Archival August: Paul Poiret

Parisian Paul Poiret was one of the greatest visionary artists of the early 20th century. He called himself the “king of fashion” and others dubbed him the “Pasha of Paris.” Strongly influenced by orientalist and neoclassical styles, this French fashion designer helped do away with the confining corset and introduced hobble skirts and harem pantaloons.

Poiret had a lowly start, being born to a cloth merchant in the poor French city, Les Halles. To help support his family, Poiret was sent to work with an umbrella maker. Although the work wasn’t very good, Poiret used to opportunity to express his creativity. He collected silk scraps from the umbrellas and made clothes for his sisters’ dolls. He even sketched out designs of dresses and capes.

I freed the bust and I shacked the legs. – Paul Poiret

His sketches were inspiring and even Madeleine Cheruit, a noted dressmaker of the time, purchased 12 of his renderings. Poiret caught designer Jacques Doucet eye in 1898 and Doucet hired him to work for his house. The first design Poiret made for the House of Doucet was a red cape, which sold 400 copies. Because of his success at Doucet, Poiret later moved to the House of Worth.

Eventually, Poiret opened his own line. Poiret was greatly influenced by orientalist styles and invented the controversial kimono coat in 1903. In his collections, he featured turbans and “the vivid colors of the Fauvists and the exotic references of the Ballets Russes.” Poiret revolutionized fashion by steering away from tailored clothing and using draping techniques.

To popularize his collection, Poiret used flamboyant window displays and publicized his work with fancy parties, which includes his infamous “Thousand and Second Night.” Poiret was also the first designer to use photography to advertise his work. In 1911, Edward Steichen, a noted photographer, took photos of Poiret’s clothing on models and published it in Art Et Decoration.

Poiret also expanded his line to perfumes in 1911 called Parfums de Rosine, named after his first daughter. He even included furniture and decor as well.

Sadly, Poiret’s house collapsed in 1929 after WWI. Poiret had to leave his collection to serve in the war in uniform production. When he returned, his house was bankrupt because of new designers, such as Chanel. He decided to close his house and sold his leftover clothes as rags.

View his collection at the Met click here.


Chicago Art Decosociety


The Met

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