JACKI LYDEN, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.
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LYDEN: Early in May, on the red-carpeted stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, hundreds of fabulously dressed people attended a ball inaugurating an exhibit called "Paul Poiret: King of Fashion."
Paul Poiret opened his couture house in Paris in 1903. It was finally shut down after years of financial difficulties 1929. He was inspired by the artistic trends of the Belle Epoque, that era before World War I, marked by a fascination with Orientalism and sensuality. He had a passion for decoration, feathers and flowers. So the Met honored his memory with a golden cage holding several peacocks and 12,000 red roses. The exhibit opening night party was the ultimate Poiret tribute.
And yet, Paul Poiret is, or was before this show, perhaps not given his due, even by people in the fashion industry. He died forgotten and almost penniless in 1944.
At the height of his influence, Poiret was the man who got women out of their stuffy Edwardian corsets. He dropped waistlines, raised the bustlines, and created clothes that followed the body fluidly - tunics, chemises, Harem pants and culottes. He was renowned for a dress that looked like a lampshade.
The story of Poiret's recent return from obscurity begins in France. A few years ago, Madame Francois Olgier(ph), owner of the premier vintage shop in Paris, got a phone call from Poiret's granddaughter.
Ms. FRANCOIS OLGIER (Vintage Shop Owner): She called me one day and say Fancois, please, can you come to see me and - because I am obliged to sell all the dresses because I leave Paris and I am rather old, she told me. And I need somebody to take care of all that. And I say, of course, I come. And that was the beginning.
LYDEN: And when Francois Olgier arrived at the Poiret residence, there were trunks waiting for her. Packed away for nearly a century were dresses that Poiret's granddaughter had worn to play dress up.
The family auctioned off the clothes in 2005. The Met bought 50 pieces and this year, its Costume Institute opened its retrospective. Andrew Bolton, co-curator, took us on a tour.
Now, come with us to the Met and imagine yourself stepping into Paul Poiret's perfumed Art Nouveau salon in the year he opened it, 1903. The Met has beautifully recreated tableaus, displaying the clothes along with objects from their time.
Mr. ANDREW BOLTON (Co-Curator, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York): Say, this particular piece was on the first garment that for a - when he set up his own house as an independent couturier in 1903 - this in 1905 - two of the major narrative threads in Poiret's work is Orientalism and classicism. His idea of draping fabric directly onto the body, that was one of Poiret's major innovations, where he's getting away from the tedium(ph) traditions of the 19th century and creating fabric that's almost three(ph)-dimensionally fits on the body.
And this piece is made from one rectangular fabric and no seams at all. It's almost constructed like a great tunic.
LYDEN: The women who wore Poiret's clothes were, as one might have called them, a Marquises(ph) des couture of Paris in the early 20th century: Peggy Guggenheim, the shipping heiress Nancy Cunard, and Poiret's muse, his wife Denise. She was a tall, striking brunette, a provincial girl who became a fashion diva. Most of the dresses in this exhibition belonged to Denise, including this one, a simple, beautiful, blue robe.
We're coming up to a piece where you have a figure on a bed, right in the middle of this exhibit. And she's holding, not a fan, but four gold plumes. This is really striking. The sumptuous eggplant colors and huge aubergine with gold pillows, and then a figure in blue, holding these plumes of gold feathers.
Mr. BOLTON: And it's actually a direct reference with a photograph of Denise Poiret, Poiret's wife. And this is taken in the Plaza Hotel in New York when Poiret first came to America in 1913. He brought his wife primarily as a mannequin. Denise came with a suitcase with a hundred outfits, which she wore at various events. And she wore - for a Vogue sheet, this particular - the chemise dress. And we mentioned it earlier on, but this is a very good example, in it we could see it's a very simple T-shaped garment, with two rectangles of fabric with minimal cutting and seams at the side and shoulder seam.
LYDEN: Well, you know, you would be able to get quite a few of these in one streamer trunk because you could fold them so easily. You say in your window panel here, in the writing that you've done underneath the exhibit that sometimes the chemise was known as the robe de minute, it means looking as if you could make it in a minute. Is that what you mean?
Mr. BOLTON: Exactly. Well, I think it was called the robe de minute because it kind of took about half an hour to make. And because it's simple garment, it took half an hour, which is again incredible. There is this piece over here, which is an evening chemise, an evening version of this dress, which Denise wore to the opening of an opera in 1911.
And again, if you would think about the idea of Denise going into a public space wearing such a simple T-shaped silhouette, and an (unintelligible) to be on her is one thing but the idea of being in public wearing it…
LYDEN: She must have looked like she was in silk pajamas.
Mr. POIRET: Exactly, her evening wear.
LYDEN: This blue robe de minute was also the favorite of Vogue's European editor at large Hamish Bowles.
Mr. HAMISH BOWLES (Editor At Large, Vogue Living): It is literally a T-shirt of sort of (unintelligible) sheen. It's a garment of astonishing simplicity and modernity. It is the "Damoiselle D'Avignon" of fashion really, and a contemporary with that, you know.
LYDEN: Picasso's 1907 "Damoiselle D'Avignon" is considered the first example of modern art. But Picasso's canvass of five angular-looking prostitutes at a brothel was meant to shock.
This was not Poiret's intent with his draped (unintelligible) T-shirt. He wanted to free up and enhance the body. His new approach made him the first designer to tell his client not only how to dress but how to live.
Mr. BOWLES: Certainly through the (unintelligible), he was the first designer to create a brand that extended beyond fashion. Interiors and lifestyle and fragrance, so many things that we now take for granted with a big fashion name and a fashion house. But he was the first person to do that, to patronize contemporary artists and collaborate with them. I think all these were extraordinarily innovative development.
LYDEN: But Poiret's empire didn't last. It couldn't last.
Mr. BOWLES: His extravagance knew no bounds. He was that classic combination of extraordinary creative talent, but had absolutely no business-savvy at all. His fashion house ended in bankruptcy. He himself ended in (unintelligible), something of a sort of forgotten figure. His theatrical vision had been eclipsed by emerging designers such as Chanel and Patou who had up far more streamlined modernist vision.
LYDEN: Poiret had committed the cardinal sin of becoming unfashionable. In 1925, Chanel overtook him with the signature little black dress. Then his muse and wife Denise left him.
There's a story, which may be apocryphal, about Poiret meeting Coco Chanel on the street in Paris; she was wearing that trademark little black dress.
Madame, he said, for whom are you in mourning? For you, my dear monsieur, Coco Chanel is said to have replied.
And indeed, his career had become something to mourn. By the time he died in 1944, Paul Poiret was working in a bar, his fashion house long closed. But he was convinced he'd make a comeback one day.
Now, Poiret's legacy has been restored. My favorite piece at the Met, the Mademoiselle Day Dress - he named all his dresses - a simple tawny chemise with a dropped waist, which falls into a riot of colorful pleats.
You can see it for yourself at the Met until August 5. Or for other Poiret fashions, please check out our Web site, npr.org.
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