A Brief History Of French Fashion
Le Magnifique: we take a brief look at the French fashion houses that defined the 20th century up until the 1960s. From Poiret and Chanel to Dior...
In the late 19th century, a working class boy from Paris took something insignificant and made it magnificent. Apprenticed to an umbrella maker, he collected scraps of silk left on the cutting room floor and fashioned them into a dress for his sister’s doll. The boy was Paul Poiret and over the next century he would help change Parisian fashion forever.
France’s bodice-ditching flapper revolution in the early 20th century – and the history of the modern dress – doesn’t start with Coco Chanel. Our story begins in the early 1900s with Poiret in an exotic wonderland filled with luxurious capes, daring kimono jackets, crushed velvet draping and harem pants…
In 1906, Poiret did something shocking. He rejected the corset and introduced a new concept to women’s fashion: freedom of movement. Not everyone was pleased with his revolutionary designs. Greeted with a kimono-cut cloak made out of black wool in 1901, the Russian Princess Bariatinsky cried out “what a horror!” Luckily the masses didn’t quite agree and in 1903 Poiret established his own house of couture. Just seven years later he would be known as “The King of Fashion” by Americans. In Paris? Just two words: “Le Magnifique”.
Looking at Poiret’s sumptuous dress designs it’s not hard to understand why. Evoking the oriental spirit of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, his harem pants and sultana skirts were lapped up by eager fashionistas with equally eager purses. Poiret’s naturalistic touch traced the flowing curves of the Art Nouveau period and you can see it in each cloth-fold. Fabric drapes ripple like water. Beauty, for Poiret, was in the finer details such as the small of a back – far more erotic than a heaving, bodiced chest. For the very first time, a woman’s body wasn’t fetishised for the male gaze and it wasn’t constricted. Petticoats and corsets were out. Women could breathe again.
With the encouragement of Poiret himself, Elsa Schiaparelli – an Italian in Paris – came to the fashion-fore during the interwar years. Heavily influenced by the Dada movement, Schiaparelli embraced Poiret’s corset abandonment adding her own impulsive style. It may come as a shock to learn that Elsa had no formal training in technical design.
Video: Mode in France History of Fashion sequence
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