Some people call French couturier Paul Poiret, who was known for his richly ornate tea gowns, Oriental bloomers and hobble skirts in the early 1900s, the first real “fashion designer.” That distinction should probably belong to English designer Charles Frederick Worth, from the 19th century, or even Rose Bertin long before him—she was Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker and a sort of cult personality in her own right. But Poiret was the first, perhaps, to consider himself an “artist,” and the first to expand his fashion empire to include perfumes, even though he did die forgotten and penniless. But, yes, he was an artiste, of the highest order. Just look at this fountain dress, made of cloth and dangling pearls. Extravagant, ridiculous, amazing.
“Fountain” costume designed by Paul Poiret, early 1900s.
Robert Henri, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916, The Whitney Museum of Art
Robert Henri’s portrait of art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1916) is one of my favorite paintings from the exhibition Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time, currently at the Whitney. Henri has captured the quintessential modern woman of the time: She has this exotic, louche quality in the way she is splayed on the couch, in the direct, coy look she gives us, in the exotic blue silk embroidered jacket and teal pajama pants she wears. Bohemians and art patrons were mad about Orientalism at the time, and her outfit recalls Paul Poiret’s Oriental-inspired couture of the early 1900s. Yet Whitney’s outfit is much lighter and more modern (Poiret may have abolished the corset, but he did design the constricting “hobble” skirt). Whitney’s jacket and pantsuit look a bit like Belgian designer Dries Van Noten’s multicultural mash-ups today. Indeed, she was so ahead of her time that her husband refused to hang a portrait of his wife wearing pants in their Fifth Avenue home, for fear it would scandalize visitors.