Oswald Birley was a prolific British portrait artist active between 1919 and 1951. He was one of the most beloved portraitists of the British monarchy, political leaders and other powerful men. He completed the portrait of the young British debutante Miss Muriel Gore in 1919, however the information available on this work and its subject is extremely scarce. Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny Gown was completed at a time of significant social change for women, started in the final years of the nineteenth century and becoming more prominent with the end of the First World War. This change was translated in fashion and was echoed in the success the designs of Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo found in this historical time.
The scarcity of information available on Miss Gore’s life allows only for a partial understanding of her figure. It is likely that she was Scottish and belonged to the aristocratic upper class, as she was related in some way to Lady Mabell Gore, Countess of Airlie, wife to the 11th Earl of Airlie. It is plausible to say that, at the time the portrait was completed, Miss Gore was still nubile and probably making her debut in society. A few elements of this portrait, such as her title (Miss rather than Mrs.), the absence of a wedding ring, and her youthful appearance support this idea. After careful analysis, the only element revealing her social status remains the expensive Fortuny gown. Known as the Delphos gown, and existing in a variety of versions, this design stands out as the most typical of the Fortuny style.
A pleated tunic inspired by a robe seen on male and female Greek statues from the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, as well as figures painted on vases, the Delphos was named after the antique sculpture known as ‘Charioteer of Delphi,’ adorned with a long chiton held in place at the shoulders by simple bronze clasps. Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (1871-1949), a Venice-based Spanish artist and designer, patented the dress in 1909. The creation of a single sleeveless Delphos was a highly intricate production that reportedly took eight hours in total. The fabric was a luxurious silk imported from Japan, and the characteristic pleating, usually consisting of between 430 and 450 pleats per fabric width, was achieved by a process of evaporation. The wet and folded silk was laid on heated porcelain tubes, also patented in 1909, which permanently fixed such tight pleats in the material so that the dress looked carved or pressed. This time-consuming and complicated manufacturing process, along with the precious fabric used, made the price of this gown stratospheric, and it was only affordable for women of conspicuous means, such as Muriel Gore. The Fortuny pleat, which did not wrinkle nor lose its shape, expanded slightly over the natural feminine curves, remaining compact in other areas, thus creating alluring zones of light and shadow. Fortuny was particularly interested in enhancing the brilliance of the silk, and he found in albumin, an extract of egg whites, the perfect substance to do so. With the help of a brush, albumin was applied on the humified fabric, functioning on the pleats as a fixing agent, increasing the brilliance, and adding flexibility and softness to the fabric. Birley masterfully translated the characteristic traits of the Delphos gown on his canvas, in particular the malleable quality of the fabric when touched by light and the resulting effects of chiaroscuro, which was also highly important for the designer.
Fortuny’s vision of fashion stemmed from his travels to Greece in 1906, where he found antique printed textiles and admired the beauty of the archaic Korai and Delphi’s Charioteer. His intention was never that of becoming a couturier like Worth; he did not present an annual collection, nor show separate summer and winter designs. His aim was to find his own version of a timeless ideal form, detached from the fleeting trends of fashion, and with his Delphos gown he successfully transformed the past into an eternal present.
The Delphos gown quickly became a must-have garment for the most cultured and liberated women of the time. Eccentrics, divas, intellectuals and aristocrats flocked to buy Fortuny’s dress, which spoke of refined extravagance while exalting the personality of the wearer. The association with such timeless beauty attracted those women who could perceive the uniqueness of the dress, and Miss Gore may be seen as one of them, as she decided to be portrayed wearing a Delphos. With this gesture, she also implicitly showed her support to the movement that had started in the years just before World War I, freeing women from corsets and rigidly constructed gowns. Dancers like Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Loïe Fuller made the liberation of women’s dress a cause, and they did so by performing their pioneering choreographies enveloped in mermaid-like Delphos. Their choreography sought to express a mix of asceticism and sensuality associated with the Minoan women who had inspired Fortuny’s creations.
The controversial nature of the Delphos stemmed precisely from the sensuality presented by the gown, in particular the ‘clinging fashion’ with which it enveloped the female body to reveal its shape and rendered lingerie impossible to wear. In a society that had not totally abandoned the use of tight bustiers and stays, this feature understandably caused quite a scandal, and the gown was initially considered more suited to be worn in the privacy of one’s home, or complemented by a shawl, coat or robe when in public, often designed by Fortuny himself. Likely aware of such tensions, Miss Gore chose to be portrayed wearing an embroidered shawl over her Delphos, which she gently falls down to her elbows to uncover another beautiful detail of Fortuny’s design: the drawstrings used to tighten and change the height of the short arum-lily sleeves.
During his life, Birley was considered one of the most gifted portraitists both in Britain and overseas for his ability to combine physical likeness with psychological realism. The portrait of Miss Muriel Gore, dated 1919, shows the image of a wealthy debutant, nonetheless controversial for her clothing choice. The expensive Fortuny gown Miss Gore decided to be depicted with carries meaning reflecting not only her social status but also her character and personality Ultimately, Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny Gown emblematically illustrates how eloquent the depiction of a dress can be in the context of a portrait, as it becomes the only key to unlock the mystery surrounding the sitter’s identity.
By Simona Mezzina
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Mariano Fortuny: un Espagnol à Venise. Edited by Sophie Grossiord. Paris: Palais Galliera, Paris Musées, 2017.