Up until this week I knew more about Paul Poiret’s “look” than who he actually was. The look, of course, is enjoying a renaissance on the runways of the fall collections: sheath dresses, cloche hats, and Art Deco style with a nod to the swish set. Witness architecturally draped dresses blooming like flowers at Lanvin, YSL and Philip Lim, not to mention drop waists at Thakoon. Hell, witness the re-emergence of eye-skimming bangs and short, cropped ‘dos. To cap off the Poiret love-fest, the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently unveiled “Poiret: King of Fashion,” a special exhibition running through August 5.
Poiret came to prominence in the crème de la crème of opulent societies, Paris during the Belle Epoque, just before WWI. He opened his own fashion house in 1904 and by the following year had created a style that would revolutionize fashion and dominate the industry until 1914 by “liberating” women from the corset and reviving the Empire waist, as well as making drapery more important than tailoring. The resulting “sheath” or “sack dress” is a style whose influence is still felt today. Poiret himself was a man of decadence, famous both for extravagant parties and luxurious prints. And suddenly, the man is everywhere, a trend more widely written about than Mary-Kate, Ashley and Sienna’s infamous boho chic (“bobo” to some) in 2004. While a certain line can be drawn from boho chic to Poiret chic — “sack dresses” and “sack fashion” are in some ways cut from the same cloth — it’s fair to say that fashion is moving back to a more opulent, international style.
In thinking of fashion as a litmus test for society, I can’t help but draw unsettling parallels between Poiret’s heyday and current fashion heavyweights crooning over the resurgence of the “king.” Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but seeing fashion’s current gladiators — Cate Blanchett, Cameron Diaz, Kate Moss — on the red carpet outside the Poiret opening, I agreed with Cathy Horyn when she said that “Fashion has become this amazing spectacle, a blood sport, the new Rome.” I would maybe take it one step further: America is the new Empire, and like Poiret, we seem inches away from the rug being pulled out from under us into two world wars and the slow collapse of Paris, while we smile for flashbulbs and revel in our opulence. Then again, Poiret was ousted by Coco Chanel herself, so perhaps there’s hope for us yet.