Paul Poiret at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Irudrée” Gown, ca. 1923
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944)
Silk, metal; L. at center back 52 in. (132.1 cm)
Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2007 (2007.146)

Paul Poiret’s technical and commercial innovations were fundamental to the emergence and development of modernism. Yet despite ushering in the new movement, Poiret rejected its postwar embrace of the aesthetic of the engineer governed by functional rationality. In the face of modernism’s repudiation of explicit narratives, decorative strategies, and historical references, Poiret continued to endorse the ideal of artistic originality and the aesthetic of artisanal workmanship.

Poiret’s vision of beauty was also at odds with la garçonne, the feminine archetype of modernism. While Denise Poiret’s slender, small-boned figure was the prototype for that boyish silhouette, Poiret dismissed its emphasis on androgyny, describing its followers as “Cardboard women, with hollow silhouettes, angular shoulders and flat breasts. Cages lacking birds. Hives lacking bees.” Poiret’s ideal of beauty still clung to his wife’s body type—that is, slight but not bony, irrefutably feminine and never androgynous. Poiret’s rejection of modernism on the grounds of ideology and aesthetics resulted nevertheless in designs of remarkable structural modernity. The “Irudrée” gown of 1923, for instance, is particularly noteworthy for its reductive simplicity.

The skirt is made from two pieces of fabric sewn selvedge (either of the loom-finished woven edges of a length of fabric) to selvedge and gathered at the waist of the bodice. In turn, the bodice is made from one length of material with no side seams, and Poiret used the selvedge of the material to define the neckline. Indeed, with its emphasis on process and truth to materials, “Irudrée,” despite the historicizing low-slung tubular rouleau that is a nod to the hip roll, or farthingale, of the Renaissance, stands as an icon of modernist design.

Coat, 1911
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944)
Textile design by Raoul Dufy (French, 1877–1953)
Ivory and navy block printed velvet with brown fur trim and gold metallic mesh–covered silk closures; L. at CB 56 1/2 in. (143.5 cm)
Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2005 (2005.199)

In his memoir The King of Fashion (1931), Poiret wrote, “Am I a fool when I dream of putting art into my dresses, a fool when I say dressmaking is an art? For I have always loved painters, and felt on an equal footing with them. It seems to me that we practice the same craft, and that they are my fellow workers.” Dismissing the sibling rivalries that have always dogged the fine and applied arts, Poiret believed that art and fashion were not simply involved but indivisible. This belief was central to Poiret’s vision of modernity, which, to a large extent, was achieved through his deployment of art discourse.

As well as presenting himself as an artist and patron of the arts, Poiret promoted his fashions as unique and original works of art in and of themselves. He did this by marshaling the visual and performing arts, and by working with artists associated with avant-garde modernism. Among Poiret’s various collaborations, the most enduring was with Raoul Dufy, whose career as a textile designer he helped launch. Dufy’s flat, graphic patterns were ideally suited to Poiret’s planar, abstract designs, a fact that is palpable in such signature creations as “La Perse” coat, “La Rose d’Iribe” dress, and the “Bois de Boulogne” dinner dress, which is made from a fabric that Dufy designed in conjunction with the silk manufacturer Bianchini-Férier.

Dufy’s boldly graphic designs reflected Poiret’s preference for the artisanal. The postwar embrace of an industrial and mechanical modernity was antithetical to Poiret. However, in the years before the war, the art of the workman, such as Dufy, or the self-schooled, such as Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau, whom Poiret so admired that he created a dress, “Homage à Rousseau,” in his honor, was seen as modern in the repudiation of Belle Époque decadence and sophistication.

Coat, 1919
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944)
Silk, wool, metallic thread; L. at center back 90 in. (228.6 cm)
Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Gifts, 2005 (2005.207)

Poiret once ruefully admitted that he could not sew and was thus unable to fully control all aspects of his art. However, it was this very absence of training in tailoring and dressmaking that facilitated the couturier’s audacious technical advances.

The “Paris” coat exemplifies Poiret’s conception of dress as a three-dimensional form that maintains the integrity of its two-dimensional fabric. It is constructed of one fifteen-foot length of silk velvet that has been twisted into shape without resorting to cutting. The apertures for the arms are unstitched interruptions along the single seamline that forms the garment. Devoid of decoration, except for the placket at the hipline that anchors the loop-and-button closure, it is a masterwork of modernist simplicity and structural ingenuity.

Poiret designed the coat for his wife, Denise, who was photographed wearing it like a great wrap with a short evening dress called the “Faune.” While the dress does not appear to have survived—it was an astonishing combination of gold lamé and black monkey fur interspersed with gilt military fringe—Denise Poiret’s coordination suggests that the “Paris” was among the more exotic evening coats in her wardrobe.

Coat, ca. 1912
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944)
Natural and blue striped woven linen, blue silk, and faux abalone buttons; L. at CB 53 in. (134.6 cm)
Isabel Shults Fund, 2005 (2005.200)

From just before World War I to the closure of his maison de couture in 1929, Poiret’s strongest narrative thread was his fantasy of the seraglio and his orientalizing evocations of the Near, Middle, and Far East, which earned him the sobriquet “Pasha of Paris.” For Poiret and other modernists, the imagery of Eastern cultures offered a freedom from the traditions and conventions of the West.

Poiret’s orientalism first manifested itself in his use of color. In his memoir, Poiret records that his vivid color palette was among his greatest innovations: “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.” Bold colors were, in fact, popular from the mid-nineteenth century onward with the introduction of aniline dyes, but Poiret’s originality was expressed in his exotically charged color combinations, a novelty that preceded the Ballets Russes’ performance ofSchéhérazade.

However, Poiret’s most enduring and fundamental orientalism resides less in his vivid colors, or even in his opulent fabrics and lavish embroideries, than in the construction of his garments. It was the reductive planarity of such dress types as the caftan and the kimono, cut along straight lines and constructed of rectangles, that inspired and influenced Poiret’s radical changes of silhouette. In his typically sybaritic manner, however, Poiret tended to conflate Western and non-Western apparel traditions. While utilizing the geometric simplicity of regional costumes, Poiret would introduce the shaping of Western dressmaking approaches to create garments that could only exist in the fictive, mythical East of Poiret’s imagination.

Coat, ca. 1919
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944)
Black silk and wool blend with white leather appliqués and white fur trim
Gift of Mrs. David J. Colton, 1961 (C.I.61.40.4)

In the 1910s, Poiret introduced an avant-garde sensibility into couture. His penchant for opulent gestures, lush fabrics, fur, and feathers was part of his grandiose Gesamtkunstwerk, inspired by stage and Orientalist extravaganza. He was also capable of more subdued garments. In the case of this day coat, the leather of the appliqués is cut into delicate filigree and couched by hand onto the wool to create a graphic lattice of white over black. The cylindrical silhouette and standing collar suggest inspiration from Chinese or Near Eastern robes and coats.

Dinner dress, 1922–23
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944)
Navy–blue and red silk faille, gold metallic bullion buttons
Gift of Mrs. Muriel Draper, 1943 (C.I.43.85.2a,b)

During the first decade of the twentieth century, Paul Poiret initiated a fashion sea change when he declared the wasp-waisted silhouette outmoded, and the columnar form of high-waisted Directoire-Revival gowns the vogue. This jettisoning of the corset alone established Poiret as among the most important and influential designers to this day. In this two-piece dinner gown, Poiret’s interest in the “liberating” style and cut of non-Western regional dress results in a peplos-like ensemble. Two separate but identical squares of cloth, one worn like a short poncho and the other wrapped into a cylindrical skirt, create a peplos effect with its apoptygma-style top. Although the ensemble is not constructed like any classical Greek precedent, the use of cloth, completely orthogonal as if off the loom, suggests an affinity to the simply configured garments of the ancient world, which were also formed out of rectilinear pieces of cloth scaled to their intended use directly on the loom. This interest in the nontailored traditions of much regional dress was not restricted to Poiret, nor was his conflation of classical styles with ethnographic forms. Madame Grès is perhaps the best example of the phenomenon, but Cristobal Balenciaga, Valentino, Issey Miyake, and Romeo Gigli, among others, have all made Greco-Roman allusions through minimalist constructions based on clothing traditions outside the Western fashion system.

Ensemble, 1913
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944)
Ivory silk damask, ivory silk net, and ivory China silk with rhinestone trim; ivory silk net with green and black silk gauze, applied tape and rhinestone trim; green and black silk gauze headdress with strands of rhinestones; ivory silk damask shoes; L. at CB (a) 52 in. (132.1 cm)
Paul D. Schurgot Foundation Fund, 2005 (2005.193a–g)

Poiret’s radical approach to dressmaking was inseparable from his ideas of the body, which found their ultimate expression in his advocacy of an uncorseted figure. While Poiret was not the only designer to promote an integrated and intelligible corporeality, he was among the first to link it to the naturalism of Greco-Roman dress.

The first display of a classical sensibility appeared in Poiret’s fashions of 1906, the year that he abandoned the corset. However, as seen in his “1811” dress, which reflects the proportions and cylindrical silhouette of the Directoire, it was classicism through the lens of the late eighteenth century. The same allusive rather than academic classicism is manifested in Poiret’s “Théâtre des Champs-Élysées” evening dress, which was worn by Denise Poiret to the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, marking the opening of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on April 1, 1913.

Denise Poiret’s slender figure was the perfect canvas for Poiret’s classicizing tendencies. Unlike the odalisques of the Belle Époque, her svelte, gamine beauty adhered to the more active body type that was emerging in the early twentieth century. Among the dresses of more explicit classical allusion that Poiret made for his wife was a series of provocative baby-doll-length nightdresses. With their one-shouldered necklines, they cite the bareness of the Amazon, who would allow one shoulder of her tunic to fall open, exposing her breast. These “classical” negligées also recall the costume Denise wore to Poiret’s classically inspired party “Les Festes de Bacchus,” held on June 20, 1912. Made from a fabric by Mariano Fortuny, a designer whom Poiret promoted in his maison de couture, Denise Poiret, in the role of Juno, queen of the gods, represented both the ideal of classical beauty and the paradigm of the modern woman.

Evening dress, 1910
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944)
Green and ivory striped silk, black silk chiffon, white linen

Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Ogden Goelet, Peter Goelet and Madison Clews in memory of Mrs. Henry Clews, 1961 (2009.300.1289)

A rare example of Paul Poiret’s early revolutionary designs loosely based on the upright, columnar, high-waisted styles worn in ancient Greece, this gown is an innovative melding of the avant-garde and the traditional. The tubular shape and graphic horizontal stripes are harbingers of the modern era, while the below-the-knee gathering of the overskirt suggests the “hobble skirt” that Poiret introduced in 1910 and was briefly the height of fashion. Decorative touches taken from traditional sources mollify the radical form. One of Poiret’s signature decorative techniques was to use folkloric textiles and trims that he collected on his travels. Here the collar and cuffs are fashioned from a traditional French pleated linen bonnet, and brightly colored brocade ribbons that would have adorned a festive folk bonnet or costume encircle the raised waistline.

Requiring less restrictive undergarments and conforming more to the natural shape of the body, Poiret’s designs of 1908–11 are regarded as pivotal in the transition from the rigidly corseted silhouettes of the Victorian and Edwardian eras to styles providing greater freedom and comfort in dress that would characterize twentieth-century fashion.

Fancy dress costume, 1911
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944)
Seafoam green silk gauze, silver lamé, blue foil and blue and silver coiled cellophane cord appliqué, and blue, silver, coral, pink, and turquoise cellulose beading; L. (a) 50 1/4 in. (127.6 cm)
Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Trust Gift, 1983 (1983.8a,b)

Poiret’s interest in l’art de vivre found its most tangible expression in his highly theatrical costume parties. The most extravagant was “The Thousand and Second Night,” which took place in the garden of his atelier on June 24, 1911, and which revealed the strong influence of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the designer’s imagination. In his memoirs, Poiret dismissed any relationship between his work and the artistry of Diaghilev’s talented designer, Léon Bakst. But the spectacular success of Schéhérazade fromOne Thousand and One Nights a year before Poiret’s lavish party makes clear that the designer was willing to parlay the excitement generated by the Russians to his own advantage.

Like Diaghilev’s Schéhérazade, Poiret’s “The Thousand and Second Night” party revolved around a fantastic evocation of the East. For the occasion, Poiret required his 300 guests to dress in oriental costumes. Those who failed to do so were given the choice of leaving or outfitting themselves in Persian-style clothes designed by the couturier, including the highly controversial “harem” trousers that formed part of his spring 1911 collection. Poiret thus used the occasion of a private party, staged as a cross between an elaborate fashion show and an extravagant theatrical performance, to promote his latest creations.

Denise Poiret, who played the role of the “favorite” to Poiret’s “sultan,” endorsed her husband’s “harem” trousers by wearing them under a wired skirted tunic. Two years later, in 1913, Poiret launched this crinoline-hooped silhouette in a theatrical production of Jacques Richepin’s historical drama, Le Minaret, to be quickly followed in Poiret’s fashion collections of the same year. A fancy-dress costume worn in the privacy of an exclusive party became the prototype for a “minaret” or “lampshade” tunic worn in a theatrical production. Thus publicized, the silhouette was then modified for the fashion public.

The “Sorbet” ensemble, to which the illustrator Erté claimed authorship, was among the most popular of the silhouette’s fashionable interpretations. Its signature rose motifs of “caviar” seed beads were applied as silk-backed appliqués rather than embroidered directly on to the satin ground. This technique would have meant a shorter construction time and allowed for the disposition of the decorations over the tunic at the last minute, with the possibility of their placement contingent on the overall proportion of the garment. The bodice, with its kimono neckline, represents a stylistic feature typical of Poiret, while the underskirt, with its petal form, is a development of Poiret’s iconic hobble skirt.

Opera coat, 1912
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944)
Yellow and pale blue silk satin, black silk velvet, turquoise silk satin with gold and silver filé crocheted overlay, and silver filé trapunto half–belt and trim; L. at CB 16 1/2 in. (41.9 cm)
Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1982 (1982.350.2)

Of all his collaborations with artists, Poiret was proudest of his introduction of Paul Iribe to a wider audience through the albumLes robes de Paul Poiret (1908). Distributed without charge to Poiret’s elite clientele, the album, like that of Georges Lepape’sLes choses de Paul Poiret published three years later, was exhibited at the Galerie Barbazanges, a commercial gallery on the premises of Poiret’s couture house. It was Iribe who designed Poiret’s rose motif, as depicted in the dress “La Rose d’Iribe,” and as used in the couturier’s label.

In his memoirs, however, Poiret dismisses the suggestion that his collaborations with Iribe and Lepape implied that they were anything more than interpreters of his fully formed expressions. In his description of his relationship with the two artists, they emerge as disseminators of his designs, representing his works through their talents as illustrators, never as creators of the designs themselves. The reality, however, is likely to have been much more complicated.

The charming renderings of Iribe in Les robes de Paul Poiret, and Lepape in Les choses de Paul Poiret (and later in the Gazette du Bon Ton) conveyed a contextual reality to Poiret’s exquisite creations. Comparing extant costumes to their representation, however, often reveals that accuracy was sometimes sacrificed for dramatic intention. Nevertheless, Iribe and Lepape’s subtle stylistic elisions and exaggerations imbue Poiret’s fashions with a beauty less seductively conveyed by the harsher documentary evidence of photography.

Textile, ca. 1923
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944); manufacturer: La Maison Martine
Printed linen; 72 x 50 in. (182.9 x 127 cm)
Purchase, Edward C. Moore, Jr. Gift, 1923 (23.14.8)

Martine, which opened on April 1, 1911, was the interior design business owned and operated by Paul Poiret, a noted Parisian couturier. The business consisted of École Martine, Atelier Martine, and La Maison Martine. École Martine (housed in Poiret’s premises in rue d’Antin) was an experimental art school for young, working-class girls. Under the direction of design educator Marguerite Gabriel-Claude Sérusier, these untrained girls sketched plants and animals in local parks and zoos. Poiret bought the best of their drawings, which were adapted for use by Atelier Martine, the design studio. At first, Atelier Martine produced only textiles and wallpapers, but soon expanded to create carpets, lighting, hand-painted glassware and ceramics, and other items for interiors (including dolls outfitted by Poiret). Furniture and interior decorating services were introduced under the direction of Guy-Pierre Fauconnet. Little is known about the manufacturers of their products, but it is unlikely that the atelier was able to realize most of their designs in-house, turning instead to outside specialists: Paul Dumas or Defossé & Karth for wallpapers, Adolphe Chanaux for furniture, and Murano for glassware. One notable exception was the deep pile carpets, hand-knotted by the students. The output of the atelier was sold through the retail and interior design service of the business, La Maison Martine. The shop was located at 107, rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré; it remained there until 1924, when it moved to 1, Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées. By the early 1920s, branches had been opened in Marseilles, Cannes, Biarritz, Deauville, La Baule, as well as in London and Vienna. Martine products were actively promoted and sold in department stores in America and Germany.

Paul Poiret

In 1901, Poiret joined the House of Worth, where he was asked to create what Gaston Worth (the son of Charles Frederick Worth, the eponymous founder) called “fried potatoes,” simple, practical garments that were side dishes to Worth’s main course of “truffles,” opulent evening and reception gowns. One of his “fried potatoes,” a cloak made from black wool and cut along straight lines like the kimono, proved too simple for one of Worth’s royal clients, the Russian princess Bariatinsky, who on seeing it cried, “What horror; with us, when there are low fellows who run after our sledges and annoy us, we have their heads cut off, and we put them in sacks just like that.” Her reaction, however, prompted Poiret to found his own maison de couture in 1903 at 5 rue Auber. Later, in 1906, he moved his atelier to 37 rue Pasquier, and then, in 1909, to 9 avenue d’Antin. Two years later, he established a perfume and cosmetics company named after his eldest daughter, Rosine, and a decorative arts company named after his second daughter, Martine, both located at 107 Faubourg Saint-Honoré. In so doing, he was the first couturier to align fashion with interior design and promote the concept of a “total lifestyle.”

While Poiret learned his craft at two of the oldest and most revered couture houses, he spent his first decade as an independent couturier not only breaking with established conventions of dressmaking, but subverting and eventually destroying their underlying presumptions. He began with the body, liberating it first from the petticoat in 1903 and then from the corset in 1906. Although constantly shifting in its placement, the corseted waistline, which had persisted almost without interruption since the Renaissance, divided the female form into two distinct masses. By 1900, it promoted an S-curve silhouette with large, forward-projecting breasts and equally large backward-protruding bottom. In promoting an uncorseted silhouette, Poiret presented an integrated and intelligible corporeality. He was not alone in this vision of dress reform. Lucile (also known as Lady Duff Gordon) and Madeleine Vionnet also advanced an uncorseted silhouette, but it was Poiret, largely owing to his acumen for publicity, who became most widely associated with the new look.

In freeing women from corsets and dissolving the fortified grandeur of the obdurate, hyperbolic silhouette, Poiret effected a concomitant revolution in dressmaking, one that shifted the emphasis away from the skills of tailoring to those based on the skills of draping. It was a radical departure from the couture traditions of the nineteenth century, which, like menswear (to which they were indebted), relied on pattern pieces, or more specifically the precision of pattern making, for their efficacy. Looking to both antique and regional dress types, most notably to the Greek chiton, the Japanese kimono, and the North African and Middle Eastern caftan, Poiret advocated fashions cut along straight lines and constructed of rectangles. Such an emphasis on flatness and planarity required a complete reversal of the optical effects of fashion. The cylindrical wardrobe replaced the statuesque, turning, three-dimensional representation into two-dimensional abstraction. It was a strategy that dethroned the primacy and destabilized the paradigm of Western fashion.

Poiret’s process of design through draping is the source of fashion’s modern forms. It introduced clothing that hung from the shoulders and facilitated a multiplicity of possibilities. Poiret exploited its fullest potential by launching, in quick succession, a series of designs that were startling in their simplicity and originality. From 1906 to 1911, he presented garments that promoted an etiolated, high-waisted Directoire Revival silhouette. Different versions appeared in two limited-edition albums, Paul Iribe’s Les robes de Paul Poiret (1908) and Georges Lepape’s Les choses de Paul Poiret (1911), early examples of Poiret’s attempts to cement the relationship between art and fashion (later expressed in collaborations with Erté and Raoul Dufy, among others). Both albums relied on the stenciling technique known as pochoir, resulting in brilliantly saturated areas of color (2009.300.1289). It was an approach that not only reflected the novelty of Poiret’s designs but also his unique palette. Indeed, although the columnar garments depicted in the pochoirs referenced Neoclassicism, their acidic colors and exotic accessorization, most notably turbans wrapped à la Madame de Staël, were more an expression of orientalism (as were several cocoon or kimono coats for which Poiret was known throughout his career).

Spurred on by the success of the Ballets Russes production of Schéhérazade in 1910, Poiret gave full vent to his orientalist sensibilities, launching a sequence of fantastical confections, including “harem” pantaloons in 1911 and “lampshade” tunics in 1913 (earlier, in 1910, Poiret had introduced hobble skirts, which also can be interpreted as an expression of his orientalism). As well as hosting a lavish fancy-dress party in 1911 called “The Thousand and Second Night,” in which the fashions and the scenography reflected a phantasmagoric mythical East, he also designed costumes for several theatrical productions with orientalist themes, most notably Jacques Richepin’s Le Minaret, which premiered in Paris in 1913 and presented the couturier with a platform on which to promote his “lampshade” silhouette. Even when Poiret reopened his fashion business after World War I, during which he served as a military tailor, orientalism continued to exercise a powerful influence over his creativity. By this time, however, its fashionability had been overshadowed by modernism. Utility, function, and rationality supplanted luxury, ornament, and sensuality. Poiret could not reconcile the ideals and aesthetics of modernism with those of his own artistic vision, a fact that contributed not only to his diminished popularity in the 1920s but also, ultimately, to the closure of his business in 1929.

It is ironic that Poiret rejected modernism, given that his technical and commercial innovations were fundamental to its emergence and development. But although Poiret’s orientalism was at odds with modernism, both ideologically and aesthetically, it served as the principal expression of his modernity, enabling him to radically transform the couture traditions of the Belle Époque. While Poiret may have been fashion’s last great orientalist, he was also its first great modernist.

Koda, Harold and Andrew Bolton. “Paul Poiret (1879–1944)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/poir/hd_poir.htm (September 2008)

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Charles Frederick Worth at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ball gown, ca. 1872
Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825–1895)
Silk
Gift of Mrs. Philip K. Rhinelander, 1946 (C.I.46.25.1a–d)

The silhouette suddenly deflated in the 1870s, from a broad dome to something more akin to a right triangle. This silhouette developed in part because of the need to absorb the voluminous skirts, which had been worn over the domed cage crinoline. The solution was to pull the excess fabric behind and create a bustle which was elaborated with trimmings and supported with steel or cane hoops that projected backwards from the body. The waistline during this period was still in approximately natural position, but the torso overall had taken on a new shape in the advent of the spoon busk. Curved outward over the abdomen, the spoon busk allowed the fullness of the belly to be expressed below a compressed waist. The rounded lower torso in combination with a supported bust above formed a curvaceous hourglass silhouette.

Worth rarely scrutinized or adapted forms from the East. More often, he was an instrument of a Western taste that was projected globally via imperialism; for instance, he is said to have created 250 dresses on commission from Empress Eugénie for her appearances at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1868. But in this unusual example from his oeuvre, he emulated Middle Eastern enamels. The gown was worn by Mrs. William De Forest Manice, the donor’s grandmother, at both the French and English courts during the reigns of Napoleon III and Queen Victoria. When worn on such occasions, the dress had a detachable brocade train, since destroyed.

Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825–1895)
Silk, glass
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Shepley, 1953 (C.I.53.63a,b)

Lavish textiles were not only used for evening wear in Worth’s designs, as this day dress of cut and uncut voided velvet attests. The ensemble also provides an example of Worth’s practice of incorporating elements of historic dress in his designs. The large scale of the pomegranate and floral motif follow the style of Louis XIV textile patterns. The bodice and overskirt, made in one piece and worn over a separate skirt, is known as a polonaise, a modified version of an eighteenth-century style popularized by Marie Antoinette. A day dress like this would have been appropriate for walking or making social calls. The back of the polonaise has been expertly draped to accommodate the bustle worn by fashionable women in the 1880s.

Evening dress, 1893–1900
Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825–1895)
Silk
Gift of James A. and Mary Elizabeth Kingsland, 1994 (1994.462a,b)

In addition to day and evening fashions for upper-class society women, Worth also created clothes for special occasions, such as the as-yet-to-be-identified fancy-dress ball to which this dress would have been worn. Composed of a separate bodice and skirt executed in shocking pink and black taffeta with paste buttons, machine lace trim, and pleated silk chiffon fichu, this gown illustrates the fashion for eighteenth-century revival, a popular theme for extravagant costume parties of the period. The narrow sleeves of the garment, along with the double-breasted masculine tailoring, imitation cut-steel buttons, lace fichu, and open front skirt, refer to fashionable women’s styles of the 1770s.

Evening dress, 1898–1900
House of Worth (French, 1858–1956)
Silk

Gift of Eva Drexel Dahlgren, 1976 (1976.258.1a,b)

A superb example of dressmaking from the House of Worth, this dress exhibits the aesthetic of the last years of the nineteenth century. The fashionable reverse S-curve silhouette of the dress and the dramatic scroll pattern of the textile reflect the influence of the Art Nouveau movement. The striking graphic juxtaposition of the black velvet on an ivory satin ground creates the illusion of ironwork, with curving tendrils emphasizing the fashionable shape of the garment. In order to achieve this effect, the textile was woven à la disposition, with the intent that each piece would become a specific part of the dress. With this technique, the design of the fabric is intrinsic to the design of the dress.

vening dress, 1925
House of Worth (French, 1858–1956)
Silk, glass, metallic threads
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.20a–c)

Charles Frederick Worth’s two sons, Jean-Philippe and Gaston, carried on the high standards of design and technique at the House of Worth following the designer’s death in 1895. By the 1920s, a completely different, slim boyish silhouette had emerged as the new fashion, as the simple shape of this dress illustrates. Constructed with a minimal amount of seaming and shaping, the chemise dress suggested the body was flat in front and back, with no discernible articulation of the chest, waist, or hips. The lavish ornament of this example, however, provides a clear link to earlier examples executed by Charles Frederick Worth. Side slits and the shortened hemline reveal glimpses of gold lamé. The use of this opulent fabric for both the underdress and lining of the train, as well as the intricate beadwork, recall gowns made by the House of Worth in the previous century.

Evening dress, ca. 1887
Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825–1895)
Silk, glass, metallic thread
Gift of Mr. Orme Wilson and Mr. R. Thornton Wilson in memory of their mother, Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson, 1949 (C.I.49.3.28a,b)

Evening dress, 1892
House of Worth (French, 1858–1956)
Silk, crystal, metallic threads
Gift of Mr. Orme Wilson and Mr. R. Thornton Wilson in memory of their mother, Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson, 1949 (C.I.49.3.25a,b)

Both of these evening dresses provide examples of the quality of dressmaking for which Charles Frederick Worth and the House of Worth were renowned among society women worldwide by the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Both feature lavish textiles and ornamental embroidery picked out in metallic thread and glass or crystal beads. Textiles for dresses such as these were often woven or embroidered à la disposition, as separate pieces designed to become specific parts of the dress, such as a center front skirt panel. Significant design details, such as the beaded stars at the hemline of the dress on the left (C.I.49.3.28a,b) and the asymmetry of the skirt drapery, differentiate Worth gowns from the countless imitators of the period.

Fancy dress costume, ca. 1870
Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825–1895)
Cream and blue silk taffeta, gold metallic, white silk tulle

Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Designated Purchase Fund, 1983 (2009.300.1363a,b)

In late nineteenth-century Europe and America, invitees to elaborate costume balls went to great lengths and expense in planning their “fancy dress” attire. Those who could afford it commissioned the House of Worth to manifest their fantasies. This rare costume is in fact an authentic Turkish woman’s ensemble, heavily embroidered in gold by Turkish artisans, that was refashioned at the House of Worth into the form-fitting silhouette of the 1870s. The voluminous drawstring pants retain their original form, but the formerly loose bodice was completely remade, presumably at the behest of the client, and the embroidery artifully integrated into the new cut of the garment. It was not uncommon for couture clients of the era to commission custom designs using fabrics or decorative trims they had purchased themselves, often during their travels.

Fancy dress balls originated in London and Paris in the early eighteenth century as masquerades held in public spaces and developed into more structured indoor events in the nineteenth century. Costumes evoking what was perceived as the “exoticism of the East,” especially Turkey, were a perennial theme of choice, culminating in Paul Poitier’s famed 1002nd Night Ball of 1911.

Wedding dress, 1898
House of Worth (French, 1858–1956)
Silk, pearl
Gift of Agnes Miles Carpenter, 1941 (C.I.41.14.1)

Employing a textile design that mirrors itself from selvage to selvage, this dress is pieced into a perfectly symmetrical image at the center front. Impeccable finishing details such as this distinguish the couture garment from the countless products of the ready-to-wear market that flourished in the mid- to late nineteenth century as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The use of the textile pattern to emphasize the woman’s fashionable hourglass silhouette, achieved with the help of a steel-boned corset, further demonstrates the mastery of dressmaking technique at the House of Worth, as do the tiny handstitched cartridge pleats at the shoulder that create voluminous sleeves. The design of this sleeve, broad at the upper arm and fitted at the lower arm with the sleeve extending over the back of the hand, refers to sixteenth-century dress styles.

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Haute Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evening dress, ca. 1887
Charles Frederick Worth (French, born England, 1825–1895)
Silk, glass, metallic thread
Gift of Mr. Orme Wilson and Mr. R. Thornton Wilson in memory of their mother, Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson, 1949 (C.I.49.3.28a,b)

Evening dress, 1892
House of Worth (French, 1858–1956)
Silk, crystal, metallic threads
Gift of Mr. Orme Wilson and Mr. R. Thornton Wilson in memory of their mother, Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson, 1949 (C.I.49.3.25a,b)

Both of these evening dresses provide examples of the quality of dressmaking for which Charles Frederick Worth and the House of Worth were renowned among society women worldwide by the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Both feature lavish textiles and pieces designed to become specific parts of the dress, such as a center front skirt panel. Significant design details, such as the beaded stars at the hemline of the dress on the left (C.I.49.3.28a,b) and the asymmetry of the skirt drapery, differentiate Worth gowns from the countless imitators of the period.

Coat, ca. 1919
Paul Poiret (French, 1879–1944)
Black silk and wool blend with white leather appliqués and white fur trim
Gift of Mrs. David J. Colton, 1961 (C.I.61.40.4)

In the 1910s, Poiret introduced an avant-garde sensibility into couture. His penchant for opulent gestures, lush fabrics, fur, and feathers was part of his grandiose Gesamtkunstwerk, inspired by stage and Orientalist extravaganza. He was also capable of more subdued garments. In the case of this day coat, the leather of the appliqués is cut into delicate filigree and couched by hand onto the wool to create a graphic lattice of white over black. The cylindrical silhouette and standing collar suggest inspiration from Chinese or Near Eastern robes and coats.

Robe de style, 1924–25
Jeanne Lanvin (French, 1867–1946)
Ivory and black silk taffeta trimmed with pink and black silk velvet rosettes
Gift of Mrs. W. R. Grace, 1956 (C.I.56.49.1)

Robe de style, 1924–25
Jeanne Lanvin (French, 1867–1946)
Ivory and black silk taffeta trimmed with pink and black silk velvet rosettes
Gift of Mrs. William B. Given Jr., 1979 (1979.122.1)

High art as well as haute couture have often been erroneously associated with the sovereign disposition. But haute couture has also been conditioned on the relationship between couture ideas and the will of the client. A client seeking a demure profile might ask for a particular décolletage treatment, while another might demand an alternative. A designer would allow variation only in modules, but a couture garment often becomes a synergy of client and couturier.

Day suit, ca. 1937
Jean Patou (French, 1887–1936)
Black wool gabardine with silk grosgrain inserts
Gift of Mrs. Stephen M. Kellen, 1978 (1978.165.20a,b)

Patou constructed a tailored suit as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. Formed as a gabardine suit with all the pattern pieces wholly constructed, the silk grosgrain diamonds were inserted replacing gabardine squares. Each diamond is composed of four mitered elements. By this analytical technique, the suit is integrally conceived, and the front of the suit reveals the wool ground as a full surround.

Day suit, ca. 1937
Jean Patou (French, 1887–1936)
Black wool gabardine with silk grosgrain inserts
Gift of Mrs. Stephen M. Kellen, 1978 (1978.165.20a,b)

Patou constructed a tailored suit as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. Formed as a gabardine suit with all the pattern pieces wholly constructed, the silk grosgrain diamonds were inserted replacing gabardine squares. Each diamond is composed of four mitered elements. By this analytical technique, the suit is integrally conceived, and the front of the suit reveals the wool ground as a full surround.

Evening gown, 1939
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Pale pink lamé and black silk lace appliquéd with black silk velvet
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, 1952 (C.I.52.24.2a,b)

A bias lamé underdress is visible through the veil of a lace overdress with velvet. Seeking the unity of the garment and the integrity of the cloth, Vionnet found simplification even in lace, adding only a small panel at the waist to the one-piece bodice. Thus, even in the sheerest and inherently particled garment, Vionnet insisted on the largest possible element.

Bar” suit and jacket, spring/summer 1947
Christian Dior (French, 1905–1957); Christian Dior Haute Couture (French, founded 1947)
Silk shantung

Gift of Mrs. John Chambers Hughes, 1958 (C.I.58.34.30)

Skirt, executed in 1969 from a 1947 design
Reproduction of a skirt designed by Christian Dior (French, 1905–1957); reproduction of a skirt designed for Christian Dior Haute Couture (French, founded 1947)
Wool

Gift of Christian Dior, 1969 (C.I.69.40)

Christian Dior’s “Bar” suit is the iconic New Look ensemble, featuring as it does the sloped shoulders, articulated bust, nipped waist, and padded hips. This silhouette required myriad underpinnings, which in the case of Dior’s designs were built in rather than purchased separately. A repudiation of the styles of the 1920s and ’30s, it was also clearly indebted to the styles and body-shapers of the late nineteenth century. Although it would seem that the heavily structured silhouette of the 1950s would allow for some relaxation of the management of the body underneath, fashion magazines dictated strict diet and control. In 1949, Vogue introduced “Diet X,” a 750-calorie-a-day regime to be followed for ten days, and published several versions of it in the 1950s. A 1953 editorial in Harper’s Bazaar noted that people who failed to maintain a good figure “don’t have a good enough opinion of themselves to want to look their best.” This emphasis on internal control may be the reason that the nineteenth-century carapace of undergarments was not revived along with its silhouette. The waist cinchers that were introduced as an underpinning in the 1950s were barely four inches wide. The Merry Widow corset of the 1950s simply did not impose the force of its nineteenth-century ancestor. Much of the sportswear of the 1950s followed Dior’s line without the benefit of any understructure other than brassieres and elastic girdles.

In 1947, Christian Dior presented a collection of wasp-waisted and hip-padded designs. The American press immediately dubbed it the “New Look.” The “Bar” suit was considered the most iconic model in the collection, manifesting all the attributes of Dior’s dramatic atavism. Although Dior created many notched collars, he was a fervent advocate of shawl collars and curved necklines. Arguably, the shawl collar plays effectively with the curvaceous forms Dior articulated at the shoulders and hips. The full pleated calf-length skirt, of black wool, is a replica of the original skirt of the suit. Marc Bohan ordered it made up in the Dior workroom to complete the suit for The Costume Institute Collections.

Ball gown, ca. 1951
Jacques Fath (French, 1912–1954)
Black silk velvet with ivory silk satin, white mink, and gold metal trim
Gift of Mrs. Giorgio Uzielli, 1984 (1984.606.3a,b)

Known for flattering dinner dresses that set off the head and shoulders with an audacious décolletage, Fath created a cantilevered outer bodice with a modest

satin underbodice. The extended plane of the outer bodice is like the soaring shapes of Saarinen’s buildings, establishing an artifice within the canon of modernist restraint. Fath played with contrast—of matte and shiny, of ivory and black, of white fur and gold bullion—as a rich textural perimeter for the dress.

Evening gown, 1958
Madame Grès (Alix Barton) (French, 1903–1993)
White silk jersey

Gift of Mrs. Leon L. Roos, 1973 (1973.104.2)

Grès, working earlier as Alix, created dresses in shafts of fabric, the diverse fluting of which served on the body like the entasis of a classical column. Seaming together fabric vertically so as to be continuous from hem to neckline, Grès pleated and tucked the materials into a shaping suitable to the body: the same fabric is buoyant and fluid when release-pleated from the waist down. She simulated a waist seam by tight tucking that continues through the bodice, and crowned the dress with volutes and twists. This tour-de-force of material, rendered in diverse ways, accounts for the tempered ergonomics of such dresses. Their wearers have testified that they felt secure and not immodest in these dresses, so organic was their creation. In this example, only one piece of fabric was added to the column: a small triangle was inserted under the arm to complete the structure, but otherwise the entire dress is conceived as one cylinder.

Evening gown, 1963
Hubert de Givenchy (French, born 1927)
Coral cotton lace reembroidered with coral–colored beads and coral pieces
Gift of Mrs. John Hay Whitney, 1974 (1974.184.2)

Coral with matching glass beads is applied in high relief on the armature of a minimalist Givenchy silhouette. A princess-seam dress skimming the torso, but flaring to the hem, is almost severe, but it is rendered rococo and ornate by the surface treatment. Givenchy’s special trait was to find an equilibrium between excess and the reductive. An austere form supports a heavily encrusted embroidery, making a gown that works both as an extravagance and as a spartan design.

Evening gown, ca. 1968
Hubert de Givenchy (French, born 1927)
Salmon–colored silk with feathers
Gift of Mrs. Claus Von Bülow, 1971 (1971.79.4)

The feathers of this dress are stripped down to the tip to create an artificial profile. Indicative of couture in seeking an improvement even on nature, these contrived feathers elaborate on the feather’s natural shaping to create a self-conscious artifice. The shorter feathers have been anchored into a scallop pattern that overlaps to imitate an animal’s scales or covering in nature, but there is no element left to chance or to nature’s carelessness. The longer plumes are affixed at the stem to be tremblant and animated on the dress.

“Mondrian” day dress, autumn 1965
Yves Saint Laurent (French, born Algeria, 1936)
Wool jersey in color blocks of white, red, blue, black, and yellow

Gift of Mrs. William Rand, 1969 (C.I.69.23)

As the sack dress evolved in the 1960s into the modified form of the shift, Saint Laurent realized that the planarity of the dress was an ideal field for color blocks. Knowing the flat planes of the 1960s canvases achieved by contemporary artists in the lineage of Mondrian, Saint Laurent made the historical case for the artistic sensibility of his time. Yet he also demonstrated a feat of dressmaking, setting in each block of jersey, piecing in order to create the semblance of the Mondrian order and to accommodate the body imperceptibly by hiding all the shaping in the grid of seams.

Ensemble, 1967
Emanuel Ungaro (French, born 1933)
White elasticized net with allover appliqués of white braid trefoils
Gift of Mrs. Leonard Holzer, 1970 (1970.89.1a–c)

In an evaluation of the Paris lines of 1960, Vogue fashion reporter Jessica Daves noted that they were “designed for very young women who are intensely concentrated on fashion, who expect to ‘change the line’ with frequency and rapidity, and who are possessed of superb legs and slim, young goddess figures.” Although she was speaking specifically of Yves Saint Laurent’s work for the House of Dior, her appraisal would prove increasingly cogent to the dominance of the body itself in defining the fashionable silhouette of the 1960s. With the introduction of the miniskirt, the leg was revealed to above the knee. A short shift was the dominant form mid-decade, and hung only on the frame of the body. As fashion’s last absolute decree entered its concluding phase, skirts became shorter and shorter until they atrophied into short shorts, or, in the phrase of the day, hot pants.

The body-conscious silhouette is expressed here by Emanuel Ungaro, a haute couture designer who proved quite skilled at adapting streetwear to high fashion. This playsuit with matching leggings is made with elastic fabric that has been hand-appliquéd with white braid. The base fabric provides not a foundation but a revelation of the ideal body, which is in turn the ideal silhouette.

During the 1960s, as skirts became shorter and shorter, they atrophied into short shorts, or, in the phrase of the day, hot pants. In this couture playsuit with matching leggings, the elastic fabric has been hand-appliquéd with white braid. In the youth-impassioned tumult of the time, there was an equivocation between Warhol superstar and couture client. As self-consciously insurrectionist as the political gesture is, the craft of the garment is, like Chanel’s “little black dress,” traditional.

Evening gown, 1987
Patou by Christian Lacroix (French, born 1951)
Raspberry silk taffeta
Gift of Comtesse Thierry de Ganay, 1994 (1994.278)

Most famous for his eighteenth-century-inspired pouf dress, Lacroix made the most inflated version of the dress only when he was the designer for Patou. There and at his own house, Lacroix combined luxury and insouciance, enamored as he is of all the artisanal trades, fringe, bead, embroidery, etcetera. The opulence of Lacroix’s designs is attained by his strong sense of vibrant color and pattern mix exacerbated by his willingness to summon all the possibilities of couture technique.

Evening dress, fall/winter 1991–92
Gianni Versace (Italian, 1946–1997)
Pink quilted silk satin, silk georgette, lace
Gift of Gianni Versace, 1993 (1993.52.1)

Evening dress, fall/winter 1991–92
Gianni Versace (Italian, 1946–1997)
Pale blue quilted silk satin, silk georgette, lace
Gift of Gianni Versace, 1993 (1993.52.2)

Setting the most complex and concentrated tasks for the expertise of the couture ateliers, Versace here brought satin in trapunto into immediate conjunction with pleated lace. Although lace with its elasticity and suppleness is customarily worked as a flat panel, Versace creased it into narrow pleats and delighted in applying a second unexpected effect upon one technical privilege of the couture. Always inclined, even in his ready-to-wear, to challenge the possibilities of the medium, Versace’s couture work summoned its own tests of technique.

Haute Couture

For more than a century, couture has been emblematic of the triumph of costume and fashion. It represents the fusion of fashion—the modern entity that combines novelty and synergy with personal and social needs—and costume—the arts of dressmaking, tailoring, and crafts constituent to apparel and accessories. Founded in the crucible of modernism’s invention in the middle years of the nineteenth century in Paris, with the expanded patronage cultivated by the House of Worth, but still dependent upon the considerable support of Empress Eugénie, couture has long stood as the modern equilibrium between the garment as exquisite aggregate and the burgeoning notions of fashion as a system.

Couture has long stood as the modern equilibrium between the garment as exquisite aggregate and the burgeoning notions of fashion as a system.

The persistence of the haute couture is as roundly questioned and doubted and debated as the survival of painting or the supposed death of Broadway. Some may have doubted that the couture would survive its founder, the entrepreneurial Charles Frederick Worth. In the early years of the twentieth century, Paul Poiret took couture into an admittedly dangerous path of change, responding to Orientalist and social sirens, but even more to the beckoning of commerce and the use of the couture as a generating engine for fashion and fragrance broadly disseminated. Ironically, the couture flourished in the postwar period, beginning with the immense popular appeal of Christian Dior’s “New Look” in 1947. This supposed fashion novelty was so successful in part because it knew acutely its history and reconvened the finest skills to the couture.

The couture house is customarily composed of two parts, one devoted to dressmaking (flou), the other devoted to tailoring (tailleur) of suits and coats. Skilled workers in each area practice the arts apposite to the area. Embellishments and accessories are added incrementally as applied decoration, often from sources outside the couture house. However, with regard to the unembellished garment, the modern couture house is a completely autonomous workroom of dedicated ateliers. In fact, surprisingly, in view of the elegant locations of most couture houses, the creation of the garments occurs in the maisons particulières of the house, thus under the daily surveillance of the designer as well as in intimate connection with the vendeuses. Depending upon the designer, the design process might begin either with sketches or with a muslin or toile, draped and cut. Fit, both in its tailored form and in its dressmaking variant, is inevitably part of the value of the couture. A designer or trusted fitter will conduct the client through a series of fittings to determine the minute adjustments of the garment to the individual’s size and sense of comfort.

The couture’s offering of distinction in design and technique remains a compelling force, one even more potent when much other quality has atrophied. It remains a discipline of ultimate imagination, unaccountable to cost, with the paradox of being the fashion most cognizant of its ideal clients. It is, as it began, a dream of quality in an era of industry and its succession. The haute couture persists in providing us with a paragon of the most beautiful clothing that can be envisioned and made in any time.

Koda, Harold, and Richard Martin. “Haute Couture”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/haut/hd_haut.htm (October 2004)

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Madeleine Vionnet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evening dress, 1938
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Black silk satin and black silk net embroidered with black sequins
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.4a–c)

In Jungian psychology, the appearance of black birds in dreams is considered a bad omen and allied to fear of misfortune. For the Romantics, they hovered over battlefields to feast on the bodies of the slain. As a chilling prelude to war, the birds on this dress swarm around the body of the wearer like ominous raptors. At the same time, they serve as criticism of the vanity and ostentation ofle beau monde. Like the bird who cries cras, cras (tomorrow, tomorrow), the black bird symbolizes those who are caught up in worldly pleasures.

Evening dress, 1938
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Silver lamé and ivory silk net
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.24a,b)

Evening dress, 1938
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Pale pink and silver lamé and pale pink silk net
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.25a,b)

Right

“I’m not a beautiful woman. I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.”

—Duchess of Windsor

The Duchess of Windsor lent two dresses to the exhibition Paris Openings (1940), including this ensemble by Madeleine Vionnet. Elegant, romantic, and feminine, it seems uncharacteristic of the duchess’ sober and somewhat severe fashion aesthetic. It also seems more revealing than her usual modest, discreet style. But as Danielle Porthault of Yves Saint Laurent commented, “Her Royal Highness’s style was sobriety by day and fantasy and originality at night.”

Left

“Mrs. Harrison Williams was a chef d’oeuvre, breathing a rarefied air of mystery, like some undine or goddess from another world who yet chooses to dress in the height of fashionable conventionality.”

—Cecil Beaton

In December 1933, Chanel, Lanvin, Lucien Lelong, Vionnet, Balenciaga, Edward Molyneux, and Mainbocher named Mrs. Harrison Williams the “Best Dressed-Woman in the World.” Like Lady Mendl and the Duchess of Windsor, she possessed an inconspicuous elegance, which she achieved by choosing the clean and subdued lines of Vionnet and Balenciaga. Vogueobserved, “She never orders the ‘successes’ in a collection, but instead, the costume which is noticeable only on second glance.”

Mrs. Harrison Williams’ style and beauty have been immortalized in art, music, and literature. In “Ridin’ High,” Cole Porter sang: “What do I care if Mrs. Harrison Williams is the best dressed woman in town?” In Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers (1987), she was the model for the character Kate McCloud.

Evening dress, spring/summer 1938
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Rayon

Gift of Madeleine Vionnet, 1952 (C.I.52.18.4)

In the 1930s, the ideal of slimness remained but the silhouette regained some curve as the natural waist and the breasts reappeared. Evening dresses during this period were made of clinging bias-cut fabrics that expressed the body underneath with every motion. In the advent of the new silhouette in 1930, oneVogue editor proclaimed that “ungainly women must be jubilant, for the new clothes are extremely becoming, and a multitude of sins can be hidden beneath the new draperies.” Still, a dress such as the Madeleine Vionnet design show here would not have allowed for too much excess flesh. The embroidery is of individual graduated lengths of silk thread passed and looped through the fabric, with each thread forming two drops of fringe. Such decoration over a clinging gown would tend to call constant attention to the line of the body underneath.

The ideas of diet and exercise as a path to the ideal silhouette were well entrenched in the

1920s. The more curvaceous figure of the 1930s required all that and the return of corsets to give more form and control to the silhouette. As a 1933 Harper’s Bazaararticle on the season’s new line of corsets cautions, “You cannot have a roll of flesh about the midriff. An uncontrolled derriere is vulgar in a slinky dress.”

Evening gown, 1939
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Pale pink lamé and black silk lace appliquéd with black silk velvet
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, 1952 (C.I.52.24.2a,b)

A bias lamé underdress is visible through the veil of a lace overdress with velvet. Seeking the unity of the garment and the integrity of the cloth, Vionnet found simplification even in lace, adding only a small panel at the waist to the one-piece bodice. Thus, even in the sheerest and inherently particled garment, Vionnet insisted on the largest possible element.

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Madeleine Vionnet A Fashion Designer You Should Know

“The French designer was the first to combine effortless elegance with natural comfort.  She was known as the ‘Queen of the bias cut’–and yet she is now practically forgotten.”

 Design 1914

“Dianah Vreeland, for many years editor in chief of American Vogue and known for acid pen, called her nothing less than the ‘most important fashion designer of the twentieth century.’ Azzedine Alaia characterizers her as ‘the source of everything that lives on in our subconscious.’  And the legendary fashion journalist Suzy Menkes quite simply finds everything about her ‘utterly modern.’  One thing is certain: among connoisseurs of fashion, Madeleinne Vionnet, member of the Paris haute couture scene of the interwar years, is considered the ‘mother of all couturiers.’ For everyone else, Vionnet the fashion pioneer is hardly more than a name ong since forgotten.  Unjustly, for her artistic influence is still very much in evidence.”

“…the young Vionnet was actually the first desiger to banish the armor-like garment [the corset] from her creations.  At the start of the twentieth century, during the time with the fashion designer Jacques Doucet, Madeleine Vionnet designed feather-lightsoftly draped clothing distinguished not merely consistently with triangular inserts, circular cuts, vents, cowl necklines, and halter necks), but also with her exceptional feel for form and pattern, raised women’s couture to a whole new level.  This fashion architect’s most important innovation was the bias cut, in which the fabric is cut and worked, not as usual in parallel lines, but on the bias, at 45 degrees to the direction of the thread.

The bias of a textile runs at 45 degrees to both the warp and weft threads.

“This technique results in flattering clothes that flow softly around the body, following the wear own.  The symbiosis of body and clothes was in fact one of the most important principles in the work of this skilled couturier: ‘When a woman smiles, her dress must smile with her.’  In this context, it is not surprising to learn of her loathing of everything fashionable:  ‘There is something superficial and volatile about the seasonal and elusive whims of fashion which offendy my sense of beauty.’  And indeed, Vionnet’s love of the Greek ideal of beauty decisively influenced her working methods.

“Vionnet was fascinated by classical antiquity and its draperies.

 

Her fashion house was adorned with frescoes showing Greek beauties wearing Vionnet designs.  Inspired by the fall of the drapes in ancient Greek robes, she never created her designs as mere two-dimensional sketches on paper.

Her ‘fashion illustrations’ were models in simiple course cloth, displayed on an eighty-centimeter-tall wooden doll.  For the realization of her creations, however, she used more sophisticated fabrics such  as crepe de cine, charmeuse, and silk muslin.

“In spite of it all, Madeleine Vionnet, perhaps the most gifted fashion designer of the twentieth century, has found only a supporting role in fashion’s colective memory in comparison to her contemporaries Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaperri.  Vioneet may have discovered teh perfect cut, but she understood comparatively little about crowd-pleasing self-promotion.  Perhaps it was merely her reserved manner that ensured we know the clothes but not the woman who designed them.  And so her legacy today reains visible–yet nameless.”

Simone Werle. p. 15.

  • Publisher: Prestel (April 24, 2010)
Posted in 50 Fashion Designers You Should Know, Famous Fashion Designers, Haute Couture, Le Colis de Trianon=Versailles, Madeline Vionnet | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Madeleine Vionnet

Madeleine Vionnet (pronounced: [ma.də.lɛn vjɔ.ne]; June 22, 1876 – March 2, 1975) was a French fashion designer. Born in Loiret, France, Vionnet trained in London before returning to France to establish her first fashion house in Paris in 1912. Although it was forced to close in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War, it re-opened after the war and Vionnet became one of the leading designers of the inter-war period in France. Vionnet was forced to close her house in 1939 and retired in 1940.

Called the “Queen of the bias cut” and “the architect among dressmakers”, Vionnet is best known today for her elegant Grecian-style dresses and for popularising thebias cut within the fashion world and is credited with inspiring a number of recent designers.

Biography

Born into a poor family in Chilleurs-aux-Bois, Loiret, Vionnet moved with her father to Aubervilliers at the age of five. Having already left school, Vionnet began her apprenticeship as a seamstress alongside members of the garde champêtre at the age of twelve.[1] After a brief marriage at age 18 – and the loss of a young child[2] – she left her husband and went to London to work as a hospital seamstress. While in London, Vionnet worked as a fitter for Kate Reily.[3] Vionnet eventually returned to Paris and worked for six years in the fashion house Callot Soeurs as a toile maker, praising Marie Callot Gerber as “a great lady” and later remarking that “without the example of the Callot Soeurs, I would have continued to make Fords. It is because of them that I have been able to make Rolls Royces”.[4] However, her desire for simplicity was at odds with the lacy frills of the fashion house.[2]

She designed for Jacques Doucet between 1907 and 1911,[5] although her use of barefoot models and loose robes clashed with the style of the house.[1] In 1912 she founded her own fashion house, “Vionnet“, although it was forced to close in 1914 owing to the advent of the First World War.[1] Re-establishing the house in 1923, Vionnet opened new premises on Avenue Montaigne which became known as the “Temple of Fashion”.[6] In 1925, Vionnet’s fashion house expanded with premises on Fifth Avenue in New York, selling designs purchased off the peg and adapted to the wearer.[2]

Vionnet’s bias cut clothes dominated haute couture in the 1930s,[7] setting trends with her sensual gowns worn by such stars as Marlene Dietrich,[8] Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford[9] and Greta Garbo.[8]Vionnet’s vision of the female form revolutionized modern clothing and the success of her unique cuts assured her reputation.[2] She fought for copyright laws in fashion and employed what, at the time, were considered revolutionary labor practices – paid holidays and maternity leave, day-care, a dining hall, a resident doctor and dentist.[2] The onset of World War II forced Vionnet to close her fashion house in 1939,[8]and she retired in 1940.[5] Vionnet created some 12,000 garments over the course of her career.[9]

An intensely private individual, Vionnet avoided public displays and mundane frivolities and expressed a dislike for the world of fashion, stating: “Insofar as one can talk of a Vionnet school, it comes mostly from my having been an enemy of fashion. There is something superficial and volatile about the seasonal and elusive whims of fashion which offends my sense of beauty”.[10] Vionnet was not concerned with being the “designer of the moment”, preferring to remain true to her own vision of female beauty.

 Vionnet Design 1914

Styles and technique

The bias of a textile runs at 45 degrees to both the warp and weft threads.

Alongside Coco Chanel, Vionnet is credited with a move away from stiff, formalised clothing to sleeker, softer clothes. Unlike Chanel, Vionnet had little appetite for self-promotion and her retirement in 1940 marginalised her contribution to the wider movement.[5] Madeleine Vionnet is quoted as saying that “when a woman smiles, her dress must smile with her”.[11] Eschewing corsets, padding, stiffening, and anything that distorted the natural curves of a woman’s body, her clothes were famous for accentuating the natural female form. Influenced by the modern dances of Isadora Duncan, Vionnet created designs that showed off a woman’s natural shape.[12] Like Duncan, Vionnet was inspired by ancient Greek art, in which garments appear to float freely around the body rather than distort or mold its shape. Her style changed relatively little over her career, although it became a little more fitted in the 1930s.[5]

In the 1920s, Vionnet created a stir by introducing the bias cut, a technique for cutting cloth diagonal to the grain of the fabric enabling it to cling to the body while moving with the wearer. Vionnet’s use of the bias cut to create a sleek, flattering, body-skimming look revolutionized women’s clothing and carried her to the top of the fashion world. Although sometimes credited with its invention, Vionnet claimed to have applied the technique, already used in skirts, to full-body dresses.[5] As an expert couturier, Vionnet knew that textiles cut on the bias could be draped to match the curves of a woman’s body and echo its fluidity of motion. She used the cut to promote the potential for expression and motion, integrating comfort and movement as well as form into her designs.

Vionnet’s apparently simple styles involved a lengthy preparation process, including cutting, draping, and pinning fabric designs on to miniature dolls so that they hung in sinuous folds.[2] The garment was recreated in chiffon, silk, or Moroccan crepe on life-size models. Vionnet used materials such as crêpe de chine, gabardine, and satin to make her clothes; fabrics that were unusual in women’s fashion of the 1920s and 30s.[2]She ordered fabrics two yards wider than necessary to accommodate draping, creating clothes – particularly dresses – that were luxurious and sensual but also simple and modern. Characteristic Vionnet styles that clung to and moved with the wearer included the handkerchief dress, cowl neck, and halter top

Influence on later designers

Madeleine Vionnet is considered one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century. Both her bias cut and her urbanely sensual approach to couture remain a strong and pervasive influence on contemporary fashion as evidenced by the collections of such past and present-day designers as Ossie Clark, Halston, John Galliano, Comme des Garçons, Azzedine Alaia, Issey Miyake and Marchesa. Miyake once remarked that on seeing Vionnet’s work for the first time, “the impression was similar to the wonder one feels at the sight of a woman emerging from bathing, draped only in a single piece of beautiful cloth.”[9]

Madeleine Vionnet inspired fashion designers such as Marcelle Chaumont, mother of French author Madeleine Chapsal who was also her goddaughter.[8]

Evening dress, winter 1921, collection Les Arts Décoratifs, U.F.A.C

 1922

Madeleine Vionnet, Dancer Irene Castle, 1922

“dépôt de modèle” photography, summer collection, 1922, Les Arts Décoratifs collection, U.F.A.C

Madeleine Vionnet, in la Gazette du Bon Ton, illustration by Thayaht

Evening dress, summer 1931, collection Les Arts Décoratifs, U.F.A.C

1935

Evening coat, summer 1936, collection Les Arts Décoratifs, U.F.A.C

1937

Madeleine Vionnet, Dress, summer 1937, collection Les Arts Décoratifs, U.F.A.C

Madeleine Vionnet, Dress, made from silk tulle, panne velvet and horsehair with a silver lamé underdress and Lesage embroidery, 1938

Evening dress, 1938 Silver lamé and ivory silk net The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evening dress, spring/summer 1938 Rayon The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evening gown, 1939 Pale pink lamé and black silk lace appliquéd with black silk velvet
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Jean Lanvin A Designer You Should Knowr

1930-JLanvin-DRPatrimoine

“A long history of success:  the Lanvin fashion house is the oldest in the world.  The first creations bythe later haute couture salon were simple clothes for children”

50FashionDesigners

“If one glances behind the imposing facade of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, 22, in Paris, one will see a wold full of history.  For this is the Lanvin headquarters, the oldest couture house in the world.  Founded by Jeanne Lanvin, who at the outset of her career could not even afford to buy fabric for her creations.

“Lanvin’s first contact with fashion came early if life–admittedlyless out of creative passion than economic hardship.  In order to help support her six younger siblings, Lanvin, then only fifteen, took a job with a tailor in the suburbs of Paris.  In 1890, at twenty-seven, Lanvin took the daring leap into independence, though on a modest scale.

1929 – Lanvin sketch

Simone Werle. p. 13.

  • Publisher: Prestel (April 24, 2010)
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