I love this series for two reasons. First, it's fashion, the ultimate fusion of art and utility. It must be beautiful AND it has to be wearable. Second, we can fall into the trap of thinking that we are the MOST forward thinking and the MOST adventurous era. Nope, not true - there have ALWAYS been innovators and risk takers.
Let's learn about Fortuny.
For this next column, I wanted to look at a designer and artist who remains a bit of a mystery. Mariano Fortuny was Spanish and came from a family full of artists. He painted, designed textiles, and created women's clothing among other artist pursuits. However, he is most notable for inventing the Delphos gown, a dress that broke with the fashionable silhouette of the period.
In the first decade of the 20th century, women's clothing was going through a huge transition. The rigidity and amount of undergarments was lessening, and women were beginning to experience an increase in range of motion they could perform. However, the popular silhouette was still restrictive — an S silhouette cause by a corset that thrust the bust forward and the hips back. These corsets were long and distorted the body's natural shape.
Fortuny's work eradicated those constrictions when he created the Delphos gown about 1907. The Delphos gown was an at-home dress, often called a tea gown, that women could wear while entertaining. Women did not wear corsets beneath it. The Delphos gown molded to a woman's body without conventional seams, sensually revealing the natural shape of the body. It dazzled and changed color in the light.
The Delphos gown was a column of vertical pleats set in silk. Through multiple vegetable-based dye baths, the garment took on lustrous and deep color. It was minimally decorated, often with small Venetian glass beads that acted as weights and contributed to the gown's graceful drape. The Delphos gown was inspired by a famous ancient Greek sculpture called Charioteer of Delphi.
It's still partially a mystery how Fortuny achieved these famed pleats — they were gathered by hand and went through a heat-setting process. The secret method involved laying wet silk on porcelain tubes that were heated. Many designers, including Mary McFadden, have tried to recreate his pleats, but Fortuny's remain one of a kind. The gown was stored twisted in balls to preserve the pleats, but when the pleats began to wear out the dress could be sent back to Fortuny for repleating.
The Delphos gown was most popular with avant-garde, artistic, and bohemian women in the upper class. Isadora Duncan, the modern dancer, was known as one of Fortuny's patrons.
The Delphos gown was considered anti-fashion when it came out in 1907, but gained popularity throughout the next 30 years. It helped usher in the fashion for soft and draped shapes, tunics, and, most importantly, the rejection of the corset. As women's dress became more liberated and daring, the Delphos gown transitioned from an at-home dress to an evening gown in the 1920s and 1930s.
Over a hundred years old AND something that I could see wearing today. And think about how revolutionary it was - from corsets and S curve profiles to drapey fabrics with no support undergarments. Freedom.
This was the same time that Frank Lloyd Wright was shocking the architecture world. And a few years later modern art was introduced to the US at the Armory Show of 1913 (and I'm going to see the NYHS show next month!).
Perhaps we can be a little bolder too.