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Paul Poiret

Self proclaimed “King of Fashion”, he was largely responsible for the social acceptance of women wearing pants and freed women from the tight, constricting corsets of the turn of the 20th century. His designs were intricate, detailed and made brilliant use of the drape of the fabric rather than a tailor’s traditional approach of stitch and dart. Anyone, who was anyone, in the social scene of Europe and America, had a Poiret gown.

Poiret was the enfant terribles of his time, learning his trade from Jacque Doucet and Charles Worth and opening his own house in 1903 as a neighbour of Jeanne Paquin. He credited himself with changing the shape of women and giving us the Empire line, the lampshade tunic and the hobble skirt. Poiret was a flamboyant man, whose parties were legendary. He made it his business to outrage, shock and sometimes alarm the staid elite, introducing ground breaking designs and methods through innovation but occasionally took things a little too far and became the subject of critics and gossip columnists.

He didn’t restrict himself to fashion; he had considerable influence on interior design and opened his own design studio called Atelier Martine named after his second daughter. He had interests in a commercial art gallery called Galerie Barbazanges, produced a perfume named after his eldest daughter Rosine and ran a school for decorative arts, which he cleverly used as a cheap source of designs.

Poiret was the first to name his designs, including each gown. This had a twofold effect: it individualised each gown, lending an art piece air to them and almost gave them a persona but more importantly it had a commercial aspect. Unlike a straight code number used to identify stock, a name could be registered and at times copyrighted, a formality that was used as a tool against piracy of his designs and ideas, it gave him a legal platform to pursue if required. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century having your designs copied was rife.

Poiret’s success cannot be mentioned without the illustrators Paul Iribe; Les Robes de Paul Poiret and Georges Lepape; Les Choses de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape, their style of illustrations and choice of colours not only enhanced Poiret’s gowns but some have said were the making of his gowns. Of course Poiret discusses this in his autobiography but certainly doesn’t confirm it.

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