Paul Poiret’s memoirs ‘En Habillant l’époque,’ which literally translates as ‘Dressing the Age,’ were written in 1930, almost two decades after the height of his fame. At the end of his manuscript, Poiret wrote that though he continually felt ideas for new dresses germinating ‘under his skin,’ his glory days had passed. Poiret traced his fascination with dress to his childhood family. He dedicated his memoirs to his mother, who he considered supremely elegant, and described how his sisters gave him a forty-centimetre wooden mannequin, which he lovingly draped in silks, in both Parisian and Oriental styles.
Poiret cast himself as an artist-designer, whose vision of femininity radically differed from that of the early 1900s fashion he encountered during his tenure at the couturiers Doucet and Worth. He claimed that he waged war on corsets, which had divided women’s bodies into two distinct peaks, comprising the neck and breasts on one side, and the hips and buttocks on the other. However, he recalled how his more holistic outfits, with their narrow hobble skirts, made women cry, gnash their teeth, and complain that they could not walk, or get in and out of a car easily. Overall, however, Poiret regarded his relationship with women as mutually beneficial. He likened the women he dressed to orbiting planets, who relied upon ‘his sun’ to shine; but simultaneously considered that his favourite mannequin Paulette, a ‘vaporous’ blonde, with the cylindrical shape of a cigarette, was a true collaborator, because she brought his designs to life.
Poiret considered that his primary innovation in fashion was relinquishing the etherealized palette of rose, lilac, powder-blue, maize-yellow and white that had dominated French women’s clothing from the eighteenth century, in favour of opaque, Fauvist tones, including royal blue, strong greens, reds and violets and acidic orange and lemon hues that made women’s silhouettes ‘sing.’ Poiret’s incorporation of these bold hues, alongside Orientalising components, such as the Minaret ensemble of 1911, which featured turbans and hip-skimming lampshade tunics, alongside harem pants, introduced an expressive, if still decorative, vision of womanhood. Rather than blending into the background in pastel tones, the women he dressed would stand out for their exoticism. A photo-plate from Poiret’s Arabian Nights-themed party, the 1002nd Night, of 1911, shows non-Western attitudes to the body, as guests of both sexes in turbans, belted kaftans and variations upon the Minaret outfit, crouch or sit cross-legged upon a Persian rug. Extravagant feathers, which emerge from the guests’ turbans, contribute a festive and frivolous air to proceedings.
Still, the photograph’s grainy, cinematic greyscale imbues the image with a nostalgic air. One gets the impression that the colour and vibrancy of the original party resonated with memories of a vanished world. Interestingly, Poiret wrote that after his experimentation in the early 1910s, colours in fashion became ‘anemic and neurasthenic’ once more. Poiret’s memoirs, with their slate-blue leather skin, blue-marbled inside cover, and black and white photographic inserts, did not only reflect the colouristic limitations of publishing in 1930, but express their distance from the Orientalism that made the author’s reputation.