Poiret in New York

Originally posted by Jonathan Walford, author of The Seductive Shoe: Four Centuries of Fashion Footwear and Ready to Tear - Paper Fashions of the 1960s at The Vintage Fashion Guild Forums - click here to discuss the exhibit.


I wrote a review of the Poiret exhibition for another costume journal, so thought I might as well put it here as well:

‘Poiret: King of Fashion’ is the current costume exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (sponsored by Balenciaga Paris). Unlike the Met’s 2005 commercial-looking Chanel display or last summer’s theatrical and borderline content-free ‘Anglomania’ show, Poiret: King of Fashion avoids the pitfalls of its predecessors.

Like Poiret’s clothing designs, the exhibition is simple, colourful and elegant. Hand painted two-story theatrical backdrops of spring gardens, party-light strewn terraces, and dark Oriental lounges set the scene for the groupings of garments. Most of the clothes from the Costume Institute’s collection were made for Poiret’s muse-wife Denise and were acquired by the Institute in 2005 in Paris at an auction of Denise Poiret’s clothes. The garments do not overly favour glamour but show a realistic balance of smart walking suits, exotic embroidered coats, block printed tunic dresses, harem trouser evening gowns, classically draped negligees, and elaborate beaded party dresses. It becomes abundantly clear through the fifty gowns on display why most fashion historians call Poiret the founder of modern fashion. Famous for abandoning the corset, Paul Poiret (1879 – 1944) used simple cuts, luxurious fabrics and saturated colours to create his designs. The chemise dress, originally known as a ‘minute robe’ because it could be made up so quickly, was an early brush with modernism along with his straight hanging pleated skirts and kimono cut coats. Poiret revived harem trousers with little success but much publicity and introduced a ‘T’ shaped blouse that was essentially a forerunner of the T-shirt. Poiret’s interest in historical and exotic sources was obvious in his designs but he was not a tailor – Poiret draped his clothes. Poiret was also an excellent businessman and knew how to use the press to promote his designs. Understanding the power of celebrity, he hob-knobbed with the artsy crowd of his day and dressed actresses on and off stage. He was also the first designer to create a scent – Rosine, in 1911.

If I have to find fault with this exhibition, I would point to the lack of identification of prop clothes such as Fortuny Delphos dresses under theatre coats and various hats to complete 1920s daytime ensembles. At first I wasn’t sure I liked the elongated grey- toned alien-eyed mannequins but I see the inspiration for the installation was borrowed from contemporary artists of Poiret’s day, in the same way Poiret borrowed ideas for his clothes. The mannequin faces resemble Modigliani portraits and because of this, they are the perfect choice for Poiret clothes. However, when it comes to depicting hair, the stylized mannequins become problematic. Organdy knotted hairstyles look intentionally but not always successfully like turbans.

For me, the most controversial element appeared at the entrance and exit of the exhibition. Here, digital animated presentations show how a length of fabric was folded and sewn into two different garments. The dress from which the presentation was created is lit up behind the scrim for the finale. I know museums often feel they have to use technology to appeal to their audience and these presentations did draw crowds but did they really teach anything that could not have been learned faster and better in a simple line drawing? No. In fact the problem with the presentations was their speed where clever little tucks and pleats were glossed over too quickly for anyone to understand exactly how Poiret had manipulated the fabric. I usually tend to see presentations like these more as gimmicks than educational tools but I am sure others will disagree with me. Regardless, these are minor issues and hardly worth mentioning in what is an overall landmark costume exhibition – the best I have seen produced by the Met.

The oversized $65.00 book on Poiret offered to accompany the exhibition is a glorious all-colour publication with close-up shots of details. However, many of the garments photographed in the catalogue do not appear in the exhibition and those garments that are in both book and exhibition appear on different mannequins, so don’t expect the book to be a catalogue of the exhibition, it is not. Regardless, the book is a worthy purchase and an important addition to any library of fashion history. Go to New York if you can and take in the Poiret exhibition before it closes in August – it is worth it!

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Chemise dress


The earliest example in the exhibition, coat, c. 1905


Image from the catalogue of one of Poiret's famous costumes c. 1911