The Power of Poiret


Paul Poiret, date and location unknown. Photographed by Lipnitzki. (Via

Poiret: King of Fashion is one of the most exciting fashion exhibitions that New York City has seen in quite awhile. It certainly helps that the Costume Institute had such an alluring topic to begin with, but it is the abstracted in-situ backdrops, thoughtful wall text and amazing objects that come together to form a heady exhibition. This show, the first on Poiret in 30 years, serves as an inspiration to our emerging generation of fashion designers, collectors and scholars.

Fashion historians have long known that it was the designer Paul Poiret that freed women from the corset a hundred years ago by creating an empire-waist, tubular dress that looked backwards to a revolutionary France, and even further to Classical times. However, one really starts to understand the power of Poiret by listening to the curators' (Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton) argument that Poiret essentially created modernist fashion by using a reductive geometrical approach that emphasized draping rather than tailoring. Combine Poiret's innovative silhouettes with his embracement of exoticism and luxury, his concept of lifestyle branding, and his muse and wife Denise as his main advertisement, and we get a very strong sense as to why Poiret called himself the king of fashion.

However, there are a few minor issues I have with the exhibition:

While the thematic groupings (exoticism, historicism, collaboration, etc) contribute to a richer understanding of Poiret's work, the lack of a clear timeline proves disconcerting to the more literal-minded visitor. For example, dresses from early in Poiret's career still show up midway through the exhibition, mixed in with dresses from the end of his career. As some of the objects shown are really costume rather than fashion, this jumble makes it difficult for the casual visitor to get a clear sense of the development of Poiret's line. Another problem is the missing attributions for the accessories on the mannequins. The accessories definitely complete the look, but the visitor must ask if these too are from Denise Poiret, and thus a truly tangible reincarnation of Poiret’s vision? The catalog complicates this, as it overwhelmingly shows only the garments on the mannequins and not the exhibited accessorized look. There is a case at the end of the exhibition filled to the brim with shoes, fans, perfume bottles (lent of course by the owner of the world's greatest perfume bottle collection, Christie Meyer Lefkowith) that does contain attributions, but what of the other pieces in the show? These details are minor, but irritating.

A more important critique about the exhibition is that, while Koda and Bolton mention the hobble skirt in their writings, they fail to examine this controversial issue at all, or even produce an example of this garment that supposedly shackled women. Perhaps that was their point though – to emphasize Poiret’s inherent modernity about clothing’s relationship to the body, rather than a simple misstep. The exhibition in general is a poetic and powerful look at pre-modern fashion. The lush color of the garments and backdrops, the decorative art accents, and the computer-simulated patterns projected onto screens hiding and revealing actual garments prove a transporting experience into Poiret's world.

Press coverage of this exhibition has been justly positive, if not that critical. Roberta Smith's article in the NY Times is exemplarary of this: a pleasantly dull snapshot of the exhibition and the top ten facts about Poiret. Perhaps limited word space is the problem, as Judith Thurman's article in the New Yorker gives us a more engaging look at Poiret, if not exactly the exhibition itself. A better look at the exhibition has to be via New York Magazine, with its video tour by curator Andrew Bolton. His explanation of Poiret lends insight to the exhibition's thesis, and also gives us a glimpse at how the curator perceives Poiret's influence today.

There is also this entertaining interview with Head Curator Harold Koda. Perhaps my favorite bit of press comes not from recent times, but rather this contemporary's view of Poiret, simply titled "The Egotist."

"Poiret: King of Fashion" is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through 5 August 2007.

Sarah Scaturro