Fashion often reflects changes in society. Take the work of Paris designer Paul Poiret, for instance. In the first years of the twentieth century he simplified clothes by getting rid of bulky petticoats, and then the corset, insisting that all women needed was a brassiere. Given the corset had been part of women’s clothing in some form since medieval times, this was momentous. It meant that his garments, crisply cut from luxurious materials, were draped around the body rather than wired into place. Parisian society was scandalised.
Then, in 1910, he produced the most scandalous item of all – harem pants. These were voluminous trousers, gathered at the ankle, the sort found in an Arabian fantasy. Which is no surprise, given that their inspiration was the exotic costumes of the Ballet Russes’ production of ‘Scheherazade’. They were a sensation, finding favour in Paris’s smartest circles and across the Atlantic. Today they’re sometimes seen as an early move towards women’s liberation, which seems a mite odd, given a harem is surely one of the most unempowered environments imaginable. But still, women in trousers was awfully shocking. Poiret was, I suspect, less concerned with freeing women from repression and more interested in creating a new look. Just a few years later he created the popular hobble skirt which emphasised the curvy derrière and showed off a shameful amount of ankle. As he joked, “I have freed the bust but shackled the legs”. Hardly liberating.
While Poiret’s credentials as female emancipator are dubious, there’s no doubt that he more or less invented fashion branding. In 1911, he launched a perfume and cosmetics range and then a school of decorative arts. It meant that one could wear Poiret clothes, dab Poiret scent behind the ears, and lounge elegantly in a Poiret-designed room. That total look is normal today throughout fashion, from high-end Versace to low-cost Zara, but it was a seismic shift in the late 1910s. Poiret’s flair for marketing was clearly seen at the 1925 Paris Exhibition where he displayed two barges on the river Seine with lavish displays of roses, expansive stairways, and crystal fountains that looked straight out of a Busby Berkeley musical. His own home, designed by leading architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, encapsulated the very latest Art Deco style. Poiret was fashion.
And yet it came to a grinding halt. Fashion is fickle and Poiret’s insistence on fantasy and luxury began to feel passé. Rising star Gabrielle Chanel’s blend of practicality and quality was much more modern, taking Poiret’s simplicity and making it simpler yet. Within a few years, women would be wearing glamorous but practical trousers suits and female icons were energetic and go-ahead, like aviator Amelia Earhart. In 1929, Poiret’s failing company was sold and with it, his name disappeared. He may not have emancipated women with his Arabian pantaloons; nonetheless he changed fashion forever.