lead7Paul Poiret was a fashion designer who wouldn’t play by the book. Nell Darby investigates the fashion genius that gave us harem pants, block colours and the cloche hat.

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.

paul-poiret_asp7232img1Poiret 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.
largerobes3Poiret 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.

untitled3But 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.

One Response

  1. caroline ensby

    hello i have and interesting coat estimated 1910 to 1920 black with overall ecru machine embroidery in a delightful shell come conical flower deisgn. the lining ecru exact match to the embroidery (this is a single of chain stitch appearance) colour crepe georgette. A simple but stunning garment. Calf legnth, round neck with no reveres but the fall to a point as there is no fastening and fabric for the edges to be cross over the chest. there is a long collar, attatched to the back of the neck that hangs like a scarf to at least the waist, only the back of this is attatched to the garment finishing at the side shoulder seam. it widens as it hangs and at its final point, the pointiest piece has a large button hole in each. there is no evidence at all of any closure ever. this is too lon to just fix at the neck, no buttons threads on the shoulder should it wrap around and I suspect that a tie or tassle simular to that with a Kimono may have passed through the button holes to keep it together at the waist. the sleeves are beautiful. At their top good fitting with no gather, the sleeve fills out into an exact curve and fullness below the elbow and on the inner elbow area a series of tucks to reduce the top fullness and to then be slim a the wrist ther is no cuff but would give the appearance of having a cuff because of the curved design ending, due to the tuck detail. Very comfortable garment and no labels. any ideas? I certainly think who ever made this garment was influenced by the Kimono just like Paul Poirets and I would also be interested to know of any book title that would help me to research his work. thank you

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