As a fashion historian, working in a Special Collections unit which focuses almost entirely on the history of design, is both a fantastic job and a wonderful education in its own right. The objects which encompass my day-to-day routine continually reveal the inconsistencies, holes or misinformation that has been canonized into established design histories. I often caution my students against making sweeping generalizations that any one designer was the “first” to do anything—and even further—I advise them to let go of that line of inquiry entirely. To paraphrase the material culture theorist Jules David Prown, ‘once a group of objects produced in the same place at the same time begin to exhibit similar motifs or properties, then one can claim a style has been established;’ Prown’s point being that new directions in fashion, art or design are rarely, if ever, the result of singular genius toiling lonesome, but rather the creative output of like minds responding to shared stimuli.
Often cited as being the “first” to abolish the corset and re-introduce the columnar, high-waisted Empire silhouette around 1908, the work of couturier Paul Poiret was without doubt instrumental in ushering in the sweeping changes that occurred in fashion in the Teens and Twenties. He was not alone, however. Images of Paquin garments published in Les Modes in 1906 use the term “Empire” in the verbal descriptions of a ball gown and an afternoon dress, which flow so loosely around feminine curves that a corset almost seems an election, rather than an imperative.
Left and Center: “Robe de Bal Empire” and “Robe de Visite Empire” by Paquin as seen in the January 1906 issue of Les Modes. Right: “Robe d’Après-midi, par Panem” as seen on the cover of the April 1906 issue of Les Modes.
Other now-obscure couture houses, such as Panem, were also flirting with the Directoire style in 1906, when Poiret was still very much tethered to mainstream silhouettes maintained by tailoring and rigid corsetry as evidenced by a brand new accession: a promotional piece for Poiret’s 1906 summer collection.
At least one of the ensembles featured in this promotional piece—which was produced in the early years of his couture house, before the move to his illustrious hôtel on the Rue Auber—finds corresponding documentation in the pages of fashion magazines. The tailor-made seen on the left below bears a striking resemblance to the ensemble on the right in the illustration which features two figures seen above. The line drawing shows a light-colored jacket, rather than a dark one, but this may have been for the purposes of composition and as an allowance for the inclusion of the piping details seen at the shoulder, waist and cuffs of both jackets. Poiret’s women of 1906 are all compressed into the popular S-bend corset, or the Gache-Sarraute, which forced a woman’s torso forward and hips back, a look he would later claim to abhor.
The Poiret designs of 1906 as featured in March and April issues of Femina were both heavily dependent on the corset for the desired effect.
The primary sources of 1906 seem to refute Poiret’s reputation as the ring leader of the sartorial avant-garde and evidence, instead, an early period of his career when his bravado and eclecticisms were still in a nascent phase, and other designers such as Paquin (who deserves a thorough scholarly examination in the form of a major publication or exhibition!) were the ones walking the knife’s cutting edge.