"The forward movement of fashion and art trends is not linear". This is how I begin the first class of every term for my Costume History and Art History classes at the Art Institute of New York. "Instead," I continue, "fashion and art trends spiral, always looping back to the past while twisting forward in a new way". The students seem to love this sort of esoterica and nod their heads in mesmerized understanding. When I explain the term “classical antiquity” though, they slide from a state of fascination to thoughts such as "mmm, I could use a doughnut right now" or "how can I text my friend without getting caught?" By the end of the term however, they understand, and are equally amazed as I am by the fact that, throughout so many historic periods, art and fashion continue to refer back to the incredible Greek and Roman times.
Spring is upon us. Therefore, so are spring fashions. I am so pleased to see that a major fashion trend, as seen on the runways for Spring 2012, stems from one of my favorite periods in Fashion and the Decorative Arts: the Art Deco period. According to Style.com, a popular fashion website, the collections of the major names in fashion design presented flavors of many decades, however it is the Art Deco period that got the “loudest roar” this year!
The term Art Deco originates from the 1925 Paris Exposition called L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Moderns. The Art Deco period spans from the 1920s to approximately 1940 and encompasses geometric and exotic design elements derived from Egyptian, Mayan, and Greek civilizations, the Near and Far East, and Africa, as well as trends in Gothic and Byzantine periods. Similarly, Art Deco designs were related to various art movements such as Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism, all of which were in vogue at the time. In addition, the costumes of the Ballet Russes, led by its founder, Russian art critic Serge Diaghilev, reflected the Art Deco style.
Clients of the avant-garde, Art Deco art and architectural haute couture fashions, were the savvy, well-to-do who enjoyed life in luxurious homes, restaurants, cruise ships and night clubs. These elite members of society were the ultimate style icons of their day.
One of the most dynamic and innovative couturiers of the time was the Parisian, Paul Poiret. Poiret combined art and fashion in a revolutionary way that mirrored the social changes that were occurring for women during this time. In everyday life women were starting to work outside of the home, and the right to vote was soon forthcoming. In fashion, Poiret did away with the corset and created gowns that were loose fitting through the body. Poiret is also credited with inventing the narrow "hobble skirt". With all of these modernizations, Poiret said himself, “I freed the bosom, shackled the legs but gave liberty to the body” (Lyman, 1972).
Poiret knew how to create a powerful spectacle and he also knew how to use it to his fullest advantage. In 1925 Poiret used the Paris Exposition of Arts Decoratifs as an opportunity to display his visionary skills and to loudly declare that craft was also an art. To compete with the other 72 dress designers at the Exposition, despite the threat of financial ruin, Poiret hired three barges to float up and down the Seine River in Paris. The first barge, named Amours featured Poiret’s latest fragrances. The second, named Delices served food and other gastronomical treats. The third barge, named Orgues was decorated completely in white and served as the stage for his couture collections, which he modeled in relays. The three barges were the highlight of the event and success was enormous and immediate for Poiret.