Paul Poiret – Corset Liberator

In the late 1960’s members of the American feminist movement, protesting for equal rights for their sex, urged compatriots to “burn their bras.” It is unlikely these items of lingerie were physically destroyed in any great number, but the cry may be recognized as a symbolic action and a need to reform the stereotype woman of the day – housewife or mother! However, fifty years earlier in late 1900’s, an artist/couturier successfully raised a call to “burn the corset.” This time a man was behind the ardent plea, one intent on changing the desirable contemporary female shape which had prevailed for many years prior to this. Who was he? Paul Poiret – often referenced as the father of modern fashion, whose early career was as apprentice to an umbrella maker. In spite of this unpretentious beginning, he was at heart an astute businessman and self-promoter.

These elements were vital in his mission to cause a revolution in the fashion world by initiating the demise of the of the dreaded “S” shaped corset which divided the female body into two “bulks.” In doing so, a new silhouette for the twentieth century was created. One befitting the lifestyle of the New Woman – now a more confident and outgoing person – yet viewed by some as a threat to the contemporary man. A look frequently modeled by his muse (another modern innovation), his young wife Denise Poiret. How did her husband succeed in instigating his controversial hallmark – a relative loosely fitted gown that allowed for the expression of the natural curves of the female form, now unencumbered by the corset? Poiret’s flair for publicity found its visual expression in the artistic talent of Paul Iribe, whom he commissioned to create the drawings for a small, deluxe album of his dress designs (Les Robes de Paul Poiret racontée par Paul Iribe, 1908) that was sent to his most important customers and to every crowned head in Europe. In this may be seen the beginnings of what most fashionistas today for granted – fashion illustration in its multifaceted forms. After this, in quick succession, was the founding of the Atelier Martine (named after his daughter) which in addition to acting as a showcase for his innovative designs embraced a school elevating the decorative arts by teaching and producing the latest in interior designs and furnishings. Poiret’s energy was inexhaustible as was his ability to foresee and create commodities that people now take for granted.

Today, it is expected a “celebrity” will lend their name (for a large fee of course) to a specific fragrance created for them. Yet Poiret was a forerunner in this form of advertising when he created his own brand of perfume “Rosine”. Named after a second daughter, and marketed in hand-blown bottles, it became an item of merchandise that not only enhanced his new creations but generated a further income. This father of modern fashion and corset liberator would many years later receive the following accolade from the renowned Christian Dior, who in his autobiography referenced Paul Poiret as “this great artist who excelled at creation and decoration.” The dissension his new shapes of female clothing caused previously, among the contemporary mothers who feared the effect such clothes would have on their daughters, had long been forgotten. Wily Paul Poiret always knew there is “no publicity like bad publicity” and any acrimonious debate would ultimate bring in its wake – success and fame for himself – and for Paul Iribe a triumphal international career as an illustrator.

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