Le Pouf: Advertising Art

Le Pouf Gazette du Bon Ton, March 1924; Royal Ontario Museum Archives

     Upon first glance, the most striking aspect of this fashion plate is the bold and colourful print of the dress enwrapping the tall, slim figure. However, with further reflection, what becomes more alluring is the expression on the face belonging to that figure as she stands off-centre on the left third of the page. Her dress is undeniably beautiful, but I begin to ponder more about what she was thinking while wearing the gown.

     This response would likely have pleased Paul Poiret, the designer behind the gown. To him, the physicality of his models was important, as she should be tall with a slim figure, but she should be more than that. He stated that, “above all things, a mannequin must herself be an artist. She must have a feeling for the gown she wears” (“Whom do the Ladies Dress to Please?”).  If Poiret felt that this model truly and artistically embodied his creation, then what was it she was thinking while in the gown? He sought to distinguish himself as an artist, not just a maker of clothes, and therefore it seems to me that he would appreciate a viewer taking the time to contemplate the artistic experience of wearing his creations.

     However, this ambiguity of her expression was likely intended more as Arsène Alexandre has suggested, so that the buyer could see themselves embodying the garment and want to purchase it for themselves (“The Theatre of Fashion” 5). This dichotomy, between creating art and commodifying it is a convoluted relationship with which modern couturiers were well acquainted. This fashion plate of Poiret’s 1924 eveningwear creation is an interesting example of this entanglement.

                           Advertising Practices

Advertising in Gaszette du Bon Ton (another Paul Poiret design) 1924-25 Photo courtesy of Edition-Originale.com

Mainstream Fashion Advertising Women’s Wear Daily, Oct 27 1

   

 

      The emerging concept of the fashion designer was accompanied by the desire to have their work valued and perceived as a facet of art rather than items for commercialized production (The Theatre of Fashion; Paul Poiret’s Minaret Style). However, this idea was embedded with contradiction, for in order for a couturier might be successful, they had to sell their creations for profit just as much as for prestige. This resulted in very particular advertising initiatives which were employed by Paul Poiret and his Haute Couture contemporaries. They sought to distance themselves from the methods used to advertise mass fashion department stores and the “crassness associated with obvious merchandise promotions” (The Theatre of Fashion 8). Poiret “maintained the distinctive allure of his products by not advertising (at least not to large audiences) and by appropriating the fine arts to promote the originality, uniqueness, and aesthetic quality of his designs” (Couture Culture, 46). This is evident in the Le Pouf Fashion Plate through such things as the leisurely stance of the model, her placement within the image as well as the detailed, labour intensive nature of the production. As Nancy Troy states, “[h]is ads were meant to not look like ads (Couture Culture 47).

     This idea of employing more refined means of fashion dissemination is further evidenced by the magazine itself where Poiret chose to showcase this creation. The Gazette du Bon was created by couturiers “to perpetuate their art” and described as a “common ground where couturiers may meet to discuss and collaborate with painters” (Gazette du Bon Ton Makes After-War Debut). The creation of this periodical allowed for couturiers like Poiret to maintain elitist ideals surrounding their garments as regulated works of art rather than commodities. According to Pierre Bourdieu, “The higher a specific magazine is in the hierarchy of magazines, the more sober its descriptive style, corresponding to the high social position of its readers” which is evidenced by the minimal text which speaks only to the artist and its “exhibit” location within the magazine (Rocamora, 239). This dress, Le Pouf is a beautiful example of Poiret’s artistry. He had stated that he wanted for bring back the Ga into fashion as he felt that it had “made women charming because it was a defiance of sense and assertion of their independence and their disdain for logic, an affectation” (Parkins 10). This dress definitely speaks to that desire, but in a new (to his time) reinvented way. The simple, draped nature of the gown makes the “pouf” of the back bow particularly striking.

Power of Consecration

     For art to be accepted within its field it is also important not to overlook those individuals who, as Bourdieu puts it, are those who have the power to recognize the work as art, the “producers of the meaning and value of the work” (Rocamora 235). These parties have the ability to“consecrate a certain type of work and a certain type of cultivated person” (Rocamora, 235). In the period of Paul Poiret’s couture, that power lay (complicatedly) in the hands of women. There was a generally held belief- from male couturiers to dress reform feminists- that women were integral to the fashion system (Perkins Gilman; Whom do the Ladies Dress to Please?). When it comes to Poiret, women in this position of power was a complex issue.

     He designed for the female body and was said to be inspired by women and their “secrets” (Paul Poiret: Classic and New in the Struggle for Designer Mastery; Whom do the Ladies Dress to Please?). Therefore he was, to a certain extent, bound to serve those these “women that are artists of a kind: that they innately posses the secrets of feminine beauty and aesthetic self-fashioning” (Parkins 3). However, in an interesting twist to this idea that the art of fashion lies in the hands of women, Poiret attempts to position himself as an almost omniscient fashion power, knowing what is was that women secretly desired from fashion and providing it. Well, his wife Denise was said to be his muse, but they later divorced…

     Poiret was given multiple divine monikers by the press (and himself in his autobiographies) which equated him with everything from the “King of Fashion” to Roman Triumvirates to the gods of Olympus (Parkins 1; Whom do the Ladies Dress to Please). He described Fashion as a “spirit” which, without his intervention, would overwhelm women and cause them to make poor judgements; essentially stripping them of the autonomy to influence the fashion system (Parkins 6). A Vogue article from 1920 states that “the Parisienne cannot not love Poiret; she sees in him one of the most inspired priests of the cult of the body”; how do you reject the art of the holy leader (Parkins 1)?

     Despite- and perhaps because of-  this convoluted power balance, women, as the primary consumer of the art of fashion must be considered to be an active player in the field of fashion (Parkins 3). In Le Pouf it is possible to see the model as representing the power of female beauty which could be harnessed and used, even as it was wrapped up in a bow,  but also the male adulation which was perpetuated within the fashion system (Wrisley 101; Whom do the Ladies Dress to Please?)

Sub-Fields

     Bourdieu envisioned the field of fashion as art as having two sub-fields. Those derivatives divided fashion into the category of Haute Couture, which was a “field of restricted production” and art for art’s sake in comparison with mass fashion, “the field of large scale production” whose purpose was commerce and profit (Rocamora 237).  While this is a very neat demarcation of fashion into art and commodity, it does not always divide so cleanly, especially when examining Le Pouf and comparing it to various contemporary fashion descriptions made by Women’s Wear Daily.

     Poiret regularly lamented the mass production of fashion and the fact that few couturiers and upper class women were willing to be bold and experiment with Haute Couture (Parkins 11; Poiret in London Criticises Sameness of Paris Fashions). Participation in the Gazette du Bon Ton marked Poiret out as being selective about the audience he wanted to reach with his art, but based on Women’s Wear and attempts to prevent reproductions, Poiret’s fashions were not always as distant from the average fashion consumer as he and Bourdieu may have liked (Paul Poiret’s Minaret Style). The necessity of trademarking his name for copyright laws in America is a clear example of this commodity versus signature art blending (Paul Poiret’s Minaret Style).

     Even the Le Pouf design, striking as it is in terms of perhaps what comes to mind for the fashion of the period, can be associated with descriptions found in mainstream fashion publications. There are regular references made to Poiret’s use of the bustle this season and the draped, slim silhouette is even referenced in the fall of 1923 (“Poiret Shows Fitted Drape and Circular Silhouette”; Women’s Wear). The striking floral fabric is also visible in publications which reference large florals not only in the millinery showcased by Poiret, but in the fabric bought by the stores for selling to customers of mass fashion.

     

Dress fabric detail, close up Image courtesy of Edition-Originale.com

 

    Fashion would be a much simpler area of study if throughout history the margins of its sub fields could be so cleanly defined. While this advertisement for Poiret’s 1924 evening gown was clearly intended for appreciation as art, both as a garment and indeed as the fashion plate itself, the intricacies of fashion dissemination and diffusion make it so while it can be admired on its own, it cannot be truly consecrated as “art” without examining its context in the fashion system.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

     “Cotton Goods: Floral Designs Predominate in New Line of Printed Voiles and Crepes: Floral Designs Varied.” Women’s Wear, 1923, pp. 7.

“Le Pouf. Robe Du Soir, De Paul Poiret (Pl.38, La Gazette Du Bon Ton, 1924 n°7).” Edition-Originale.com, www.edition-originale.com/en/prints-engravings-photographs/prints-xxe/poiret-le-pouf-robe-du-soir-de-paul-poiret-1924-55083.

     London Bureau, Women’s W. “Poiret in London Criticises Sameness of Paris Fashions: Collection in London Branch Less Bizarre—Bustle Bows, Novelty Trains and Pointed Tunics Featured.” Women’s Wear, 1924, pp. 3.

     “Millinery: Paul Poiret Hats being shown in Latest Import: Huge Peonies and Feather Chrysanthemums Bring New Interest in Flowers.” Women’s Wear, vol. 28, no. 35, 1924, pp. 24.

     Parkins, Ilya. “Paul Poiret: Classic and New in the Struggle for Designer Mastery.” The Berg Fashion Library. N.p., 2012. The Berg Fashion Library. Web.

     Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. Our Androcentric Culture. Project Gutenburg. released 2013.

     Rocamora, Agnès. “Pierre Bourdieu: The Field of Fashion”. Thinking Through Fashion, edited by Agnès Rocamora and Anneke Smelik. I.B. Tauris, 2016. pp. 233-250.

“Sale of $18 dresses”. (1923, Oct 27). Women’s Wear, 27, 11. Web.

     Service, Fairchild N. “Greek Line and Ornament Feature of Opening Groups: Varied Influences Apparent in Poiret Group Including Directoire, Oriental and Grecian — Finely Pleated Foundations and Bustles Frequent—Scarf Strongly Sponsored.” Women’s Wear, vol. 28, no. 26, 1924, pp. 1.

     Service, Fairchild N. “Poiret shows Fitted Drape and Circular Silhouette: Tailleurs with Circular and Pleated Jackets—Evening Gowns of Bouffant Type in Antique Colorings —• French Colonial Influence in Collar and Belt Treatments.” Women’s Wear, vol.26, no.26, 1923, pp. 1.

“Sur La Pelouse. Robe, De Paul Poiret (Pl.59, La Gazette Du Bon Ton, 1924-1925 n°7).” Edition-Originale.com, www.edition-originale.com/en/prints-engravings-photographs/prints-xxe/poiret-sur-la-pelouse-robe-de-paul-poiret-1924-55185.

    “The ‘Gazette Du Bon Ton’ Makes After-War Pebut: Every Epoch a Boudoir.” Women’s Wear, 1920, pp. 3.

    Troy, Nancy J. Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion. MIT Press, 2003

     Troy, Nancy J. “The Theatre of Fashion: Staging Haute Couture in Early 20th-Century France.” Theatre Journal 53.1 (2001): 1–32. Theatre Journal. Web.

     Troy, Nancy J. “Paul Poiret’s Minaret Style: Originality, Reproduction, and Art in Fashion.” Fashion Theory – Journal of Dress Body and Culture 6.2 (2002): 117–144. Fashion Theory – Journal of Dress Body and Culture. Web.

     “Whom do the Ladies Dress to PLease?: “the Men, of Course,” Replies Paul Poiret, the Famous French Couturier, as He Talks to our Correspondent about Modern Fashions for Women and how He Evolves the Wonderful Creations that make the Easter Parades a Glorious Pageant of Pretty and Well-Dressed Women.” The Washington Post (1923-1954), 1925, pp. SM1.

     Wrisley, Melyssa. “Stella Blum Grant Report: ‘Fashion I Despised’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and American Dress Reform, 1880–1920.” Dress 33.1 (2006): 97–110. Dress. Web.

 

 

 

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