Designer Guide: Paul Poiret

Paul Poiret invented the fashion designer as we know them. The cult of celebrity around the couturiers was more or less his invention. One might call him the father of fashion marketing (even though he learned a lot about that from Worth, too.)

The time is the beginning of the twentieth century, the setting is Paris. Mass-production is threatening to surpass the haute couture. Why would people keep buying expensive clothes, when they could have the knock-offs for a considerably lower price? Poirets answer would have been: „Because I am an artist, not a dressmaker.“ And the high society wanted his art.

Poiret had previously worked with Charles Frederick Worth and Jacques Doucet. He learned that most importantly, times were changing and the olden ways of making fashion wouldn’t get him anywhere anymore. He opened his house in 1903 and quickly became one of the most influential pre-WW I fashion designers.

Inspired by the moderninst movements going on around him in all arts: Art Nouveau,Cubism, Post-impressionism, Futurism and Dadaism in the arts; Art Deco in architecture and furniture; the revolutionary new direction in music and dance brought about by the Ballet Russes‚ team of genius insurgents: composer Igor Stravinsky, choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and dancers Isadora Duncan and Vaslav Nijinski.

Imagine, how new this time was, how truly modern it must have felt! Suddenly, art, music, houses -nothing is what it used to be like anymore! And then comes Poiret and offers his oriental inspired Harem Pants to women. What a brave new world!

The puffs and bustles and ruffles from the 19th Century – gone. Women want to look like columns, straight lines, but colorful and artsy! Poiret hires many of his contemporary illustrators, like Raoul Dufy, Paul Iribe and Georges LaPape, to design these magnificent, new, and very powerful patterns. He holds the first after-show party or you might call it a PR event, called „Thousand and Second Night“ at his Paris home, a masked ball to which all guests were to dress orientally or get dressed by him.

His bold use of color was a very new thing in fashion. He himself throws in some fabulous metaphors describing them:

„The taste for the refinements of the eighteenth century had led all women into a sort of deliquescence. Nuances of nymph’s thigh, swooning mauves, tender blue hortensias, all that was soft, washed-out, and insipid, was held in honour. I threw into this sheepcote a few rough wolves; reds, greens, violets, royal blues, that made all the rest sing aloud.“ (Met Museum)

Paul Poiret truly takes fashion into modernity. What he doesn’t do, even though he claims it (like Vionnet, Chanel and some others, too), is freeing the women from the corset. His so-called „hobble skirt“ (as illlustrated above) even makes it more difficult to walk, thus the name, but women will always go to great lenghts (and even hobble) for fashion, no news there.

Mongolian/ Russian coat; Russian inspired coat with a dessin by Raoul Dufy, and the famous Harem Pants

So, Paul Poiret is the first of the designers explored here, with others soon to follow. I hope you enjoyed this.

The Metroplitan Museum. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art. History. “Paul Poiret.” Online.

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