s good points rather than the bad, something that holds true today as it did then. The above has been only a small sample of the depth of Poiret’s fashion “philosophy” but it’s interesting to see that his ideas still hold true today in many ways and as such, they represent a distinct break with the 19th Century.

1. Principles of Correct Dress, Florence Hull Winterburn, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1914, p. 237.
2. Ibid., pp. 237-238
3. Ibid., p. 239
4. Ibid., pp. 240-241