MARCEL PROUST, in "Remembrances of Things Past," put Albertine and Madame Guermantes in Fortuny dresses and called Fortuny "faithful to the antique but powerfully original."
Kay, in Mary McCarthy's, "The Group," was buried in her dream dress, a Fortuny bought after her suicide by her friend Lakey.
Lillian Gish, Ethel Barrymore, Isadora Duncan, Irene Worth and Greta Garbo were Fortuny devotees. Gloria Vanderbilt is among the modern collectors who continue to wear his timeless pleated dresses that are kept rolled and twisted into small boxes for travel or storage.
Just the same, Spanish artist Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, who was a pioneer in photography and an innovator of lighting systems, an architect, a designer of sets and stage machinery, who got at least 20 patents including one for his famous pleated dresses, may not be a household name.
Though he died in 1949, only recently has there been a major Fortuny exhibition in Europe or America. He never had a major house in Paris showcasing his designs, though Paul Poiret carried them at one time. His clothes were never his total preoccupation. Stage lighting and engraving took up much of his creative time. Everything was made specially for individuals and never produced in quantity.
Fortuny's pleated dresses and velvet cloaks, his most enduring acheivements, have influenced designers in Paris and New York and brought top prices in New York auction houses recently. Last year a silver gray pleated Fortuny gown sold for $4,400 at Sotheby Parke Bernet, and last month a record $5,000 was paid for a circa 1930 hooded cape in muted teal velvet. Not much less than the going price for Chanels and Paul Poiret designs.
Buillermo de Osma, who has written an absorbing biography of Fortuny, thinks the artist was ignored largely because he bypassed the world of commercial fashion. "The quality and magic of the clothes rose above these prejudices. They fascinated and inspired writers, intellectuals and many influential people in the world of art and society. They understood that his designs, flowing from a unique idea, were developed like paintings, each one is a work of art."
Even as costume exhibitions became more popular in the last two decades, Fortuny never got the attention many believe he deserved. "Fortuny was considered passe and out of style," says Robert Riley, curator of the Edward C. Blum Design Laboratory at the Fashion Institute of Technology where 75 Fortuny costumes and at least 25 examples of his extraordinary textiles are on display. cThe New York exhibit, which includes dresses borrowed from Gloria Vanderbilt, costume collector and restaurant hostess Tina Chow, Vera Maxwell and Lillian Gish, was preceded by a Fortuny exhibit in Lyons, France, the first major exhibition in Europe of Fortuny's works, and moves on to Chicago in the fall. Vanderbilt did not wear one of her 13 Fortuny dresses to the FIT opening. "They are all on loan for the exhibit," she said.
In the first room of the FIT galleries, dimly lit because of the fragile nature of the fabrics, are the pillows and widths of fabric stretched on canvases to show off the extraordinary intaglios in velvet and silk. Next door, mannequins painted to look like old porcelain with heads recast to give them classical Greek hairdos, display the extraordinary dresses, cloaks and coats borrowed from collectors and musuems.
"Assembled for the exhibition is that part of Fortuny's unique art, a glowing legacy of timeless design from the hands of the man known as 'The Magician of Venice,'" says Riley, co-curator of the New York show with Christa Mayer Thurman of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Says Paris couturier Hubert de Givenchy, who saw the Fortuny show in Lyons, "Most people think of Fortuny as the Venetian who made pleated dresses, but he did much more. Fortuny invented a richness of color, an exotic ambience and melange of mysterious prints, simple shapes and details." They influenced Givenchy's last collection immensely, he said.
Adds Fortuny biographer Guillermo de Osma, "[he] . . . is a mysterious and intriguing figure who still exerts today the fascination which captivated his contemporaries. For d'Annunio he was an alchemist, for Proust an inspired son of Venice, for Ojetti a magician and for Regnier a Renaissance man, an artist who had a deep knowledge of all the arts."
Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo was born in 1871 in Granada, Spain. When the elder Fortuny died the family moved to Paris where his mother's brother, an established portrait painter, encouraged the young Fortuny to paint. Fortuny's severe bout with asthma, thought to be an allergy to horses, caused the family to move to Venice where the only horses were bronze. He took drawing classes in the evening, leaving his days free to experiment with photography and study the old paintings in galleries and churchs. According to biographer de Osma, Fortuny fell under the spell of Richard Wagner after visiting Bayreuth, and spent many years experimenting with stage sets and lighting and illustrating wagnerian operatic themes.
With his wife Henrietta he set up a work shop in one room of the Psaro Palace, a spendid palace of the 16th century, ramshackled and taken over by hundreds of squatters when Fortuny moved there in 1907. Slowly they restored the building to some of its past grandeur.
In the pre-World War I period when others in Europe were experimenting with new forms of dance and dress, music and math, Fortuny found comfort and fresh ideas in looking back. "His fabrics were stencilled in his variation of the pochoir process which is ages old. His loops and buttons of silk cording and Murano beads reach back in history. His pleated silk, undulating and clinging to the body, suggest the stylized draperies of ancient Egypt and Greece," says Robert Riley, curator at the Edward C. Blum Laboratory at FIT.
His first clothing designs were large rectangular veils to be draped freely around the body of the dancers for whom they were made. Ruth St. Denis, Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham were among the many dancers who at some time used his designs.His finely pleated silk satin tunic dress known as the Delphos, was inspired by the Ionic chiton. It simply hung from the shoulders and shadowed the figure, kept from swinging away from the body by Venetian beads. "They clung to the figure with the persistence of a tax collector," says Dame Rebecca West in the FIT catalogue introduction, adding that they made "even the slenderest women . . . a sister to the hippopotomus."
His printed velvet gowns, with side panels of silk pleating, spun off from the paintings of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance which he admired. Many of the velvets in the FIT show are stencilled to achieve a warm, mellow, old velvet effect.
Fortuny controlled every stage of everything he made. For his dresses he started with the finest silks from China or Japan, but ground his own paints and mixed his own natural dyes -- marigold petals for the amber shades, for example -- and even turned his own hems. He also developed his own film, devised a tool for his engraving, built his own furniture and lamps, created his own model domed theater which still exists in the palazzo Fortuny in Venice today.
His dresses were fragile, not meant to be worn to parties as they sometimes are today, but for wearing at home for tea parties and the like. And since homes were chilly he made velvet wraps to wear over the dresses. Lillian Gish says she saved her Fortunys for the most special occasions like "if Eugene O'Neill and Carlotta Monterey or Thorton Wilder came to dine, or if Italians came to visit." Many of the gowns in the FIT show are longer than floor length and petal out at the bottom. "Fortuny envisioned women gently lifting the fabric so that the pleats would break and create a lovely, graceful gesture and add another dimension to the pleats," explains Laura Sinderbrand of FIT.
Just how he did the pleating remains a mystery. "His pleats were unevenly even, pleats you could never follow," says his only pupil, Countess Elsie Gozzio who bought the Fortuny textile business from his widow and continues to make cotton fabrics for use in the home in the original factory in Venice. Even the patent on the Delhos leaves many questions on how the pleats were done. De Osmos' theory is that the pleats were put into the material when it was wet, with heat applied to make them permanent. Gozzi says she knows the secret and will never reveal it.
Mary McFadden's debt to Fortuny is so great "she should single-handedly pay for the restoration of the Fortuny palace," teases Karl Lagerfeld, no slouch at copying Fortuny at times himself. McFadden calls pleated the most modern style of dress. "There is a great need for pleating," says McFadden, who has made finely pleated column shaped dresses one of her signatures. "It is textural. There is a fascination with it. It disguises the mountains and the valleys of the figure. It is the height of classicism and will never change. It just comes back in each period with reworking or a new technique." Her clothes are not imitation Fortuny, she insists. "We were both inspired by classical and neoclassical Greek and Roman Figures," says McFadden.
The Fourtuny exhibition in the galleries of the Fashion Institute of Technology (27th Street and 7th Avenue) is open to the public, admission free and closes July 11 and opens at the The Art Institute of Chicago on Oct. 26.