The Designer Who Gave Women A Chance to Breathe

A 1912 chemise dress that was worn by the designer's wife and muse, Denise.
A 1912 chemise dress that was worn by the designer's wife and muse, Denise. (Courtesy Of Anna Marie Kellen)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007

NEW YORK -- The exhibition "Poiret: King of Fashion," which opened Wednesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, is both graceful and muscular, serving as a thoughtful and enlightening homage to a little-known French designer who was influential in the years before the First World War. It is a poetic exhibition that dazzles the eye, exercises the intellect and at times soothes the soul in the manner of a fine oil painting.

Fashion historians credit Paul Poiret with freeing women from the confines of the corset in 1906. He was a modernist designer who embraced the simplicity of the chemise, the natural suppleness of an unrestricted female form and the sensuality of garments draped on the body rather than tailored to it. (His ability to transform a rectangular piece of cloth into a coat without a single cut is demonstrated in the exhibit with computer animation.)

His ideal of female beauty was a slight figure, but not a bony one. Still feminine, not androgynous. Even at their simplest, Poiret's clothes evoked femininity with embroidery and flourishes such as feathers and fabric rosettes.

The clothes are the stars of this exhibition, which runs through Aug. 5. But there is a stellar supporting cast, which includes glorious painted backdrops that transform the galleries into whimsical dreamscapes, along with the work of the French painter Raoul Dufy, with whom Poiret collaborated on textiles for some of his most luxurious fur-trimmed evening coats.

The backdrops, by set designer Jean-Hugues de Chatillon, evoke the spirit of the times through re-creations of a dressing room or a formal garden, but also bring to life Poiret's imagination with their impressionistic quality. All too often clothes hung on mannequins in a stark gallery lose the vibrancy that made them so captivating when real women walked, danced and lounged in them. Instead of speaking of a woman's strength or her insecurities, the clothes become inarticulate boors, droning on about the importance of this or that dart. In "Poiret," the clothes deliver lively snatches of party chatter, artistic ruminations and cultural observations.

"Poiret" is the Costume Institute's spring exhibition, which means that it opens with the enormous fanfare of a gala attended by much of boldface Manhattan and Hollywood. Too often, the party that is meant to celebrate the exhibit utterly overwhelms it. Or the exhibit gets tangled up in the subtle pressures of corporate sponsors that also are the subject of the show. Or the topic is simply not that intriguing.

"Poiret," however, is a breath of fresh air. It is free from any hint of corporate browbeating from sponsor Balenciaga. And it stands up to the hoo-ha of pretty people in even prettier clothes.

The Monday night party was a glamorous affair reigned over by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who inspired guests to look as good as genes, bank accounts and connections would allow. There were no prom dresses, glued-on sequins, or cocktail attire posing as black tie.

As far as the eye could see, there were feathered, bejeweled and bedazzled specimens of models and actresses, editors and designers, businessmen and socialites. They were done up in Christian Dior, Balenciaga, Versace, Giorgio Armani, Michael Kors, Ralph Rucci, Prada and so forth. Hollywood swans were plentiful: Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu, America Ferrera, Kirsten Dunst, Jennifer Connelly. Philanthropist Deeda Blair glided through the museum galleries in a cloud of smoky silk Rucci. And the men -- Harry Connick Jr., Michael Bublé, Mick Jagger, David Bowie and the untold numbers of drummers and bass players from bands almost no one in the room had ever heard of -- all looked dashing in their tuxedos, silk scarves and occasional pocket squares of color.

Guests sat for dinner amid a tableau of painted screens, ate unremarkable food and drank a memorable Montrachet. After the main course, Jennifer Hudson, the Academy Award winner for "Dreamgirls," roused the crowd with a handful of torch songs, including "La Vie en Rose" -- in English, not French -- and her showstopper "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Afterward, guests rose from their $6,500 seats and headed toward the exits, leaving behind what appeared to be a magnificent mocha dessert, the details of which will go missing here because no one wants to be the only person left at a table greedily spooning down the sweets.

This is the sort of pop culture tsunami against which the exhibit had to compete.

But "Poiret" is a visual stunner with a lot to say. The curators, Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, emphasized Poiret's role in shaping the contemporary fashion industry. He was the first designer to launch both a perfume and a decorative arts company, setting the stage for what is now considered "lifestyle" dressing. He associated himself with actresses and used them to promote his clothes. He hosted flamboyant parties as a form of social and business marketing and networking.

He worked with artists, such as Dufy, to create textiles, which he incorporated into his collections. And, of course, he had his muse and confidante: his wife, Denise.

The exhibition, the first examination of the designer's work by a major museum in more than 30 years, would have been impossible without an auction of Poiret clothes in Paris two years ago. The clothes had belonged to Denise Poiret. After 23 years of marriage, they divorced in 1928 and Poiret told her to take whatever she wanted. She wisely departed with virtually every frock she could carry.

She recognized Poiret's place in fashion history and preserved the evidence. He was blind to it, busy crafting his reputation as an artist. In the late 1920s, he abdicated his leading role as fashion's modernizer to Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel and began looking backward for inspiration instead of to the future. Paul Poiret died in 1944 at age 65 after squandering his money and living off the kindness of friends for almost a decade.

He had the kind of tunnel vision that afflicts a good number of designers today. These are men and women so intent on portraying themselves as aesthetes that they can't appreciate what they have done to make the lives of women -- and men -- easier, more comfortable and more beautiful.

"Poiret" is a reminder not to forget just how exquisite and expressive clothes can be.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company