Paul Poiret (1879-1944) was an influential French fashion designer during the early twentieth century. He led a fashion renaissance that introduced free-flowing dresses, replaced tight corsets with brassieres, and added a new standard of artistic value to his fashion plates.
Poiret was born on April 20, 1879 in Paris. His father was a cloth merchant, and Poiret lived with his parents and his three sisters in an apartment above the shop. Poiret's parents had an interest in the arts and embellished their home with whatever art works they could afford. The family also owned a country house outside of Paris, at Billancourt, where Poiret spent his spare time constructing fountains, pressing petals from the garden, and gathering odd bits of iron and junk into what he called his antique collection.
When Poiret was 12, he and his family moved to Rue des Halles in Paris, where Poiret attended Ecole Massillon. When his sisters contracted scarlet fever, he was sent away to boarding school in order to avoid the illness He was only an average student and was often homesick. Poiret was already interested in fashion and found pleasure in scanning magazines and catalogs; he also enjoyed going to the theater and art exhibits. After his graduation, at the age of 18, his father sent him to an umbrella maker to learn the trade. Poiret hated the business and continued to pursue his interest in fashion by drawing and sewing designs in his spare time, using a small wooden mannequin his sisters had given him.
The Maison Doucet
Poiret's big break came when a friend encouraged him to take some of his designs to a woman named Mademoiselle Choruit, at the Maison Raundnizt Soeurs. Mme. Choruit was impressed with Poiret's work and bought 12 designs from him, encouraging him to return with more. From there, Poiret started to gain other clients and to visit other dress houses. In 1896, a designer named Doucet offered Poiret a full time job. Poiret had to take his disbelieving father to Doucet's studio in order to convince him that the offer was real.
Poiret thrived at the Maison Doucet, which was at the height of its prosperity. His first design was a red cloak; 400 copies sold and customers demanded the design in other colors. Thus Poiret's position in the designing business was secured. At Doucet's, Poiret created new designs every week, which were then exhibited by ladies at the horse races on Sundays. Poiret also designed costumes for various theatrical productions, which he enjoyed greatly.
Encouraged by Doucet, who expressed appreciation and admiration for his employee's designs, Poiret threw himself into his work. People began to recognize his name and his designs. He was encouraged to venture out into Parisian society a little more. Upon doing so, Poiret met Madame Potiphar, with whom he began a love affair. Relations with his father became tense, as Poiret developed a taste for independence. His relationship with Doucet suffered a similar strain because of some professional indiscretions. As a result, Poiret left the Maison Doucet, but was relieved to learn that his mentor did not bear a grudge. Poiret always respected Doucet and considered him to be a friend.
Moved Up in the World of Design
Two months after leaving the Maison Doucet, Poiret was recruited into the army and spent the next year in military service. He did not enjoy this time, but did manage to gain a short leave of absence during which he returned to Paris and again engaged in, as Poiret explained in his autobiography, King of Fashion: The Autobiography of Paul Poiret, "the study of what pleased me: feminine elegance."
After fulfillment of his military obligations, Poiret returned to Paris and accepted a position at the dressmaking firm of Maison Worth, which was run by two brothers, Gaston and Jean Worth. Here, Poiret began to design dresses for the general public, rather than the high-society ladies of Paris. The result was a reformation in fashion that freed the body from constricting forms. Poiret's new dresses were simple in design, featuring a classical-style high waist-line, tubular shape, and long skirt. The colors were plain and bold, often with very small designs, which were popular at the time.
Gaston Worth appreciated the profit Poiret's designs brought. His brother Jean, on the other hand, hated the lowering of standards he perceived Poiret was bringing upon their business. At one point Poiret presented some designs to a Russian princess, who was appalled with them. Discouraged at his inability to please such an audience, and becoming more interested in designing for the general market, Poiret left the Maison Worth and set out on his own.
With some financial help from his mother (his father had passed away by this time), Poiret set up shop at No. 5, Rue Auber, in Paris. His shop was modest, but Poiret gained the attention of passers-by with elaborate and colorful window displays. Within a month, his dress shop became popular. Poiret perfected the cloak that the Russian princess had scorned and that eventually became so popular that, as he said in his autobiography, "Every woman bought at least one." He called it "Confucius," and credited it with the beginning of the Asian influence in fashion.
This was the age of the corset, and Poiret waged war upon it. He popularized the brassiere, which gave women much more freedom and comfort. At the same time, however, he also created the innovative and popular tight skirt. Neither of these inventions were initially profitable because of his dishonest bookkeeper. The bookkeeper's response to Poiret's accusations of theft was to suggest that they visit a psychic, who promptly identified him as the man who was stealing money from Poiret. Thus the bookkeeper was dismissed, and Poiret was able to move on with his business in a more successful way. Eventually the shop at Rue Auber became too small to contain Poiret's growing business, and he moved into a house on Rue Pasquier. A dressmaker operating out of his home was not a common occurrence at that time, and Poiret raised many eyebrows and endured many slanderous comments because of his unusual business practices. None of the criticism, however, affected his growing reputation.
Poiret was becoming increasingly popular with the public, but was somewhat dissatisfied with his personal life. He had drifted in and out of love affairs and now longed for something more stable. He decided to begin a family and married a simple country girl whom he had known as a child. Poiret and his new wife traveled throughout Europe, learning more about the arts.
A Strong Influence
In his autobiography, Poiret stated, "People have been good enough to say that I have exercised a powerful influence over my age, and that I have inspired the whole of my generation. I dare not make the pretension that this is true … "; however, he goes on to say that what influence he did have was not in the creation of new styles or restoring of color to a woman's wardrobe, both of which he did, but rather, he says, "It was in my inspiration of artists, in my dressing of theatrical pieces, in my assimilation of and response to new needs, that I served the public of my day." Fashion design had come under the influence of photography and the high standard of artistic influence, as revealed in the fashion plates of such publications as the Journal des Dames et des Modes, had disappeared. Poiret was refreshingly innovative in his approach to design, restoring the artist as an important and creative force in fashion.
An important example of Poiret's artistic influence was in his work with Paul Iribe. With Iribe creating the drawings that pictured Poiret's dresses, they produced a publication for the elite society titled Les Robes de Paul Poiret, racontees par Paul Iribe. Poiret produced a similar album with artist Georges Lepape two years later titled Les choses de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape. Both publications were tremendously successful. In these ways, Poiret helped artists gain exposure in the public eye and helped them develop their talents. Consequentially, fashion illustration and literature once again became very popular. New publications appeared, such as the monthly Gazette du Bon Ton, which featured many of Poiret's designs.
Poiret also promoted the careers of several actresses, who gained recognition partly because of the costumes he designed for them. Poiret was the first costume designer to consider the lighting and the background of each scene when creating dresses for a theatrical performance. For the first time, the costume creator and the scenic artists of the theater worked together to create a visual impression that was an experience in and of itself.
Poiret continued to promote his own career. He said in his autobiography, "I did not wait for my success to grow by itself. I worked like a demon to increase it, and everything that could stimulate it seemed good to me." One of the ways he did this was by organizing a tour of the main capitals of Europe with nine models, showing his designs. The tour, taken in two automobiles, took Poiret and the women to such cities as Berlin, St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Bucharest.
Poiret's interests included painting, boating, and participating in the Mortigny Club, a group of artists and dignitaries. He also established a school of decorative art in 1912, which he named Martine and which later provided Poiret with the inspiration for his founding of the Maison Martine. His school provided young Parisian women the opportunity to learn about design. The curriculum was unstructured, and the women were allowed to create as they wished, without criticism. The school gained the attention of many artists, including Raoul Dufy. Dufy and Poiret struck up a friendship, and Poiret sponsored Dufy in his artistic endeavors. Poiret even ventured into the world of art exhibition in 1924, when he exhibited Dufy's work. The endeavor proved to be unsuccessful, and Poiret did not pursue it further.
Perfumery and Parties
Poiret's career was temporarily halted when he was called into the military at the outbreak of World War I. He was released from service in 1917, after which he spent several months in Morocco, trying to recuperate from the experience of war. He then resumed his dressmaking business in Paris. By now he had established himself in the businesses of perfumery and interior decoration. Poiret also began conducting business with firms in America.
One of Poiret's favorite pastimes was giving parties, something that he had developed a passion for as a child. These huge fetes were elaborate and well attended and covered every gamut of entertainment, from dancers and orchestras to immense buffets and hundreds of carafes filled with exotic drinks. One party even featured a python, a monkey merchant, and a garden of wild animals. Some were based on themes, and others revolved around a performance in the "Oasis," a theater Poiret had created in his garden. Poiret also planned parties and balls for other people, events that were long remembered and talked about by those who attended.
Poiret spent his latter years indulging in his love of painting. He died on April 30, 1944 in Paris.
Further Reading on Paul Poiret
Choice, February 1991.
Mackrell, Alice, Paul Poiret, Holmes and Meier, 1990.
Pile, John, Dictionary of 20th-Century Design, Roundtable Press, Inc., 1990.
Poiret, Paul, King of Fashion: The Autobiography of Paul Poiret, translated by Stephen Haden Guest, J. B. Lippincott, 1931.