Before Poiret started designing in the early twentieth century women were very much restricted by clothes created to promote the ‘hour-glass figure’. High-necks, prominent busts, tiny waists and flowing skirts were all the rage. Pretty, but bland pastels were the colors of the day. Whalebone corsets were often so tight that they caused women to faint and doctors were demanding an end to them. Suffragettes also hated the uncomfortable clothes which distorted women’s figures and restricted their movements.
Poiret put an end to this and began a revolution in fashion. His soft, loosely-fitting, more comfortable outfits didn’t require petticoats or corsets. Empire-line dresses with high-waists replaced the ‘hour-glass’ designs. Simple chemises hung from the shoulders disregarded the emphasis on the figure. Cocoon coats, some of which were made from a single piece of fabric, replaced closely-fitted short styles which showed off the bust.
Part of this startling change was caused by Poiret’s penchant for draping his designs rather than fitting them to the figure. This was influenced by the Greek tradition of draping clothes onto the figure. This is still done by many designers today and was very modern at a time when there was an emphasis on tailoring.
According to Andrew Bolton, “Poiret transformed fashion from the 19th century to the 20th century, especially with his draping. He created the modern form of today.”
This fundamental change in style laid the foundation for Poiret’s designs but his fashion revolution didn’t stop there. He introduced the brassiere, harem pants and his famous lampshade tunics. He was influenced by clothes from many different countries – Oriental, Greek and Russian, for example. Although his harem pants were not popular, it was audacious to introduce them when a women’s place was still considered to be at home.
Bright, vivid colors replaced pale pastels. Rich, luxurious fabrics, such as velvet and brocade were worn instead of silks and muslins. Poiret often combined materials, such as velvet and leather. He also liked a lot of ornamentation, such as embroidery, turbans and aigrettes – plumes of feathers on hats. Poiret’s designs were exotic and almost eccentric, but feminine with their rosettes, embroidery and brocades.
Although Poiret was such an innovative designer he could not be called a ‘feminist’ designer by any means. The hobble skirt that he introduced, which has been in and out of fashion ever since, restricted the movement of the legs although the lack of tight corsets made it easier for women to breathe. As he said: “It was in the name of Liberty that I proclaimed the fall of the corset and the adoption of the brassiere which, since then, has won the day. Yes, I freed the bust, but I shackled the legs.”
The couturier considered himself an artist first and foremost, but advertising, marketing and even a very modern form of networking played an important role in his business. His perfumes were named after dresses in his collection, for example. He collaborated with famous artists, such as Lepape, Ibibe, and Erte on fashion illustrations. He engaged the artist Duffy to design fabric prints.
Unfortunately Poiret’s designs went out of fashion after the First World War when women had little time to indulge in luxury and wanted functional, easy-to-wear clothes. Chanel understood this and created sportswear, her famous suits, and the ‘little black dress’ for evening. There is a story that they met when Chanel was wearing black. “For whom do you mourn?” asked Poiret. “Why Monsieur, I mourn for you!” Chanel replied.
Probably the designer that Poiret has inspired most is John Galliano with his cocoon coats and luxurious materials. However, after the recent retrospective of Poiret designs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Poiret-influenced designs are very much in fashion again. Chemises, narrow dresses, embroidery and other Poiret features were seen at the latest collections.
After many years of neglect, fashion historians are realizing just how influential Poiret was. The designer Azzedine Alaa said that: “Next to Poiret, Coco Chanel looks like a little dressmaker.”