May 15, 2007

Paul Poiret :: King of Fashion

Georges Lepape (1887-1971) French
Pochoir Plate from "Les Choses de Paul Poiret", 1911

Ask most people who Paul Poiret was and they'll confidently tell you he's the little Belgian detective made famous by Agatha Christie. Although both were very dapper and cultured and lived in the beginning of the 20th Century, that's where any similarity between them ends. But now, thanks to a new exhibition at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there will be no more excuses for confusing the two!

Paul Poiret was a force of nature. Technically, he was a dress designer, but in reality he was hugely influential not only in the world of fashion, but also the stage and interior design and the emergence of Modernism. But his greatest contribution, the thing that sets him apart from all other designers, is that he was responsible for freeing women from the constrictions of the corset in the very early 1900's.

Paul Poiret (1879-1944) had a meteoric career. He began as an assistant to an umbrella maker, then apprenticed with the House of Doucet in Paris in 1898. After a short stint at the couturier Worth he opened his own shop and it was an instant success. Inspired by his wife Denise, whom he married in 1905, Poiret offered a look that was totally revolutionary. For a public used to exquisite tailoring and detail, the idea of a draped garment based on geometric line and flat construction was unheard of. But they liked it, and his atelier thrived. The cachet of a Paul Poiret dress became irresistible, and in 1911 he opened two more boutiques, "Atelier Martine" for home furnishings and "Les Parfums de Rosine" (named after his two daughters) - a life-style brand ahead of his time.

Poiret lived a life of glamor and excess, yet he died in poverty. In the glory days, he and his wife/muse Denise traveled extensively and entertained lavishly. His "Thousand and Second Night" ball remains one of the most famous parties of the 20th Century. Yet his inability to adapt to the changes in fashion, much of which he himself had perpetrated, left him unable to compete with the new look created by Coco Chanel and others. Poiret's vision of the emancipated woman in simple but feminine clothing did not extend to the sporty, androgynous "garçonne" look that became the rage in the 1920's. He left his wife, and the "Pasha of Paris" was forced to close his shop in 1929.

Thanks to the discovery of a cache of clothing and accessories in Denise Poiret's estate, and their subsequent auction at PIASA in Paris in 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was able to acquire a substantial collection of these magnificent works that provided the inspiration and foundation for this current exhibition. It is truly a must-see for anyone interested in 20th Century art and design. Far more than simply a collection of dresses on mannequins, the visitor is guided through a series of "mises-en-scene", mini stage sets with beautiful painted backdrops setting the scene for the garments and the furniture on display and transporting the viewer to another, more elegant, time. The "King of Fashion" lives! Long live the "King"!

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