Australian Fine Artist

Paul Poiret Fashion Master

Paul Poiret (1879-1944) was a leading fashion designer during the late 19th and early 20th century. He was significantly influenced by Orientalism, which became evident in his designs in the period prior to World War 1. To understand Orientalism and how it applied it to his designs the definition of Orientalism needs to be addressed. What was Orientalism? It could be argued that it was merely an art movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, confined to mostly France and Britain. Its influence, on the contrary, was far broader, reaching across Europe to as far as the United States and Australia. It also incorporated more than painting, sculpting, or architecture. In light of this how did Orientalism affect the designs of Poiret? Are there similarities in the work of any Orientalist artists evident in Poiret’s designs? In addition to these questions, Haute Couture also needs to be defined. What was it and how does it delineate Poiret’s fashions? This essay will illustrate various artworks, and compare aspects that Orientalist artists have utilised to the designs for the Haute Couture fashions of Paul Poiret. A brief description of Orientalism will be included, as well as an elucidation of Haute Couture and Belle Epoche. These accounts will reinforce the various influences on the innovative designs of Paul Poiret in contrast to contemporary Western styles in the years leading up to World War 1.

map of colonial influence 1900-1914

Figure 1. Imperialist Countries 1900-1914. World Contemporary History II. Final Project. (accessed September 10, 2015).

Orientalism is a broad term rising from colonial expansion by France, England and other Western countries. During the 18th century, military and commercial expansion into areas such as Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, India, China and Japan spurred an increase in trade. This expansion created new middle and upper classes in the West that had more leisure time for Grand Tours (Martin and Harold Koda 1994). The East became more accessible via the extension of railways and introduction of steam ships, and introduced Europeans to until then, unattainable exotic merchandise (Dexheimer 2002). The extent of this colonial influence is clearly illustrated in the map in Figure 1. Later meanings applied to Orientalism refer to scientific and academic study, research, and publishing regarding the East. It also refers to the influx of new designs, fabrics, and colours, highlighted in artworks by Orientalists Adrien Henri Tanoux (1865-1923) and Edouard Richter (1844-1913), and Henri Matisse (1869-1954) who was influenced by Islamic and Moorish art. This type of art was an influence on Poiret, who had a long-standing passionate interest in exotic Orientalism and Impressionism. He collected work by artists Picasso (1881-1973), Rouault (1871-1958), and Dufy (1877-1953) (Fashion and Art, 2015). Poiret’s Orientalist influence from these sources is clearly discernible in his adoption of vivid colours, loose flowing garments, and Eastern inspired patterns.

Poiret was prominent in Haute Couture from 1903 to 1914, claiming accolades for his Orientalist motifs from as far away as the United States. Haute Couture is an established French description of fashion, meaning high dressmaking (Bernard 2014). Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1897) is attributed by fashion historians as its originator in Paris during the 19th century. Haute Couture design is wearable art created by select few companies governed by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, also established by Worth (Shaeffer 2007, 7, 17). It has been regulated it by law since 1945, as the highest level of quality and creativity is required (Haute Couture 2015). Poiret’s innovative designs and high standards allowed him to be included as a leader in Haute Couture during what was later labelled La Belle Epoque.

La Belle Epoque covers the period 1900-1914 in France prior to the First World War. Loosely translated this means the beautiful time (Schofield 2014). The Belle Epoque for many meant new wealth via the industrial revolution, colonial expansion and trade with the East. Previously unattainable things like plumbing, electricity, holidays, sport and education were sought after by lower classes that now had higher incomes and time for leisure. Fashion also became important to more segments of society opening up new markets for designers like Poiret and it was during this pivotal time for France that he produced many of his Orientalist-inspired designs.

Poiret worked for high profile couturiers Doucet (1853-1929) prior to 1900 and went on to briefly work for the prestigious Haute Couture House Worth (1858-present) in 1901. It was during these years producing minor but successful work, which he began experimenting with Orientalist designs that he would use later in his design house. He opened his first Couture house in 1903, rapidly attracting previous clients of high stature in society (Milbank 2015). Amongst his innovations, Poiret liberated women from the restriction of corsets that negatively affected their health and mobility, in his Directoire collection dated near 1906. This innovation gave women a new freedom of movement, especially regarding accessing new motor vehicles (Baudot 2007, 34). Poiret also designed the suspender belt and the modern form of the bra. Poiret was an innovative designer who broke with trends of the past to set up fashion design for the twentieth century. After moving his new fashion house in 1909, he continued designing Orientalist influenced fashion, taking on the fabrics, colours and styles from the East for a European interpretation (Hornbeck 2009). Poiret collected Orientalist art and brought in graphic designers, artists and writers to his business. An early entrepreneur, Poiret set himself up as the dominant force in fashion in pre-war Paris (Parkins 2013). His ideas spread to perfumes, fabric design, theatre set design and costumes, and interior decorating based on his Orientalist research and influences.

the sultans favourite

Figure 2 (left). The Sultan’s Favourite. Undated. Adrien Henri Tanoux (1865-1923). Oil on Canvas. 63.5×45.7cm. Orientalist Art. Reproduced from (accessed September 3, 2015).

6. bask artist-costumes

Figure 2A (right). Costume Illustrations. c.1911-13. Léon Bakst (1866-1924). Mixed Media on Paper. Size Unknown. Orientalist Art. Reproduced from (accessed September 11, 2015).

Dress 1912-Poiret

Figure 3. Dress. 1912. Paul Poiret (1879-1944). Omgthatdress. Reproduced from (accessed September 3, 2015).

paul poiret-1906

Figure 3A. Classic early Paul Poiret. 1906. Head to Toe Fashion Art. French Fine Art Frashion Prints Collection. 2015. Reproduced from

Paris was overtaken by an Orientalist fad in 1910 due to the performance by the Ballet Russes. It included designs by established Russian artist Leon Bakst (1866-1924), and Paul Poiret who was eager to take advantage of the excitement. A visual comparison with Orientalist artworks by Adrien Tanoux and Leon Bakst above reveals Poiret’s passion for Orientalism and his interpretation of Eastern influences. By comparing Tanoux and Bakst (Figures 2 and 2A) with Poiret prior to WW1, it is apparent how much the East had begun to be of interest in Western culture at the time (Mears, 2015). Figure 3 (above), shows the adaptation of the higher waistline and high key vibrant colours. Poiret also included layering and straighter lines in this design reflecting the freer and flowing lines of the fabrics from the East. Tanoux and Bakst portrayed Orientalist-inspired colours, patterns and fabrics in artworks that have been transformed into Westernised styles to suit European tastes by Poiret. These Orientalist influences explain the striking differences in Figure 3 compared to his earlier work in Figure 3A. Poiret discarded the restrictive designs of traditional European fashion for a far more practical and easy to wear design where geometric patterns were eliminated in favour of flowing layers of organic and floral motifs.

Poiret-various designs

Figure 4. Photo. Paul Poiret. History of Fashion. 2011. Yvette Mahe.
Reproduced from

1. woman.matisse

Figure 5. Algerian Woman (L’Algérienne). 1909. Henri Matisse. oil on canvas. 81 x 65cm. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.,_1909,_Algerian_Woman_(L%27Algérienne),_oil_on_canvas,_81_x_65_cm,_Musée_National_d%27Art_Moderne,_Centre_Georges_Pompidou,_Paris.jpg (accessed September 10, 2015).

Poiret included features such as turbans, feathers, embroidery; pants under a long tunic, and layered pagoda-like skirts, as well as capes and overcoats reflecting Japanese and Indian influences. In Figures 4 and 5 above, the similarity in the palettes between Poiret to Matisse is evident in the rich turquoise and red colours, and the remodelled raised and softened waistband. Orientalist styles were not only used by Poiret in clothing but also for interior decorating for carpets, furniture, wall coverings, drapes and bed linen as fashion accompaniments (Koda and Bolton 2008). Figures 6 and 6A below show Orientalist paintings revealing many of the Middle Eastern influences from countries such as Turkey, that were incorporated into Haute Couture fashion by Poiret. The colours, fabrics, layering, and jewellery indicate similarities to Poiret’s designs.

the sultans favourite

Figure 6. Oriental Dancer. 1890. Edouard Frédéric Richter (1844-1913). Oil on Canvas. 100x65cm. Orientalist Dance. Reproduced from (accessed September 10, 2015).

odalisque au tambourin-tanoux

Figure 6A. Odalisque au Tambourin. 1914. Adrien Henri Tanoux (1865-1923). Oil on Canvas. 45.5×54.5cm. Orientalist Sale: Paintings, Sculptures and Works of Art. Southeby’s. 2015. Reproduced from

In conclusion, there is evidence that Orientalism influenced the fashions of Paul Poiret focussing on the years leading up to World War 1. Specific artworks have been illustrated and compared to designs by Poiret to reflect how aspects of Orientalist art and the concept of Orientalism were adapted for his creations. Haute Couture and Belle Epoque have also been described to indicate how they relate to the designs of Paul Poiret. It is obvious that Orientalism that resulted from 19th century colonial expansion inspired Poiret. He not only exhibited Orientalism in his use of colour, fabric, accessorising, and clothing designs, but also lived it. The comparison of a 1906 Poiret design to his later 1912 creation clearly reflects the adoption of Orientalist influences. Poiret’s appropriation of these concepts during a pivotal time in 20th-century history raised him to the heights of the premier designer of pre-war Paris. He was one of France’s great Orientalist designers and inspired the next generation of innovators in Modernist art and fashion design.

Reference list:

Baudot François. 2007. Fashion the Twentieth Century. New York. Universe Publishing.

Bernard, Katherine. 2014. Paris Couture Week Cheat Sheets: A Fashion Dictionary from Atelier to Prét.

Dexheimer, Jim. 2002. Orientalism. Colonial & Post Colonial Literary Dialogues.

Fashion and Art. 514 Broadway. (accessed September 10, 2015).

Hornbeck, Elizabeth. 2009. Poiret. Design and Culture 1 (1): 141-142. doi: 0.2752/175470709787375788.

Haute Couture: Definition. 2015. Academy of Couture Art. The Couture Fashion College.

Koda, Harold and Andrew Bolton. 2008. “Paul Poiret (1879-1944).” Heilbrunn Timeline of art History. New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

Martin, Richard and Harold Koda 1994. Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western Dress. 9-13, 18, 25, 65. New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mears, Patricia. “Definition of Orientalism.” Beauty & Fashion. Love to Know. (accessed September 9, 2015).

Milbank, Caroline. 2015. Poiret, Paul. A-Z of Fashion. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Parkins, Ilya. 2013. Poiret, Dior and Schiaparelli: Fashion, Femininity and Modernity. London. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Schofield, Hugh. 2014. Le Belle Epoque: Paris 1914. BBC News.

Shaeffer, Claire. 2007. Couture Sewing Techniques. 7, 17. USA. The Taunton Press.


Benjamin, Roger. 2003. Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism and French North Africa 1880-1930. California. University of California Press.

Cahn, R. 1999. “Orientalism in Art.” Library Journal 124 (1): 90-91.

Clarke. J.J. Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western thought. 1997. London. Routlege.

Denny, Walter. B. 1983. “Orientalism in European Art.” The Muslim World 73 (3-4): 262-277.

Dobie, Madeline. 2001. Foreign Bodies: Gender, Language and Culture in French Orientalism. Stanford, California. Stanford University Press.

Finkelstein, Joanne. 1998. Fashion: An Introduction. USA. New York University Press.

Head to Toe Fashion Art. 2015. Paul Poiret – 1879-1944. Biography of Paul Poiret Fashion Designer.

Ismailinejad, Zahra Sadat. 2015. “Orientalist Paintings and Said Orientalism.” International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences 50. 68-81. doi: 10.18052/

Koda, Harold and Andrew Bolton. 2007. “Poiret.” Design and Culture: The Journal of the Design Studies Forum 1 (1): 141-142. doi:

Kulper, Kathleen. 2015. Léon Bakst: Russian Artist. Encylopaedia Britannica.

Mahe, Yvette. 2011. History of Paul Poiret. Fashion in Time.

Parkins, Ilya. Poiret, Dior and Schiaparelli. 2013. Fashion, Femininity and Modernity. London. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: