Charles James’ Musings on Poiret

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The year prior to his death, the legendary fashion designer, Charles James donated a small selection of correspondence, business records, press clippings and four original sketches to FIT Library’s Special Collections.  Over the course of several months, many letters were exchanged between James and FIT librarian Marjorie Miller detailing the transfer of materials and other personal topics.  This hand-written letter by James, which discusses FIT’s 1976 retrospective exhibition Paul Poiret: King of Fashion is too charming—and in James’ characteristic fashion, critical—not to share with our Material Mode readers. Like his personality, James’ handwriting can be challenging, so we have transcribed the letter below:

Dear Marjorie (Miller)                                      Enclosed (though larger than                                            a realistic & imaginative                                   it is possible to do so)                                       librarian.                                                              letter I wrote before our exciting                               Personal                                                               meeting on Thursday last

Re Paul Poiret exhibition- at the time- seemed wonderful: later I realized that this was because his designs were wonderful.  For once I wished that other outstanding designers from the top houses of the same period could have been displayed to make it clear that a beautifully dressed society reflected the influence & “dreams” of many dedicated creators SIMULTANEOUSLY:  that all who live with a sense of beauty which rubs off on everything they touch never dressed in one idiom. The mannequins were strictly commercial, wrongly stylized as were wigs coiffed by those who have no sense of the essence of the period—which is, if casually, best described in those books by Colette which refrain from too much reference to cooking & wines.

The background of the period in which Poiret exercized such (forward influence) was white & French grey, when not decorated in the Art Modern (not Deco) with the products of the Martine ateliers which merely developed Poiret’s own revolutionary concepts—it was definitely not the colour of mouse trap cheese for landlord’s buff.  I can’t [believe] that Poiret did use, as a background for his designs many Spanish shawls.  They smack of Steinway Piano advertising.  His “style” did not depend on national(istic) & traditional designs but sprang out of his brave head “all in one piece.”

Finally, his background for his couture was heavily scented & the perfume used were composed distributed by his other daughter Rosine under her name.  Poiret was involved in the composition & “colour” of all the Rosine scents & their “bottling” which differed in types from Lalique who designed many of the Guerlain & Coty bottles recognized as representing the ultimate in luxury for decades.  I can recall the bouquets of all the Rosine perfumes & cannot help thinking that the formulae are extant & could have been reconstituted & used to enhance & emphasize the costumes.

Nevertheless the organization of an exhibition of so many (for once authentic) designs represented much work, & the order in which they were shown (though chronology is not essential to reveal inspiration) was very fine.  The jewelry was commercial: most of the shoes were not of the period, which from 1912 I remember well.  The “program” did not, I think refer to Poiret’s earlier employment by, and influence of Doucet where my family went for their wardrobes since first going (then yearly) to Paris in 1886.

Your sympathetic perspective about all we have discussed makes me realize how sad it is that we together not write a book which could reflect my love affair with fashion which, til marriage enriched my life, providing by doing so the only quite long happy period in my 70 years, many vicarious love affairs with clients which, in some ways resembled Marcel Proust’s love for the Duchesse de Guermante.

I went, very sadly, to see the exhibition of my late friend’s work on your suggestion.  I must admit that it disturbed me for 2 days, making me feel a subject of futility & that times overlap tragically. For instance you & Messrs Tuohey & Drew with love communicated with Mr. Poiret as if you were all the same generation. I will send you a copy of—THE most precious letter in my archives—it is from Maria (Dowager) Duchesse de Gramont née Ruspoli whom Poiret often dressed—in her time of one of the most SEDUCTIVE women in Paris married, as his third wife to the premiere Duke in France who was sixty years old when he married a 20 year old Roman princess.

With regards to all of you.

One response to “Charles James’ Musings on Poiret”

  1. My favorite part of his notes and diaries was the section where he describes sexy people he never had the chance to dress. The top 3 were Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie. But the list was much longer than that, and he has tart comments about each person.