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Poiret, Paul

designs silhouette fashion women

B. April 20, 1879

D. 1943

Birthplace: Paris, France

Paul Poiret received a baccalaureate in science and business from the Ecole Massillon, all the while sketching and draping fashions inspired by his love of theater and fine art. After school, Poiret’s father, a cloth merchant, wanted his son to experience the business world and learn a professional trade, and he secured him an apprenticeship in an umbrella design shop. While working for the umbrella shop, Poiret continued sketching and sold his designs to the couture houses of Cheruit, Worth, Redfern, Doucet, and Paquin.

At nineteen, Jacques Doucet offered Poiret a position in his couture house as an assistant tailor. The position revealed Poiret’s true talent for designing. As Poiret honed his sewing, cutting, and pattern-making skills, he earned the respect of Doucet, who eventually allowed him to design clothing for some of his clients. However, Poiret was fired by Doucet after allowing a client to have his designs made by a local dressmaker for a fraction of the cost, instead of by Doucet’s seamstresses.

Even though Poiret had an inherent gift for design, he lacked social skills and he did not work well with others. In 1901 Poiret accepted a position with the renowned couturier Charles Frederick Worth, but the two clashed and Poiret departed. Poiret’s only option was to open his own house. In 1903 Poiret founded Maison Poiret. The decorative window displays lured clients into Poiret’s house, and soon he had a loyal clientele.

Poiret began designing during the Directoire Period, a time when most women were corseted into rigid “S-curve,” or monobosom, silhouettes with full skirts. Poiret disapproved of the restrictive fashion, and instead, in 1906, he promoted the empire silhouette with a slim skirt which followed the natural curves of the body. The silhouette he developed was inspired by his wife Denise, whom he wanted to free from corsets, and the drapery of classical Greek dress. Poiret continued to develop new design variations on this same theme, incorporating elements of Eastern dress, such as kimonos, until his designs evolved into a new silhouette: a dress which had the appearance of a tunic and a skirt he paired with a turban.

Poiret aggressively promoted his designs. He created fashion booklets entitled Les Robes de Paul Poiret which were illustrated by artist Paul Iribe. He also promoted his designs through lavish garden parties and theme parties where models paraded among guests wearing his fashions. His collections were so successful that they were featured in journals throughout Europe. Between 1909 and 1912, Poiret did something quite unique: He initiated a series of fashion lecture tours across Europe to promote his fashions. He traveled to Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, and Vienna to present the new, corsetless silhouette he had developed.

Poiret’s empire waist, tunic silhouette continued to evolve into another new silhouette, the “Hobble Skirt,” a long, straight skirt that was so narrow that the wearer could not take full strides when walking, nor bend at the knee to climb stairs, thus “hobbling” with each step. The silhouette, introduced in 1911, drew worldwide attention and was frequently the subject of satirical drawings mocking women who adopted the fashion. Despite the impracticality, women all around the world adopted the fashion. Almost simultaneously, Poiret introduced another silhouette, harem pants, which gave women’s bodies the freedom they deserved. Ironically, this fashion was not widely adopted; it was still considered taboo for women to wear pants.

Excited about his new designs, Poiret decided to begin another lecture tour in 1913, this time in America. Poiret was the first couturier to bring his designs to New York for a fashion show. Much to his surprise and indignation, Poiret discovered that American women were already wearing knock-off versions of his fashions. Enraged, Poiret canceled his tour and returned to Paris. In 1914 Poiret, president of Le Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, convened a meeting to write Le Syndicale de Defense de la Grande Couture Française, legislation that would make it illegal for anyone to copy another’s designs. The legislation did not pass until 1950.

During World War I, Poiret enlisted in the French infantry as a tailor, after temporarily closing his couture house. When he returned, he relaunched his couture house, but society and fashions were changing, and Poiret was not interested in changing with them. In 1922 Poiret arranged a second fashion tour of the United States hoping to sell his “American collection” as samples for exportation. Poiret hoped to find a manufacturer who would buy the samples and pay him royalties for reproducing the designs. Unfortunately, Poiret was not able to find a suitable arrangement for his apparel line, but he did sign an exportation contract with a manufacturer for his accessories.

The 1920s were not kind to Poiret. His designs were out of touch with the new, active woman, and he was forced to close his couture business. He also divorced his wife, who had always been his inspiration. Poiret continued to live an elaborate lifestyle, but he no longer had the financial means to support himself. Attempting to resurrect his career in the 1930s, Poiret accepted a design position with the French department store Printemps, but he soon left. Poiret spent his remaining years in a charity hospital, in relative obscurity, painting until his death in 1943.

In Poiret’s brief, but spectacular, career he bridged the gap between nineteenth- and twentieth century fashions; between women as objects and women as active members of society. His work paved the way for designers such as Chanel to create fashions for the new, modern woman in the 1920s.

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