Designer: Paul Poiret (French, Paris 1879–1944 Paris)
Medium: linen, silk, cellulose
Credit Line: Isabel Shults Fund, 2005
Accession Number: 2005.200
From just before World War I to the closure of his maison de couture in 1929, Poiret's strongest narrative thread was his fantasy of the seraglio and his orientalizing evocations of the Near, Middle, and Far East, which earned him the sobriquet "Pasha of Paris." For Poiret and other modernists, the imagery of Eastern cultures offered a freedom from the traditions and conventions of the West.
Poiret's orientalism first manifested itself in his use of color. In his memoir, Poiret records that his vivid color palette was among his greatest innovations: "The taste for the refinements of the eighteenth century had led all women into a sort of deliquescence. Nuances of nymph's thigh, swooning mauves, tender blue hortensias, all that was soft, washed-out, and insipid, was held in honour. I threw into this sheepcote a few rough wolves; reds, greens, violets, royal blues, that made all the rest sing aloud." Bold colors were, in fact, popular from the mid-nineteenth century onward with the introduction of aniline dyes, but Poiret's originality was expressed in his exotically charged color combinations, a novelty that preceded the Ballets Russes' performance of Schéhérazade.
However, Poiret's most enduring and fundamental orientalism resides less in his vivid colors, or even in his opulent fabrics and lavish embroideries, than in the construction of his garments. It was the reductive planarity of such dress types as the caftan and the kimono, cut along straight lines and constructed of rectangles, that inspired and influenced Poiret's radical changes of silhouette. In his typically sybaritic manner, however, Poiret tended to conflate Western and non-Western apparel traditions. While utilizing the geometric simplicity of regional costumes, Poiret would introduce the shaping of Western dressmaking approaches to create garments that could only exist in the fictive, mythical East of Poiret's imagination.