The man who broke the rules: fashion designer Paul Poiret
By Lena on November 14, 2012
In fin de siècle Paris, one man made it his mission to modernise women’s fashion and make clothes bright, fun and exotic. Paul Poiret, who called himself the ‘King of Fashion’, was born in 1879 in Paris, and apprenticed to an umbrella maker. He used leftover scraps of umbrella material to make dolls’ dresses and managed to sell some of his sketches to a local dressmaker while still in his teens. After a while Poiret started to sell designs to large couture houses in Paris. Initially he worked for for designer Jacques Doucet and later on more famously for the House of Worth, where some clients were shocked by his modern clothes with a Japanese twist.
Poiret set up his own fashion house in 1903, becoming famous for his kimono coat. He created his own furniture and perfume, becoming the precursor of today’s fashion empires by expanding into fashion related areas. He was a man who wanted to constantly challenge himself, moving from softly draped dresses with a Greek feel towards more angular lines as time went on.
He also had an excellent sense for the theatrical and would hold extravagant themed parties to show-off his designs. Arabian, Persian and Oriental influences permeated his designs – he loved glamour and the exotic. Poiret encouraged women to be more daring in the way they dressed. Before Poiret, women were restricted by corsets and tailoring, but he liberated them, creating high-waisted tunics and shorter skirts.
And now you can find stylish ladies tunics everywhere.
However, for every liberated shape he created – such as his draped harem trousers – he created one that would restrict women in a new way. The hobble skirt was perhaps the most extreme version of this, making it necessary for women to take tiny steps in a skirt tight at the ankle. Another more avant-gardecreation was the lampshade tunic. Worn together with a floor-sweeping fishtailed skirt, it must have caused fashionable ladies concern when it came to walking or sitting elegantly.
Poiret was constantly evolving his style. He echoed art movement such as Cubism and expressionism in the 1910s in his designs using straight lines and geometry in his fashion. Breaking all known rules, Poiret made column dresses with material in bright blocks of colour. This was a big change for women used to the subtle pastels that were popular in Edwardian society.
But Poiret was also a visionary when it came to accessories. He saw an outfit as being a head-to-toe look and designed turbans, coolie-style hats, parasols and jewelled slippers to go with his Oriental clothes. The cloche hat – now symbolic of the Twenties – was popularised by Poiret, as were fur-trimmed coats.
He was, perhaps, the equivalent of today’s high street designers, aiming to create popular fashions that would change on a frequent basis. His aim was to focus on creativity rather than creating expensively made clothes that would last a long time.
Poiret’s fashions remained popular until World War One. After the war, his complex designs seemed outdated and people were buying high quality clothes by the new designers such as Coco Chanel. By the time Poiret died in 1944 he was largely forgotten, a great shame, as he was perhaps the first truly modern designer.