Without doubt, Paul Poiret (1879-1944) with his modernity which left a great impact on the epoch of modernism, more than deserves to bear the title “The King of Fashion”. His innovations would create a long list of thrilling transformations starting with the controversial komono with uncorseted design and rounding up by the “Salon d’Antin”. However, I found it very exciting to take a closer look at how he implemented his brainchildren contributing to promote and uphold the fashion legacy.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century a certain craze for Oriental ideas had been ranging in Paris, and the climax came with the arrival of the Ballet Russes in 1909. Parisian audience was enchanted by the orgiastic colours, barbarian and exotic sensuality, frenetic leaps, and savage rhythms exploding like a sunburst in Schéhérezade. So was Paul Poiret by feeling challenged in his Hellenic style he created, while establishing his own fashion house in 1903.
Poiret was also famous for giving lavish and unique costume parties which in his view were “a combination of exceptional circumstances that unite to provide merriment and give happiness to a certain number of persons”. His wife Denise, his muse, who he transformed into a new model of beauty, the prototype for the feminine silhouette of the twentieth century, was attending those parties wearing husband’s creations.
The most outstanding party ever, which left a deep trace in history of fashion known as the “1002d Night” or “Persian Celebration” took place in June 1911 and was meant to – over again – celebrate Poiret’s Oriental ideas. Another intention lying behind the party was to introduce the customers to a new style Poiret had launched in January same year and had plans on repeating it in August.
The guest list included three hundred names and they were supposed to come dressed as ancient Persians, and, in case they happened not to, there was a supply of costumes prepared for them by the couturier to choose from. Poiret received the guests dressed up as the Sultan wearing a bejewelled white silk turban sitting on a green and gold throne. Meanwhile the guests were arriving madame Poiret, “his favourite”, was confined in a huge gold cage. When all the guests were assembled, the Sultan flung up the door to the cage and she came out wearing harem pantaloons beneath a short, swaying like the corolla of a poppy with each movement, hoop skirt. The day after the party, women were asking for copies of it, and the couturier developed it into his famous “lampshade tunic”.
Everything at the party – decorations, lights, music, food, costumes, jewellery, servants – was intended to bring Oriental to mind. In the following month the public could be horrified by ladies wearing pantaloon gowns on the street, what they were persecuted for as wearing trousers in public was legally forbidden for women in France. The sale numbers flew up and it took a few days only to administrate all the incoming orders.
By turning fashion into a celebration of innovations of style, fairy tale and art, Poiret had as many faithful admires as envious enemies. However, his place in the history of fashion is undisputable and he will always be “the captain of some phantom vessel in the midst of storm”, as Jean Cocteau once called him.