One of the most controversial couturiers of the early 20th century, Paul Poiret attracted widespread media coverage for his daring designs — tight skirts, culottes, turbans, peasant prints, great splashes of color. But even he never claimed some of the extraordinary feats that have since been attributed to him by fashion history writers. As bombastic as he was brilliant, the legendary Paris style guru embraced the exotica of the East, promoting his interpretation of emerging fashions with such bravado that the press often ascribed their creation to him. Neither hobble skirts nor harem pants were his inventions, yet today many traditional dress studies maintain they were.
New research reveals that rival designers introduced these evocations of the Orient a season or more before Poiret launched his versions. Ankle-length, narrow skirts had appeared in the collections of Jeanne Paquin and Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) in 1907-09. Similarly, the houses of Margaine-Lacroix, Bechoff David and others showed jupe culottes as early as 1908, beating Poiret’s own 1910-11 adaptation of Turkish trousers. “Poiret, despite the claims of several fashion historians, was neither the first nor the only designer to promote the new styles,” Caroline Evans points out in The Mechanical Smile, her groundbreaking account of the rise of the fashion show and model.
Although these couturiers’ innovations were widely publicized in their day, some historians’ tendency to simplify the era’s nuanced fashion development has resulted in a detailed assessment of only the unconventional Poiret’s career — notorious for sure, but not necessarily more influential. In recent years, scholars’ broader perspective on the trends that took root in these crucial years has revealed the contributions of a number of designers, some equally famous, others less remembered. Even in the 1980s, Valerie Steele was cautioning that ongoing research into belle epoch styles indicated Poiret’s “personal influence on fashion” had been exaggerated.
The corsetless myth
Apart from his claim to have introduced the runway or catwalk show (an assertion he pushed less than have modern writers), the most conspicuous piece of blandishment has been that Poiret’s famous “Sorbet” evening gown of 1913 was the first fashionable garment made to be worn without a corset. Sorbet is an iconic design in the Poiret lexicon, and there’s no denying its popularity and influence, but it was far from the first corsetless dress. The great man himself might laugh at the contention, as he allegedly endorsed corset-free styles as far back as 1906.
If so, he wasn’t the only couturier working in this direction. While the Floge Sisters of Vienna were experimenting with gowns that skimmed the figure au naturel, Italy’s Fortuny was evolving his exquisitely pleated, form-eschewing robes.
Well-established Parisian couture houses like Redfern were also exploring alternatives to irksome corsetry by 1902, while the emerging British designer Lucile had devised looser corsets as early as 1899. ”In the properly cut corset such as I have my people wear,” she declared in an interview that year, “you can breathe, you can move, you are supple, not a dressed up dummy of steel and coutille.” Around the same time, Jeanne Margaine-Lacroix launched dresses with special built-in substructures in lieu of corsets. And in 1907, Madeleine Vionnet, designing for the house of Doucet, reputedly dispensed altogether with the corsets worn by house models.
Yet none of these style makers can be credited with pulling the plug on corsets; nor can Poiret, whose designs still depended on them until just before the First World War. He even endorsed an American corset manufacturer, Bien Jolie, in 1913, the year he introduced his sensational Sorbet dress. “Only when there is logical unity between gown and corset will the ensemble be one of beauty and expression,” Poiret stated in the advertisement, adding that he was instructing his models to wear Bien Jolie corsets and brassieres, and recommending that his clients adopt them.
While no single designer is responsible for doing away with the corset, many contributed to its gradual demise. The transition was incremental, the undergarment passing through a series of revisions before finally being commonly discarded in the 1920s.
Sorbet in context
Poiret’s Sorbet may not have been revolutionary as a “corsetless” dress, but its beauty of cut and vibrant coloring captivated many, leaving an indelible stylistic mark. Boldly graphic, the gown yet depended on line for effect. With an extremely décolléte, kimono-like bodice, an empire-waisted sash tied in a bow, a flared, lightly wired tunic and a tapered, draped skirt, Sorbet was intended for evening yet lent itself successfully to afternoon wear and costume design.
There’s some doubt that Poiret himself originated Sorbet — the illustrator Erté, employed as an assistant at the time, claimed he created it — but the dress was at least inspired, and likely improved upon, by the designer before it was launched in his Fall 1913 collection. “(Erté) recalled, in his eighties, that it was among the first designs he drew after Poiret hired him,” relates Harold Koda in Poiret. “Clearly the argument could be made that the idea was Poiret’s and the specific details of the gown were by Erté.”
Today there are three surviving examples of Sorbet – at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and the Chicago History Museum. Of these, only the latter follows the well-known Georges Lepape drawing that first appeared in the September 1913 issue of Gazette du Bon Ton. Titled “Laquelle?” the picture depicts a highly avant-garde figure with shorn locks and red painted nails, holding a black flower in one hand and a white one in the other, an allusion to the gown’s fascinating color blocking.
Described in Gazette du Bon Ton as “en satin liberty blanc et noir brodé de roses et perles,” the dress was later adapted in satin meteor and crepe de chine, according to the caption for a photo of it that ran in the November 1913 edition of Harper’s Bazaar. Imported by Wanamaker’s in New York and Philadelphia, the dress was praised by the magazine as “an excellent development of the tunic.”
The V&A’s unique Sorbet adaptation, originally worn and donated by Poiret’s wife, Denise, is made in the satin originally conceived for the design but reveals a variation of the skirt illustrated by Lepape, cascading to the feet rather than narrowing to the ankles. The overskirt is also trimmed in fur, unlike other versions. This Sorbet is officially dated 1912, although V&A cataloger Daniel Milford-Cottam suspects this is incorrect, as all existing documentation points to Fall 1913. “It’s possibly a prototype,” he admits, “but I think the date is slightly off.” As Milford-Cottam says, the original skirt doesn’t survive; only a reproduction, perhaps based loosely on images of Denise modeling Sorbet in Poiret’s salon garden.
Despite other differences, all three variants feature the distinctive rose motifs made of “caviar” seed beads, either appliqued or embroidered; the version imported by the Wanamaker stores was apparently “embroidered in beads in Oriental colorings.”
The delightful Sorbet in the Chicago History Museum’s collection, resembling most closely the published example in Gazette du Bon Ton, has been meticulously described as consisting of a cross-over bodice, a black left sleeve and a white right sleeve, the scattered rose embellishment carried out in “light purple, light green, pink, and red glass bead embroidery on bodice, sleeves, and overskirt.” The sash is of pink chiffon, edged with “white glass bead fringe,” and the white overskirt or tunic is “shaped by a hoop.” It was worn to a party by Anita Carolyn Blair, a Chicago debutante, and later donated by her to the museum.
The third Sorbet in existence, at the Museum at FIT, is exceptional but is the least like the Lepape sketch. It’s realized in purple and ivory, rather than black and white, and the underskirt takes the form of harem-like culottes. The rose and pearl ornamentation is done in “sherbet colors of pistachio, pink and mauve.”
Sorbet as worn
All three extant Sorbets are for evening wear but the style was also selected by Poiret clients as an afternoon dress, worn with a hat. In the July 15, 1914 number of Vogue, a portrait of the Comtesse Bertier de Sauvigny shows the famous design worn in this manner. Wife of the French Embassy’s military attaché, the countess chose an ordinary wide, floral trimmed hat, a fur stole and buckled pumps to accessorize the dress.
Meantime, Sorbet’s dramatic allure led to some parodies on stage, notably in the Hungarian operetta Sari during its Broadway run in 1913-14. As a costume, Sorbet underwent its most exaggerated interpretation — bolder appliques, a stiffer cut to the tunic, a higher slit in the wrap skirt, even a risqué, off the shoulder neckline.
While Vogue found the countess’ dress charming, the magazine pronounced the Sari sendup “very bad taste,” though admittedly “good form.”
Another image of Sorbet, a drawing recently discovered by Daniel Milford-Cottam of the V&A, and first published in his Edwardian Fashion, suggests how some women wore the popular Poiret style. Milford-Cottam found the sketch in the design books of London court dressmaker Elizabeth Handley-Seymour while archiving them for the museum. Generally known as Madame Handley-Seymour, she was sought after for her well-executed, and apparently sanctioned, copies of French couture. In her house drawing, the gown is a near match to Lepape’s published rendering; only the “lack of a wired hem” differs from the original. Handley-Seymour’s streamlined revision implies that, while the mini-hoop deterred some consumers, Sorbet’s appeal was broad.
Not revolutionary, but nonetheless influential as an iconic design in the repertoire of one of the early 20th century’s most celebrated couturiers, Sorbet deserves the attention it’s won in the annals of dress history. But the inflated claims of chroniclers have distorted the actual impact of the dress — and its creator — on the fashions of the era.
Dismissing Poiret’s affect on the direction of style in pre-World War I Paris is impossible. Gifted, pompous, radical and inspiring, Poiret was undoubtedly one of the most colorful couturiers of any era. With a flourish, he took the Orientalism of the Ballets Russes’ Leon Bakst to new heights. He was similarly far-seeing in his approach to fashion as art — whether through collaborating with great illustrators like Lepape or by encouraging the skills of unheralded craftspeople in his equally innovative interior decoration offshoot, Martine.
Yet Poiret infiltrated a fashion scene already in significant transition, major advances having been brought about by Paquin, Lucile and Margaine-Lacroix, female designers whose towering careers have since been eclipsed by Poiret’s often overstated reputation.
His penchant for self-promotion, however, may be his greatest legacy. While his rivals are gradually being reclaimed for the integral parts they played in the evolution of style, the “King of Fashion” persona that Poiret engineered, in all its enticing glamour and brash inaccuracy, is still the compelling image his name evokes today.