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French, 1923

“The high art of dressmaking consists precisely in developing the individuality of each woman.” — Paul Poiret, King of Fashion (1931)

One of the twentieth century’s preeminent haute couturiers, Paul Poiret (1879–1944) is celebrated for his inventiveness, artistic vision and eagerness to break with the status quo in feminine dress. Two characteristics best define his oeuvre, both seemingly at odds with each other yet utterly inextricable: a tendency towards the theatrical and exotic, and a simultaneous preference for stripped-down simplicity of form. Chief among his myriad inspirations was Denise Boulet, his muse and wife; Poiret made this unique day dress—titled Timbuctou—for her personal wardrobe. Not only does it represent his symbiotic relationship with Denise and his keen understanding of her individualism, it also highlights one of the most distinctive aspects of Poiret’s creations for her: the repurposing of antique, ethnographic textiles to fashion exceptionally avant-garde garments.

Poiret opened his first maison de couture in 1903, and from the very start he eschewed conventional dressmaking. He abandoned corsetry and petticoats in favor of a more natural shape; this relaxed new silhouette was well-matched by his penchant for overt exoticism. Ancient and non-Western garments—all composed of flat planes of fabric, assembled in ways that drape fluidly over the body—compelled Poiret to reenvision the modern woman’s wardrobe. In 1905, Poiret and Denise Boulet were married; he had started designing for her during their engagement and would continue to until their divorce in 1928. Poiret boasted to Vogue magazine in 1913 that: “My wife is the inspiration for all my creations, she is the expression of all my ideals.” Indeed, Denise’s slim physique served as the prototypic template for his columnar dresses. Creations made exclusively for her show the limitless bounds of Poiret’s creativity, and afforded him opportunities to use unconventional materials that would not suit his paying clientele. Timbuctou— evocatively named but not accurately documenting the geographical source of the cloth from which it is made—is a simple, sleeveless sheath minimally tailored by darts concealed along the sides. Constructed from a strip-woven cotton wrapper of West African origin (most likely made by the Sherbo, Mende or Vai people of Sierra Leone), the dress reflects both Poirets’ sense of adventurousness and free-spirited inclinations.

Timbuctou also comments on prevailing cultural aesthetics in post-World War I Paris. Primitivism and Negritude—terms referring to the intense interest of modern artists in tribal arts and fascination with African-American jazz-age culture, respectively—resonated with French Moderne design. A 1918 trip to Morocco inspired Poiret to develop Bedouin-style woolen fabrics with the Parisian weaving firm Rodier; another African sojourn supplied the couturier with a North African abaya which he remodeled into a coat for Denise in 1920. Though it is uncertain where Poiret purchased the vividly patterned cloth from which Timbuctou is made, it is possible that he discovered it himself on one of his African journeys.

Provenance: From the personal wardrobe of Denise BouletPoiret, descended through their son, Colin Poiret.

Timbuctou, Dress by Paul Poiret
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