A Persia More French

Paul Poiret: Orientalist bon vivant and inventor of mass haute couture

Almost a century since Paul Poiret’s ascent as one of haute couture’s founding fathers, the fashion world has suddenly gone Poiret-mad again, as evidenced by the last couple of seasons. Spring 2006 was dominated by the P-word (New York Times fashion critic Cathryn Horn recognized the “Oriental robes of the Paris couturier Paul Poiret” in Caroline Herrera’s collection; style.com’s Sarah Mower tsk-tsked Roksanda Ilincic’s “Poiret-esque” flourishes by way of last year’s Lanvin; and style.com’s Nicole Phelps claimed that “many designers have focused on the surface treatments of designer Paul Poiret” and Anna Sui “opted to concentrate on his uncorseted, loosened-up silhouettes and lovely, painterly prints”). The fruit of Eastern-tinged Edwardian romanticism is just about overripe with the season’s high-art-meets-boho experimentalism — so much so that you can already smell minimal uptight-chic cutting into its excesses. It’s a fitting transition in keeping with the annals of early fashion history; the same tide turned on the tens and teens when in the twenties a young socialite by the name of Coco Chanel invited steely conservative realism to rain on the vibrant parade of Paul Poiret’s career-spanning homage to the individual and its landscape of Otherness.

The Poiret formula is tricky: one part French aristocracy, one part bohemian avant-garde; one part whimsical and unacceptable, the other part premeditated and institutional; another part old baroque and another part modern; another part haughtily Western and transgressively Oriental. There were the famous lampshade skirts (wired lampshade skeletons that hung from the waist) and the “hobble” skirts (narrow fitted skirts that drew the legs closely together through a “fetter” belt in order to create a hobble effect). An advocate of the bra over the corset, he was known for saying he had “freed the breasts and shackled the leg,” as the hobble skirts forced the wearer to take Geisha girl-like tiny steps. This would prove to be just the tip of the Oriental iceberg as Eastern ethnic motifs and silhouettes abounded in his work; Poiret was known for his turbans, jeweled and beaded tunics, harem pants and “Minaret dresses.” The Poiret look was a pantomime of a region’s folkloric characters from the shameless view of an almost infantile outsider — it created a race in itself, like Persian drag in a Parisian rinse.

Both more complicated and innocent than racist, Poiret’s purely aesthetic Orientalism was the romantic artist’s impossible answer to global chaos in a prewar era where problematic ideologies were cooking all around Europe. His look, of course, could not last in that world; Poiret’s reign was one of the most short-lived stints of influence that any legendary innovator could claim.

Flash to the France of La Belle Époque. The indulgent spirit of pre-World War I Paris meant that art movements and personal aesthetic ideals were carved out of a rich minority’s lofty visions. Poiret worked at the House of Worth — haute couture father Charles Frederick Worthington’s business — before leaving in 1903 to branch off from too-traditional craftsmanship. He wanted more than his own line; he wanted a fashion empire. He wanted to work in theater costume design and launch a perfume line (Les Parfums de Rosine made him the first designer to venture into the olfactory arena). He wanted to be a patron of the arts, keeping company with the artists whose work he purchased — in his case, Matisse, Modigliani, Picabia and Picasso. “I began to receive artists and to create around me a movement,” he wrote, an explanation that developed into his famous statement, “I am an artist, not a dressmaker.” By 1913, even the New York Times agreed: “If he had not been a dressmaker, he would have been an artist. Oh, he is original, this many-sided artist. He travels, like a comet in an orbit all his own.”

Not only did he run a nightclub and then a theater in his own garden, he also held famous parties there. Much of the modern cat-walk spectacle was born out of the stage he erected in his couture house, upon which he insisted models “act out” his clothes for guests.

Rather than his imagination shaping his parties, it was one of his early parties that ended up influencing his artistic vision. For not until his most famous gala in summer 1911 did Poiret fully embark on his life’s most consuming and damning obsession: the Orient.

Orientalism was in the air and Poiret was one of the first in the fashion world to catch the bug wholeheartedly. Of course it was rooted in the wrong things; Europe’s idea of the Orient was largely shaped by fear and misunderstanding of the Ottoman Empire’s threat. And that fear — like the very terror generated by our current War on Terror rhetoric — yielded to subversive fascination. Largely inspired by Leon Bakst’s set and costume design in the Ballets Russes productions, Poiret and much of Paris were particularly spellbound by a Middle East of folklore and fantasy, an airbrushed and technicolored version of their much-maligned Asian neighbors.

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On the night of June 24, 1911, Poiret outed his Eastern obsession with a bang, inviting three hundred guests to what he dubbed “The Thousand and Second Night” costume party. Presented on stationery decorated with Persian miniatures, the rules of attendance were simple but strict: dress in “Oriental” theme or else be refused entry, unless of course one was game to strip down at the door and sport the Persian-style clothes Poiret had designed “according to authentic documents.” Poiret himself played Nebuchadnezzar in full sultan’s garb, flanked by a group of his models as concubines in the “tradition of Islam.” Modeling in golden cages, they unveiled his harem trousers, which while perfect as party wear, caused a stir the morning after.

The harem trousers were instantly a scandal. Known as “jupesculotte” (“jupes” in modern French meaning “skirt,” derived from the Arabic “jubba” meaning “loose outer garment”; “culotte” meaning “trousers”) the ballooned trousers were tied at the ankles and mostly covered by a smock, resembling the recent tween favorite, gaucho pants. They shockingly blurred gender roles by putting women in pants. They also blurred class distinction in their reference to the garb of slave women. And of course, there was the racial blur — white women imitating brown?! Only Poiret’s crowd, the high-art aristocracy, embraced it blindly. Critics admired it cautiously — it was a wearable art, sure, but certainly it could not be worn in public.

How could Poiret justify the scandal? He chose to mask controversial fetish with class discourse: “In our democratic times, when everything is measured according to the banality of the masses, women would not dare put it on out of fear for what people might say. However, we wouldn’t dream of adapting it to ordinary usage. [Women] wear my outfits in the context of their aristocratic homes. These are residences of such an artistic cachet, so individual, so far above the crowd, that my clothes seem to complete the harmony in them.” Art was always the excuse for Poiret. If his public did not get his clothes, it was because they were common; if critics were appalled by his harem dress, it was because they weren’t uppity enough to reside in domestic galleries that simply demanded such sartorial drama. Elitism padded his iconoclasm.

By 1913, Poiret’s “Minaret dresses,” inspired by his costumes for Jacques Richepin’s popular Paris production of Le Minaret, were out of the private parties of the wealthy and on the streets — even in the States, with Macy’s creating a “Moorish Palace” on the eighth floor of its store. While the play’s directors tried to protect it from nationalist critics by insisting it was of “a Persia [that is] more French,” full of “Persian costumes for the Parisian imagination,” Poiret remained unshaken. “The sun rises from the East each day and it is in the East that all artistic revolutions are born,” read his reproduced handwritten inscription on Wanamaker’s invitations to their Le Minaret display.

But Poiret’s Orientalist fervor was simply seen as anti-French as World War I grew closer. Critics began to openly condemn his work as alien, Other, German, Russian, Eastern — everything but what it should be, purely French — and women’s tastes began to shift toward the prudent. Poiret did what he could to refute these charges by westernizing future collections, but it was too late. More condemning than adopting the Orient was the dangerous crime of mixing races. In his world, classicism was intertwined with Orientalism, couture with costume, male with female, high with low. Gallic purity had not just been challenged; it had been intoxicated.

Furthermore, Orientalist fervor — suffering from being uneducated, foundationless, fiction-fueled and escapist — was caving in on itself in general. Edward Said, in Orientalism, declared that much of Orientalism’s downfall lay in its dissociation with the real world: “I consider Orientalism’s failure to have been a human as much as an intellectual one, for in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience.” Fantasies of Otherness had become wearying for a France moving toward survivalist self-absorption and identity reinforcement. Humoring the wandering eye of artists was fruitless when the artists, after all, weren’t even Orientalizing properly. They were so aesthetically-driven that Poiret and his Orientalist-lite colleagues were barely conscious of the aspects of Orientalism that would have appealed to Western leadership of the time — much of the racial-superiority discourse and imperialist bloodlust that was to ignite another major world war. Instead they chose to be deliriously enamored of the mere glossy surface of the Orient. Orientalist art became at most a pretty Impressionistic blur when a people craved the photograph; cold hard true reality triumphed over intoxicating, mind-clouding, sybaritic theatrics.

So the curtains came down abruptly: in 1914 Poiret joined the military and closed his house until 1918. But as the twenties approached, he was never able to dress to the tastes of postwar women. Poiret’s investors bought the house, and became Paul Poiret Inc. He was eventually forced to declare bankruptcy in 1929. For the next fifteen years of his life he lived in poverty and obscurity, no one really bothering to remember the man who had once dressed Isadora Duncan and Sarah Bernhardt, who had Man Ray as a photographic assistant and Erte as a design employee. Everything he had helmed overshadowed him hopelessly in the jolted postwar climes of fashion’s anti-revolution.

Perhaps Poiret’s greatest achievement to date sadly came half a century after his death. Just as designers began to leap a century back and critics began Poiret-purring, last year a 600-piece collection of his designs, dating from 1905 to 1928, was discovered in the home of his granddaughter. In April 2005, Francoise Auguet, an antique clothes dealer, held an incredibly well-attended auction that reaped £1.2 million. Paris was more shocked than old Poiret would have been.

After all, the Paris world for many decades (and counting) engendered the single name that can be tagged to Poiret’s demise: Coco Chanel. His rival effortlessly took over his position by seizing the spirit of the political climate. Chanel’s signature “little black dress” projected images of standardization and practical utility — clothes for the sporty, cigarette-smoking, bob-haired, new twenties woman. The conformity, reproduction, simplicity and pure French chic that Chanel channeled was made for the culture of the time. Poiret biographers reluctantly recount his perhaps most tragic moment, when he met the young Coco Chanel and made a stab at her black dresses by snapping, “Who are you mourning for?” Her triumphant retort rang out like a gunshot: “For you, dear Monsieur.”