The Parisian Orientalism of Paul Poiret

By Ioanna Karagiorgou

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Poiret’s Orientalist glamour – illustrated by George Barbier

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Poiret coats – illustrated by Georges Lepape

The Orient has long been a point of fascination for the Europeans. Despite the various different civilizations and cultures it hosts, for the Western eye it has always been one big cohesive mysterious and barbaric place where the imagination runs wild. Edward Said was one of the first scholars to put that theory into a homogenized discourse defining the concept of Orientalism as ‘a play of domination and fantasy; a European invention, a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences’ (Said 2003). By identifying the ‘’East’’ as the opposite of the ‘’West’’, Europeans created a sense of mental and cultural superiority over their colonies. As well as the geographical borders, they created imaginary ones that defined the colonized ‘’Other’’.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, certain constructed images of the Orient were created and disseminated through the arts and literature. This fascination of course didn’t leave fashion unaffected. Paul Poiret was the first couturier to relate fashion successfully to other arts. He picked up on Orientalism as a source of inspiration that had been a craze since the end of the 19th century, but reached its peak with the performances of the Ballet Russes in Paris in 1909. From 1907 until the First World War he introduced a great number of collections that consisted of Kimono coats, harem trousers, gowns with vivid colors and exotic patterns; all of them following a simpler and more natural line in total contrast with the strict lines that governed the Belle Époque period (Mendes, De la Hayes 2010).

His collaborations with skilled illustrators also played an important role by giving an extra allure to his designs. Photography of that time couldn’t capture the vivid colors of Poiret’s creations, so with the help of Georges Lepape, George Barbier, Paul Iribe, Leon Bakst and Erte – some of the most modern illustrators of that time – Poiret created illustrated albums as a means of advertisement (Steele 1998 ). So successful were the albums that the French editor Lucien Vogel suggested the idea for the monthly fashion magazine La Gazette du Bon Ton (White 1973).

Poiret’s fascination with the East didn’t stop at incorporating Eastern aesthetics in his designs, but went a step further: he also incorporated Orientalism into his lifestyle. Described as a highly theatrical figure (Troy, 2003), he adjusted the interior design of his couture house to be more ‘’exotic’’, and gave famous extravagant parties for the Parisian elite, employing Orientalism as a subject, with the most famous ‘’The Thousand and Second Night’’ ball in 1911.

The performances of the Ballets Russes continued to keep the Orientalism craze alive. Poiret and the Ballets Russes had a close relationship, and he created many of their costumes. After Scheherazade in 1910, the Ballets Russes became very widespread throughout Europe, particularly in France. Numerous plays followed that exploited exotic themes which expressed ‘the Russian idea of an Orient as seen by the French’ (Troy 2003). These plays were inspired by India, Russian folk, Hungarian folk German folk, Persia, China but all of them fell into the category of the Oriental ‘’Other’’. According to Schouvaloff (1997) that French construction of the Oriental ‘’Other’’ along with the highly original conception of every aspect of the Ballet Russes, helped to revitalize what was a long tradition, of French interest in the Orient.

References:

Mendes, V. De la Haye, A. (2010) Fashion since 1900. London: Thames & Hudson

Said, S (2003) Orientalism. London: Penguin Group

Schouvaloff, A. (1997) The Art of the Ballet Russes: the Serge Lifal Collection of theater design, costumes and paintings at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Wadsworth Atheneum

Steele, V. (1998) Paris Fashion: a cultural history. Oxford: Berg

Troy, N. (2003) Couture Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press

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