Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo was born in 1871 in Granada, Spain. His father was a genre painter, and his mother was the daughter of another famous painter, Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta. Growing up in an artistic environment in Paris, where his mother moved after his father’s death and later in Venice, it soon became apparent that Mariano had inherited a talent in arts himself.
Not only a designer and painter, Fortuny also was a lighting engineer and set designer. Fortuny is today most famous for the Delphos dress, a finely pleated shift dress made of silk with pearls attached to the hem to weight the fabric down and keep it in shape, which was patented in 1909. He died in 1949 taking the secret of his pleating to his grave with him. To this day, the fine and permanent pleating, which was done by hand by Fortuny has not been recreated.
Fortuny tried to create a new line in fashion that, as many of his contemporaries (like Poiret and Vionnet) would allow women to wear no corset underneath. The straight silhouette promoted in the 1910s was a dramatic change from the S-curved dresses women used to wear previously. Just imagine going from a dress that required a chemise, drawers of white cotton, a tightly laced corset, a bustle and/or a crinoline underneath (and a maid to help you get dressed) to a shift dress pulled over the head and that‘ it. Quite a change not only in appearance but also in habit and time required to get dressed!
In fact, Fortuny’s designs are so timeless, they can still be worn today, vintage, on the Red Carpet, without looking out-dated. They were also very easy to store and travel with: simply wrapped up they would survive every journey and just unfold into their original beauty. Today, Fortuny’s design survives mainly in hand-made and hand-dyed home textiles with artful patterns.
[Gemma Ward in a 1910 Fortuny Delphos dress photographed by Craig McDean for Vogue UK December 2006 ]