The Bruce Museum has one of the most beautiful textile collections I’ve ever seen.
If you’re something of a fashionista then you can’t help but be smitten by the beauty of the designs and the richness of fabric that no longer seems to exist in our ready-to-wear world. Two of my favorites in the Bruce Museum collection are a long Belgian lace bridal veil and a dress by Worth.
Last year, one of the interesting pieces that caught my eye at the Bruce was an American evening coat circa 1925. Made of black silk with white chenille piping and metallic thread embroidery its kimono style, so redolent of that era, drew me to thoughts of my favorite turn of the century fashion designer Paul Poiret.
Originally apprenticed to an umbrella manufacturer, he would sketch and create small dress models using the discarded silk scraps. He was a poor boy with glamorous ambitions who dreamed of dressing the most elegant women in Paris and beyond. Gradually, his designs attracted the celebrated House of Worth who hired him to create practical clothes for ladies.
But within two years he felt his talents were being underappreciated and decided to set out on his own and started the Poiret fashion house.
His first course of action was to rid women of the tortuous corset and set their bodies free with Grecian like costumes. Of course, while Poiret succeeded in freeing women’s shoulders and waists, his invention, the hobble skirt, limited a woman’s stride to two or three inches at a time. In fact, corded “hobble garters” were worn just above the ankles to prevent regular walking strides from ripping skirt seams. Ironically, these were popular at the same time as suffragists were demonstrating in the streets, many wearing these decidedly challenging skirts.
Another controversial action was his introduction of the v-neckline for daywear. This exposure of skin was considered a sure way to contract pneumonia at the time.
In 1913, Poiret came to New York. He became a regular contributor to Harper’s Bazaar, penning articles on the elements of style and how a modern woman should dress. His influence reverberated with American women, who embraced his orientalist motifs, donned his lamp-shade tunics, and spritzed themselves with his Parfums de Rosine. Poiret delivered the first designer perfumes to the world, but he also gave women an even greater gift, a self-confident modernity.
Of course, today the memory of Poiret has drifted off into oblivion; his languorous designs a mere relic of the past. But if you happen to see the 1925 evening coat on display in the Bruce Museum he may just spring back to life for a moment.
Victoria Baker, of Greenwich, is an opera singer. Winner of many prestigious competitions, she has performed and worked with distinguished artists all over the world (notably at Lincoln Center).