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HomeDressThe First Designer, Paul Poiret

The First Designer, Paul Poiret

Paul Poiret, has often been called the first designer, the creator of bohemian chic and even crowned himself the ‘King of Fashion’. His height of popularity was in the early 1900′s before the first world war.

Born in Paris in 1879, it was evident, from a young age, that Poiret showed ingenuity and a flare for artistic design. His creativity was encouraged by his mother and 3 sisters but not so much from his father and in the late 1890′s he was forced to become an assistant to an umbrella maker. The plan backfired however as he used the left over silk remnants of fabric to design couture creations that he had sketched, onto a 15 inch wooden doll given to him by his sisters.

Poiret’s first acceptance into the world of fashion came via Madeleine Cheruit, a well known parisian designer, who purchased several of his sketches. He would later go on to work as an apprentice stitcher for Jacqes Doucet and another huge fashion name of the time Charles Fredrick Worth. He eventually opened his own fashion house, with financial aid from his mother, in 1903.

After the very structured, corseted, S-shaped look of the late 1800′s, Poiret’s move into very loose, draped silhouette dresses, was a welcome change for women. He pioneered in elegant drapings, although this might have largely been down to the fact that he had no real technical training. One of his first dresses was called La Vague as it swirled around the body like a gentle wave. It is because of these designs, that he is the designer credited with freeing women from corsets. He was the first designer to use turbans and harem pants and had some very startling inventions, such as the ‘lampshade tunic’ and the ‘hobble skirt’, a skirt made so narrow at the ankles it made you hobble. He was also the first to brand other items including perfumes, cosmetics and home furnishings.

Poiret was highly influenced by the art of the day, such as classicism, orientalism and symbolism and it was the Ballet Russes in 1910 (based on the Arabian Nights folk tales) that gave him the idea for his legendary fancy dress ball ‘The Thousand and Second Night) if you weren’t in fancy dress or in one of his own creations you were asked to leave. Calling himself a fashion tyrant, he loved to throw parties and and surrounded himself with all the top designers, painters and illustrators of the day. It was this kind of extravagance that would see him broke and bankrupt by the early 1920′s. With the arrival of Coco Chanel’s elegant tailoring and neutral colors, his fashions were soon out of favor. He famously called Chanel ‘the inventor of luxurious wretchedness’ and upon meeting her Poiret asked “Who is the lady mourning, madame? “To which the spirited Chanel replied,’ For you, monsieur. ‘

In 1911, a photographer by the name of Edward Steichen used gowns by Poiret to promote fashion as a fine art by the use of photography. These photographs were published in the April 1911 issue of the magazine Art et Décoration, this is now considered to be the first ever modern fashion photography shoot.

Paul Poiret died a poor painter, alone and forgotten in 1944. There was so much interesting information on him that I left a lot out as I could not fit it all here. In 2007, the Met museum did an exhibition on him and in May of 2007 Vogue did a Poiret inspired photo shoot that you can view here

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