The Philosophy Of Paul Poiret – Principles Of Correct Dress

Poiret_Studio

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:

Poiret, Evening Dress, 1912; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.385&A-1976)

Poiret, Evening Dress, 1912; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.385&A-1976)

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:

Paul Iribe, Les Robes de Paul Poiret, Plate I (1908)

Paul Iribe, Les Robes de Paul Poiret, Plate III (1908)

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



Happening Today! It’s 1918!

Looking for an historical event to start off the New Year? Well, if you’re going to be in Southern California, we have just the thing- A tea dance to commemorate the end of the First World War! The dance will be held on February 1, 2020 from 1:30 to 5:30 at the War Memorial Building in South Pasadena. The War Memorial Building was built in 1923 and dedicated by Marshal Foch of France and it’s the perfect venue for this sort of event. There will be live music with a caller to help everyone through the dances. This definitely promises to be a lot of fun and it’s an era that we haven’t done much with so far…but that will change. 🙂  For more details, please click HERE.

Here’s a few pictures of the wonderful venue:

Black As A Fashion Color Revisited…

Our recent post on the subject of black as a dress color prompted me to do a little more digging into the role of black in styles of the 1880s and 90s so here we go… 🙂


In the course of researching the use of black dresses for other than mourning wear, we were struck that there aren’t many extant black dresses/gowns in pure black. On the other hand, one sees black frequently used in combination with another color or colors with black being predominant. The utility of black as a dress color is commented on in the June 1892 issue of Demorest’s Family Magazine which notes in its commentary on current fashions that:

Old-fashioned gauzy-looking stuffs are used for dresses as well as for the elaborate garnitures which are now so popular. There are all-wool and silk-and-wool crépons in black, which are very much liked by conservative ladies; and as all-black dresses are not only tolerated, but highly commended for evening wear, attention has been drawn to the preparation of many elegant and
appropriate fabrics for this purpose.

Black’s utility is also noted in the November 1891 issue of Demorest’s when commenting the use of black foundation skirts or petticoats:

…though not an individual part of each costume, the foundation skirt is by no means abandoned: made. of silk, most perfectly fitted, trimmed at the foot with narrow ruffles or one or two plaitings, and just escaping the ground, it replaces the conventional petticoat, and when one wears black dresses habitually, one petticoat, or foundation skirt will serve for several dresses. When colors are worn, it is usual to have this undershirt matching in color the material of the dress, and on the street only the dress skirt is raised.

And just to give an idea of what one of these foundation or under skirts might have looked like, here’s one example:

Underskirt, c. 1893 (Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.42.54.2)

Demorest’s also notes in its March 1892 fashion commentary that:

A NOTE of black runs through many of the fashions for spring. Black garnitures are used on almost all colors, in silks black forms a. background for brilliant or delicate blossoms or vines, all-black dresses trimmed with jet are considered very stylish, and when a touch of color is necessary for becomingness, the vest is the favorite point for introducing it. Vests in plain red, blue. yellow, or the favorite sage-green, when used in all-black dresses are either veiled with lace having a more or less decided pattern, or seeded with finely cut jet beads or the more conspicuous clone, or nail-heads.

Now, lest you think that the commentary in Demorest’s was only there to sell patterns, here’s a passage from the fashion commentary in the March 1892 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:

Black dresses are much too useful, especially when the wardrobe is a limited one, to be discarded. A black dress with change of vests, or ribbons or other trimmings, can be transformed into a great variety of costumes and is always lady-like. Black net is rather newer than black piece-lace, for dresses.

And, as for underskirts (aka foundation skirts), in the same issue, Peterson’s notes that:

Underskirts At Present: probably because the upper skirt must be held up, are richer than ever. They are even richer than the dress itself. Thus, under a woolen dress of the most modest description, you may see a rich silk skirt of the same. color as the over-dress, and trimmed with a deep lace flounce, beaded with rows of velvet. Then again, under a black dress you may see a shot silk skirt, trimmed with a black lace flounce or pinked-out frills of the same silk. There is a new silk made especially for these under-skirts and is called the frou-frou silk- the “rustling ”
silk. one might say in English.

To show just how black was worked with, let’s start with this evening gown made in 1895 from Maison Worth:

Worth, Evening Gown, c. 1897 – 1899; Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy (00000113)

Three-Quarter Rear View

What’s interesting about this evening gown is that the black silk fashion fabric is given further pops of “color” in the form of beading that reflects any ambient light. It’s a very clever effect and definitely draws the eye. At the same time, the wearer’s face would have been lightened up by the ecru/ivory lace running along the neckline. To take this idea further, here’s a day dress from c. 1897-1899 where we see a similar color scheme:

Day Dress, c. 1897-1899; Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti

And for one one example of manipulating black in dress styles, here’s this day dress from Maison Felix:

Maison Felix, Day Dress, c. 1893-1895; FIDM Museum (2008.5.51AB)

With this day dress, we see a lighter color used as an underskirt combined with shirring around the neckline of the bodice, both in an ivory color. The distribution of color is more vertical and the contrast is toned down by the use of a black lace overskirt in the front.

And there were instances where black was more of a background color as with this circa 1896 evening gown design from Worth:

Worth, Evening Dress, Worth, 1896; Palais Galliera, musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris (GAL1978.20.1)

Here we see the gold appliques take center stage while the white neckline trim plays the role of lightening up the wearer’s face.

This has only been a small sampling of what’s out there but we think it goes a long way towards establishing that black was very much part of the period fashion aesthetic and could be utilized in a number of different ways to achieve various style effect. In the future, we’ll be examining this topic in more depth so stay tuned! 🙂