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Paul Poiret – King of Fashion

Paul Poiret (1879–1944) French  

Illustration, George Barbier, 1912.

Originally, apprenticed to an umbrella manufacturer, Paul Poiret would sketch and create small dress models using the discarded silk scraps. His clothing career began in earnest with a position at the House of Worth under Charles Worths’ sons Gaston and Jean-Pierre. There he was expected to create the practical clothes while Jean-Pierre created the jewels – the  sumptuous evening gowns and fancy dress costumes. This arrangement did not last long, only from 1901 to 1903, as his creativity was not being used or appreciated.

Costume, 1913.

In his free time, Poiret designed for theatrical performances, which explains his more fanciful designs. His fluid cocoon shapes had ease and comfort. He took his cues from Grecian columns in creating dresses that fell supported from the shoulders with wide bateau necklines. He saw his work as art first. His simple flowing pieces were made in materials such as silk, velvet, lame, and brocades, in unusual colors and shapes that escalated them to luxuries.

Silk faille dinner dress, 1922-23

Notably, his work reversed the female silhouette he learned at the House of Worth, in the fact that he up-ended their preferred bottom-heavy triangle. Instead, strong shoulders appeared over an ever-decreasing skirt width. While Poiret succeeded in freeing women’s shoulders and waists, his invention, the hobble skirt, limited a woman’s stride to two or three inches at a time. In fact, corded “hobble garters” were worn just above the ankles to prevent regular walking strides from ripping skirt seams. Ironically, these were popular at the same time as suffragists were demonstrating in the streets, many wearing these decidedly challenging skirts. Another controversial action was his introduction of the v-neckline for daywear. This exposure of skin was considered a sure way to contract pneumonia.

"Sorbet" chiffon, satin, fur skirt and tunic, 1912.

His style, innovations, and influence on fashion:

  • The first couturier to advocate the elimination of the corseted female body.
  • Conceived new fashion shapes such as the kimono-sleeved coat in 1906, hobble skirts in 1910, harem pants in 1911, and the lampshade tunic in 1913.
  • Influenced by the Orientalist designs of Leon Bakst for the Russian Ballets Ruse, Poiret introduced a new dramatic palette and combination of colors.
  • He chose to name his clothes instead of the customary practice of using numbers to arrange a collection. An example: his “Sorbet” costume, a wire-hooped “lampshade” tunic atop harem pants in chiffon and gold fringe.
  • He was the first couturier to release fragrances; however, his were released by a company he created in his daughter Rosine’s name.
  • Artist Paul Iribe illustrated and released Les Robes de Paul Poiret racontees par Paul Iribe. This publication and other illustrations by Erte, Louis Barbier, and Georges Lepape served as early forms of visual marketing for Poiret’s designs.
  • In 1931, he authored his autobiography, King of Fashion.

Images: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) Museum of Los Angeles, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Sources: Dressmakers of France, (1956) Mary Brooks Pickens, Dora Loues Miller; Secrets of the Couturiers, (1984) Frances Kennett; Fashion (2003) Christopher Breward; Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, (2002) James Laver.

Lisa Williams



November 10, 2010 #

Paul Poiret was so avant-garde! I love his work and the George Barbier illustrations (in fact, I might even like those more.) I’m not sure I love the hobble-skirt idea, but the kimono sleeve and the lampshade tunic are pretty awesome.

Interesting to know he was influenced by Bakst and the Ballets Russes. I work at the V&A and we’ve got a Diaghilev exhibition on right now which has lots of Bakst costumes – but I don’t think I remember there being any clothes by Poiret on display, unfortunately!

Mary Beth @ ✄ Fabric U ✄ iPhone app

November 10, 2010 #

I think the Chicago History Museum has some outstanding Paul Poiret pieces….in a collection that’s often overlooked nationally. That first dress looks surprising contemporary…especially this season which seems to be all about color blocks: half the dress front is one color; the rest, contrast. Same deal on the back. Somehow it works without looking clown-like! MB


November 10, 2010 #

I just posted about Poiret the other day.


November 17, 2010 #

Fascinating! That lampshade thing . . . whoa. Some of his concepts were brilliant; that one? Not so much. :)


August 23, 2011 #

I actually have one of his dresses. Anyone interested in seeing it can view it on ebay. ty shirley