"Paul Poiret: King of Fashion," May 9-Aug. 5, 2007, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028
The Belle Epoque fashion designer Paul Poiret (1879-1944), who famously abolished the corset in favor of the bra and devised both the sheath and sack dresses, was a flamboyant figure who took the rose as his insignia, launched his own perfume, and threw lavish parties and theatricals. The new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Paul Poiret: King of Fashion," showcases a cache of superb outfits he made for Denise Poiret, his sylph-like wife and muse.
Madame Poiret, who long outlived her husband and their bitter 1928 divorce, maintained a unique family archive that included photographs, letters, documents and the spectacular garments he made for her in the years before the Depression. In 2005 her clothes were consigned to a much-ballyhooed auction at Piasa Paris, where the Met acquired the more than 20 Poiret masterworks that form the nucleus of this show.
The fiefdoms of fashion and art grow more symbiotic every day and the Met has become a master of that rapprochement. Once déclassé, shows of designer clothes now frequently migrate from the Costume Institute’s basement space to the museum’s more prestigious upstairs galleries, where their installation is as fussed over as any fashion model.
This year, the Poiret exhibition, located on the first floor by the Great Hall, served as the peg upon which to hang the annual New York socialite "Party of the Year." A hot marketing event, the exhibition is sponsored by Balenciaga and Condé Nast.
A few words about that evening of excess are in order. In addition to the red carpet leading up the steps of the museum, and the mobile allée of young trees placed in the formerly dignified court leading to the new Greek and Roman Galleries, the party planners converted the museum’s stately information desk into a towering icon of frivolous luxury.
Located right in the middle of the Met’s imposing entrance hall, the circular marble desk was covered with thousands of crimson roses and turned into a base for a giant gilded birdcage. Now, Denise Poirot and a couple of friends had briefly occupied a similar enclosure during Poiret’s legendary "One Thousand and Second Night" costume ball in 1911. For that occasion Denise probably wore the heavily beaded green gauze lampshade-shaped tunic and pleated green silk gauze pantaloons that are in the exhibition.
This time around, however, the Met filled the cage with three peacocks and a white peahen to entertain the important guests stilettoing their way into the party at the museum. According to a report in the New York Post, workers inserted a guinea pig into the cage to frighten the birds into displaying the plumage for the passing fashionistas. PETA has accused the museum of cruelty to animals.
One might note as well the gross insensitivity of the display in a time of war. Anna Wintour, are you paying attention at all? Poiret threw some amazing parties in his day, but during World War I he was a private in the French Army, redesigning military uniforms.
Sadly, too, most of the preening celebs at the gala had only the dimmest of clues to the identity of the radical French designer, as was comically demonstrated in a story in the New York Times. As party guest Harry Connick Jr. told reporter Eric Wilson, "Really, I’ve never heard of that person before."
OK, Harry. Here’s the back-story. Known as "Poiret the Magnificent" and "The Pasha of Paris" for his exuberant personality and his fascination with the exotic East, Paul Poiret played a seminal role in the launch of 20th-century modernism. In fashion, he helped revolutionize 19th-century dress codes, freeing women first from the petticoat in 1903 and then in 1906 from the constrictions of the corset.
His lavish embroideries, vibrant color combinations and drastically simplified designs that traded tailoring for draping forever changed the way women dress. He brought harem pants, dropped waists, the lampshade skirt, the chemise, culottes and the turban to Paris couture and thus to the world.
What’s more, Poirot was a catalyst for sweeping stylistic change, not only in fashion but also in how fashion was portrayed. He synthesized art, design, interior decoration and publicity to create what we now identify as a "recognizable brand."
In 1898, when he was 17, Poirot was hired by the elegant couturier Jacques Doucet. With his first paycheck, Poiret is said to have bought a set of opal cuff links, presaging the future extravagance that would be his downfall. The young designer then worked for the House of Worth, dressmakers to Belle Époque aristocratic society.
By 1903 Poirot had established his own independent maison de couture. He was a brilliant self-promoter. From the startling window displays he created for his first shop to his junkets abroad and the legendary parties -- based on the themes of his collections -- that he threw in his wonderful houses and gardens, Poiret showed an unerring instinct for image and publicity that established a modern marketing model.
When it made its 1909 debut in Paris, the Ballets Russes, with its fiercely innovative choreography and neo-primitive décor, ignited creative fireworks in every artistic sector. Léon Bakst’s exotic costumes for Diaghilev’s 1910 production of Shéhérazade fueled Poiret’s passion for brilliant color, ethnic detail and oriental themes. The kimono, the Chinese coat and the neo-classical tunic also shaped his clothing designs.
Hoffmann’s Wiener Werkstätte inspired him to branch out into the decorative arts and in 1911 he formed two companies in his daughters' names. The Rosine & Martine enterprises enabled him to expand into interior design, furniture design and accessories and to produce the first designer perfumes. These he developed to extend to his clients the concept of synesthesia that had enthralled the Symbolists. His decorative arts products were undoubtedly a primary influence on the development of what officially became Art Deco.
Understanding the growing influence of fashion magazines and the press, Poiret collaborated with editor Lucien Vogel to start the influential Gazette de bon ton, which ran from 1911 until 1925. But post-World War I changes in taste and bad business decisions plus the onslaught of the Depression and his own extravagance eventually ruined the designer, who closed his business in 1929 and retired to the country to paint. When "Le Magnifique" died in 1944 in occupied Paris, he was destitute.
Poiret, who loved painters, always declared, "I am an artist, not a dressmaker." He was also a dedicated patron of the arts who counted Derain, Picabia and Vlaminck as friends and collected work by Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse and Modigliani. He commissioned Georges Lepape and Paul Iribe to make the exquisite hand-colored pochoirs illustrating the limited-edition albums of his designs he published and sent to favored clients.
Poiret also established a professional collaboration with Raoul Dufy, who created some of the most original fabrics for his collections. Never one to think small, Poiret installed Dufy in a printing workshop around 1911. There the painter developed the faux-naif block-printed fabrics that gained the attention of Lyonnaise textile manufacturers Bianchini-Ferrier, an association that would make the artist financially independent.
Poiret’s client list included the most interesting European and American women of his day. He dressed the great actresses, courtesans and dancers of the era, including Sarah Bernhardt, the skeletal and eccentric Shéhérazade star Ida Rubinstein, courtesan Liane de Pougy, the enigmatic clotheshorse Marchesa Casati and Isadora Duncan, whose Paris house he also decorated to resemble Circe’s kingdom.
High Bohemia adored Poiret’s dramatic designs, which immediately identified their wearers as members of the avant-garde. Nancy Cunard, Peggy Guggenheim and museum founder, heiress and artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney appeared in his jeweled turbans and colorful unstructured and drop-waisted outfits.
Fashion magazines spread the word. Man Ray and Steichen photographed models and society women in Poiret’s dresses. Before World War I the pioneering fashion photographer Baron Adolph de Meyer posed his wife, baroness Olga de Meyer, in a version of the graphic flower-patterned La Perse Opera coat.
The Met exhibition of some 50 Poiret garments as well as his accessories and interior designs includes Denise’s own fur-trimmed ivory and blue-black cotton velvet version of the La Perse coat made from one of Dufy’s boldest fabric designs. Here also is her celebrated La Rose d'Iribe dress of purple silk embellished with the embroidered stylized rose motif Poiret adopted as his icon.
On display as well are two deceptively simple and modern diaphanous white handkerchief linen dresses with coral bias tape trim (1911 and 1912). One of Denise's silk and chiffon evening gowns from 1907 has startling pink-and-purple vertical stripes and exquisite gold lace trim. Its empire waistline echoes the Directoire style made famous by Empress Josephine, though its thigh-high side slit is thoroughly modern.
Each garment is beautiful or at the least interesting, but too many of the clothes now do look dated and over-theatrical. Since so many of them were meant to flow and move, they also are sadly static on the mannequins. Their true flavor is best captured in photographs and by Lepape’s and Iribe’s sinuous period pochoirs.
Lack of movement is not a problem in the two riveting, ethereal animated videos the Met commissioned from the Brit tech company Softlab. They illustrate the virtually seamless construction of two of Poiret’s radically draped garments (a shawl and a dress) and then dissolve to reveal the actual garment on a mannequin.
This state-of-the-art high-tech display provides a surreal contrast to Jean-Hugues de Chatillon’s period-style painted backdrops and furnished sets that house the mannequins. These installations cleverly match the themes of the clothes in each vitrine. For the famous "Thousand and Second Night" ball costume, for example, the French stage designer made a painted rose garden hung with Chinese lanterns.
"Paul Poiret: King of Fashion" succeeds in providing a sophisticated and welcome reassessment of Poiret’s contribution to 20th-century fashion, art and design. It also has reestablished Denise Poiret’s position as an important influence on her husband’s career. This unconventional girl from the French provinces became Poiret’ s primary model and the artistic director of his company.
The lasting impact of Denise’s proto-bohemian style and free spirit was largely forgotten after the couple broke apart, the business failed and pared-down practicality rather than creative expression began to dictate style. The show’s final black chiffon dinner dress, designed by Coco Chanel, testifies to the utilitarian designs that in the 1920s supplanted Poiret’s colorful beaded and embroidered fantasies.
According to one probably apocryphal tale, when Poiret saw Chanel in one of her little black creations, he asked, "For whom are you in mourning, mademoiselle?" She replied, "For you, Monsieur."
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is an art critic and the former editor-in-chief of Art & Antiques.