Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion by Nancy J. Troy.
I wasn’t sure I would enjoy this book… I like the work of Paul Poiret, but he is not one of my favourite fashion designers, and while I find the years he was working a fascinating time in arts, fashion and social change, I thought I’d probably just skim read it and move on.
So, I was a bit surprised that I couldn’t put this book down! I was intrigued to learn about Poiret and his extravagant parties, which were created, it seems, to present and play with his creations. Garments that could evoke and feed the Oriental fetish that was dancing through Europe. It’s like his lavish parties were huge performances staged within a carefully constructed world, rich in textiles and erotic imagery and sensual pleasures. One was not admitted if not dressed for the occasion, and he had costumes at hand for the underdressed.
Fashion parades and styled photo shoots.
If his eccentricity was not fascinating enough, I was intrigued to learn more about Paul Poiret and how he worked to create his identity as an artist.
Paul and Denise Poiret posing.
He thought of his garments not as ‘fashion’ but rather ‘works of art’, that he was also a savvy businessman, which would apparently undermine his kudos as an artist….That tricky balance between selling out and selling art? I enjoyed seeing examples of invitations to his parties and events, collaborations that resulted in some of his most iconic imagery.
Paul and Denise Poiret again.
It was really timely for me, learning about the copyright issues he (and other well known designers) faced, working at a time when bespoke dressmaking was about to be overtaken by the beast of mass manufacturing, as it hit the fashion industry. Really interesting to follow the connections that Troy made within the art world and other contemporary and later designers, like Chanel, who seemed blasé about reproductions of her designs. Particularly interesting was the recognition that counterfeit garments still brought the designers, while they may have been low quality knock-offs, they undoubtedly increased ‘brand awareness’. When almost anyone (with disposable income) could afford a ‘Poiret’, then, his brand name is likely to become more well known. Of course, the real issue is that this brand awareness doesn’t mean profit for the original designers, and can undermine the status of their work, and perhaps make it less coveted by those who can afford the real deal. Problematic to say the least.
I loved to read about Marcel Duchamp, a long time favourite of mine, look here he is in drag…
Well known for his Readymades, Duchamp experimented with mass manufactured items, and the cult of celebrity and the power of advertising. Troy also introduces the reader to sculptor August Rodin, another artist who worked with Poiret, who managed a huge workshop of people who were creating ‘his’ artworks…. interesting to bring this into the dialogue around fashion and art, as there is really little difference, on a practical level.
I’ll be reading this again, the book gave me the feeling I was glimpsing the hidden world of Haute Couture, seeing into relationships, the hard work and the challenges Poiret worked through. There were images through out the book to illustrate the designs and catalogues from the era, and the letter heads and advertisements, photos from parties, fashion shoots, other fashion designers too. Many of the complex issues Poiret navigated are still very relevant today, I have more respect for his work, and his dream.
…..I even fancy a pair of his harem pants, like this ensemble:
I started these beautiful house pyjamas last year…..time to get them out and finish them!