How Poiret Made History and the Cocoon Coat

If you are taken with the flair in which Phryne Fisher wears the glamorous coats in the PBS series Ms. Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, or relished in the flamboyant entrance of Shirley MacLaine’s character Martha Levinson in Downton Abbey, then you owe your adoration to Paul Poiret. If you dream of possessing a Cocoon Coat of your own, then Folkwear has the pattern to make your dreams come true. To best appreciate the Folkwear 503 Poiret Cocoon Coat one can not separate it from the extraordinary man that designed it and the time in which he lived.

The extravagance of the Belle Epoch or The Beautiful Age would give way to one man’s radical vision of the modern world, enabling him to distill and reflect back the desires and ethos of a new modernity. For the first time women were given the opportunity to dress according to how they saw themselves, forever changing fashion. While Worth was credited for founding haute couture, Poiret (1879-1944) is recognized for completely transforming it, crowning him the first “modern” designer. Paul Poiret revolutionized women’s fashion, dismantling six-hundred years of how women in Europe wore clothing. Except for a brief Classical Grecian influenced moment during the French Revolution, the female body was divided into two separate halves, like an hourglass. Poiret was frustrated with the lack of creativity in how women dressed and set out to change things.

Photo of Paul Poiret looking at fabric

Many of Poiret’s ideas came from his observations as French society’s became more restless for change. Paul Poiret ushered in many firsts that were a culmination of his multifaceted view of what modern life should look like. Many of his revolutionary ideas continue to to shape our ideas today. Poiret cultivated an aesthetic that was expressed through not only the clothing he designed, but through his recognition that fashion was a natural continuation of a life-style. He designed not only clothing, but furniture, textiles, interiors, and fragrances. He made headlines for the legendary parties he threw and in the way he traveled around the world to showcase his collections. Poiret compared his work with the work of Picasso and counted among his friends and sometime collaborators numerous artists of the period. He was inspired by the the Ballet Russe and collaborated with 
Sergei Diaghilev. The Fauvist painter Francis Picabia was a good friend and the two shared a love of bright colors and bold pattern. Modern art in all its forms would remain a driving force in inspiring Poiret’s work.

Photo of Poiret Lampshade Dress
Photo Of Poiret costumes for Ballet Russe

At the turn of the century, the world was changing quickly and Paul Poiret was eager to make his mark. He drew his influences from every corner of the globe. His desire was to create a new vision of modernity, which encompassed freeing silhouettes to reflect new attitudes. He relied on drama and spectacle to catch the attention of Parisian society. A Classical Grecian dress designed for Isadora Duncan created a frenzy for the Ancient Greece silhouette that the designer is best known for. He introduced a pants derived from a costume worn by Egyptian dancers girls that shockingly exposed women’s legs (think Sybil’s Harem pants in Downton Abbey). The rage for everything Asian-inspired was in part fueled by Poiret’s theatrical geisha kimonos. 

Photo of woman in Asian inspired Poiret costume

Unfortunately, Poiret failed to acknowledge these influences let alone give credit where credit was due. He took inspiration from other cultures, molded them to his extraordinary vision, never acknowledging their origins.

Photo of Poiret Lampshade Dress

One of the most distinguishable designs was the Lampshade dress which was paired with the infamous Hobble Skirt. The exuberant costumes and productions of the Ballet Russe not only inspired the designer, but he would use the stage in a brilliant marketing scheme to reveal his own designs to the French public. He even used his own wife Denise Boulet as a model, catapulting an ordinary young woman into a celebrity muse.

“My wife is the inspiration for all my creations; she is the expression of all my ideals. She was to become one of the queens of Paris”

Mme. Poiret modeling her husband's skirt made of feathers.

Poiret’s vision for the modern woman did not include the constraints of the corset. While he is often credited with freeing women of the corset, it was actually, Madame Vionnet (an early mentor of Poiret) who first abandoned the rigid structure of the corseted figure. Poiret was patient with society's hesitancy to completely discard the corset. He let the recommendations by doctors over medical concerns and the principles of the Suffragettes help to pave to way. Poiret did claim to be the inventor of the brassière. He explained that his designs celebrated the freedom from structured undergarments. This brassière was made of a thin band of fine cotton or silk that covered the bust and was held in place by narrow shoulder straps. Fashionable women took to the new comfortable physical sensation without much hesitation. Poiret gave women permission to free themselves from corsets while being mindful to provide them with a little something to help maintain their respectability. It would appear Poiret was calculating in how he unveiled his visionary ideas, being careful to not upset the applecart all at once.

Poiret was frustrated with how he saw fashionable women’s clothing relegated them into living dolls. He intend to upend this feminine ideal with his own vision. Poiret would replace tedious pattern construction with new silhouettes derived from draping techniques. Poiret’s designs were revolutionary in their complete abandonment from the rigid and highly sculpted bodices and nipped waists that had confined women’s bodies for hundreds of years. He shifted the focus of the female figure away from the waistline to a long, lean line, beginning at the shoulders and ending in a narrow hem at the ankle. Poiret’s fluid and sensual designs were intended to free women and as he explained,

“I like a plain gown, cut from light and supple fabric, which falls like thick liquid, just touching the outline of the figure and throwing shadows and light over the moving form.”

Photo of Poiret gown.
Photo of Poiret column dress

The designer was not without a contradictory misstep, taking the sleek silhouette to an absurd extreme with the design of the Hobble skirt. The skirt was so tight from the knees to the ankles that sometimes the legs had to be taped together to prevent splitting the skirt while attempting to walk. Poiret himself commented that he had “freed the breasts but shackled the legs”. A torrent of outraged protests from the press and a Papal condemnation led to slit skirts, buttoned hems, and pleats that allowed for mobility. Despite or maybe because of the uproar, the narrow silhouette was here to stay.

Photo of a woman awkwardly standing in a Hobble Skirt
photo of woman in Hobble Skirt

The basic shapes of Poiret’s designs are fairly simple. He was not revered for his construction techniques, proving you do not have to be an engineering genius to produce amazing results. His real genius is revealed in his daring and extravagant use of color and stunning fabrics. He favored the bright, unrestrained palette of the Fauves and fabrics of rich brocade, velvet, and silk embellished with opulent trimmings and furs.

Photo of Poiret Greecian Style Dress

The Folkwear 503 Poiret Coccon Coat, from around 1913, is the perfect example of a very simple design that coveys opulence through drape, shape, and of course, the choice of fabric and trim. The coat incorporates the signature long, unbroken line from the shoulders to the narrow, ankle-length hem while draping in deep, voluminous swags in the back. Its influences are clearly Eastern and yet its look is definitely modern.

Illustration of Poiret Cocoon Coat

Perhaps Poiret’s most lasting influence was in his understanding of the power clothes hold over human desires. He concocted a potion made of cloth and dreams that would lure women into a web of consumerism that has motivated the world ever since.

Designers continue to look to Poiret’s vision for inspiration and his legendary impact has been hard to match. One other showman-designer has dared to try. John Galliano's 
1998 Spring Collection fashion show for Christian Dior, held at the Paris’s Opera Garnier, created an intoxicating extravaganza to rival Poriet. While, Galliano's muse for the collection was The Marchesa Casati, is could also be a tribute to Paul Pioret. Below is Galliano's take on the Cocoon Coat, proving Poiret's magic still has the ability to mezmerize and intrigue us still.

Photo of John Galliano Cocoon Coat

Let one man's vision inspire you to make and enjoy your own legendary Folkwear 503 Poiet Cocoon Coat. The printed pattern and pdf version are both  on sale throughout the month of October... just in time for cozy couch lounging or a special upcoming holiday occasion. Keep watching for a two part Sew-along blog that will solve the mystery of making your own Ms. Fisher fantasy Coat!