Floral textiles have definitely caught my interest lately. I am surrounded by them every day that I work on the Stieg Collection. The beautiful fabrics and interesting patterns have made a strong impression on me. Aside from wearing (and buying) more floral prints, I’ve been thinking a lot about textiles. In particular, I’ve been reflecting on the Ecole Martine.
Paul Poiret (1879 – 1944) was a famous French couturier. He first started designing for Jacques Doucet, then later for Charles Frederick Worth before finally creating his own house in 1904. He was most noted his hobble skirts, lampshade tunics, and for liberating women from corsets. Yet one of the most interesting aspects of his career was the launching of Ecole Martine.
Poiret wisely anticipated the idea of a lifestyle brand, and wanted to offer home furnishings. He decided to do this under the name Maison Martine, which acted as the retail space. Maison Martine was supported by Ateilier Martine, the workshop, and the Ecole Martine, an experimental art school that trained young, working-class girls.
The art instructors would take the girls out to gardens and zoos in Paris. They would sketch and draw outdoors, in natural light. The best designs were purchased by Poiret, and were used in various designs by the craftsmen at the Atelier Martine. At first, the Atelier Martine only produced textiles and wallpapers (similar business model to that of John Little). It eventually expanded production to include ceramics, rugs, lighting, and later decorating services.
Ecole Martine is described as experimental because it was so different than other art schools of the time. Academies for painting and the arts were usually for men, and had a rigorous structure. Traditional art students had to learn life and figure drawing with complete photographic accuracy before moving on to develop a personal style.
Textile design by Atelier Martine. Image courtesy of Shelley Davis.
Poiret’s approach to his school was much different. First, it was a school for girls and young women. He encouraged the development of personal style. The students were given total creative freedom. They would draw or paint anything on their field trips to gardens, parks, and zoos. Creative freedom and a natural environment are obvious sources of inspiration. But I think the fact that Poiret would buy the best sketches to use for his designs was an extra incentive for the students to create quality work.
The various textiles produced by Atelier Martine don’t fit neatly into the time period they were created. They all seem quite modern for 1911-1923. The patterns and designs seem to be from a much later time. Some look like they are from the 1940s, and others from the 1960s.
That’s one of the great things about schools, and particularly setup Ecole Martine. Novice designers and arts offer a lot to their peers, teachers, and employers. They offer simplicity of thought and a humbleness I affectionately call “beginner mind”. They are not hindered by thoughts of professional standards, rules, or any limiting beliefs. Instead, their curiosity takes over. They try to formulate their own answers, unburdened by history or experience. Beginner mind offers limitless possibilities.
This seems to be a question on everyone’s mind. Arguably, fashion has been the orphaned child of the art world. While appreciated or noted, fashion still is deemed a frivolity and not an art. This was most likely caused by fashion’s origins. Prior to 1860, design was in the hands of the consumer, who would have garments made by a dressmaker. This changed with Charles Frederick Worth.
Liberator of the Fashion Designer:
What distinguished Worth from his couture colleagues was his attempt to link fashion to art. He sketched designs and made collections, which was unusual for this period. Dresses were ordered from a dressmaker, according to the desire of the client. Nothing was ready-to-wear, and the idea of dictating fashion to customers was unheard of. Worth was a pioneer of dictating fashions by the use of sketches and introducing collections that were inspired by his trips to museums and galleries.
Sketching? What’s that you said? Trips to museums and galleries for inspiration? Hmm, this sounds kind of artistic!
Worth did not, however, create slavish reproductions of period styles; instead, as is usual with revival style, he selected elements from different sources, and often different period, and fused them together into new and contemporary garments. (Jiminez, Leventon, 18).
So Worth was selecting works of art as inspiration, deconstructing them, and re-contextualizing there elements in a different medium in fashion. I think we’re onto something here.
Under Worth, Parisian fashion was transformed into the epicenter of Haute Couture. Haute Couture designs are distinguished as made-to-measure, one-of-a-kind garments made from luxurious fabrics, and sewn and adorned with extreme attention to detail.
Worth Evening Gown, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Worth’s fame was centered on his fashioning of the Court of the Second Empire. The commencement of Worth’s career as an international couturier started with the patronage of Princess Pauline de Metternich, an Austrian princess married to an Ambassador to the French court.
Princess Metternich by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
Metternich was close friends with the Empress Eugenie and an admired figure. (Quick recap of the era: it was the Second Empire. Meaning that Napoleon III was in power. Shortly after the marriage of Napoleon III to Eugenie de Montijo, a court was formed and the demand for fashion was ushered in.) Worth aspired to make her a gown as a method to be exposed to court. Worth’s wife brought a collection of sketches to Metternich, from which she ordered two dresses. Once Metternich wore the dresses to court, Worth became a craze.
Empress Eugenie and Her Ladies in Waiting (all in Worth!) by Winterhalter
So with some influential backing, positive cash flow, and creative freedom, Worth was determined to establish himself as an artist. As we already know, Worth was dictating the fashions with 4 themed shows a year. He was also the first to use live mannequins to show the clothing. (Hmm, I’m sensing fashion shows are the equivalent to art exhibitions.)
Next, Worth started directly inserting his signature on each piece, aka labeling.
Hey, don’t artists sign their works?
Later, Paul Poiret worked at the House of Worth (although after Worth’s death – his sons took over) and absorbed the artistic ideology. Poiret stated:
I am an artist, not a dressmaker.
Poiret with mannequin
At work on his own label, Poiret went a step further. He titled his garments instead of numbering them, like most couturiers did at the time. Poiret moved away from the corseted body, and explored unusual, unrelated elements in his designs. Here we see the lampshade dress.
Lampshade Tunic Dress, 1913
Back to the matter at hand. It seems that fashion designers work in the following ways:
Start with an inspiration source. (Usually a work of art)
Deconstruct elements of the inspiration source
Reconstruct these elements in a different media to create a new form
Exhibit (Fashion show)
Wait, why would someone say fashion isn’t art? Maybe I need to check what the definition of art is. Here’s what the all-powerful Wikipedia says:
Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions.
Maybe we should look at some of the reasons other people think that fashion isn’t art
1) An important reason for fashion not having attained the same recognition as other forms of art is that there are traditions for serious criticism within the visual arts, music, literature, and film, while this is almost totally absent from fashion. (Svendsen, 93)
It is true that most fashion magazines don’t criticize designers in editorials. The criticism is far more subversive than that. If a designer isn’t in the fashion magazine, the editor has already deemed the designer to be unworthy of mention. The ultimate form of criticism in the fashion world is to be completely ignored. Page prices in Vogue are upwards of $5,000. Would you waste $5,000 talking about something you didn‘t like? And BTW, you may just want to watch The September Issue. You’ll see just how critical fashion magazines can be.
2) Genuine fashion must be functional and, therefore can only be classified as applied art or craft. If a garment is not wearable, it is not fashion. But it just might be art. (Suzy Menkes, International Herald Tribune)
Say what? There has been a movemenet in contemporary art focused on usability. Example? Look at this sculpture/container. Is it art? Yes. Is it fuctional? Yes. I think Ms. Menkes idea is flawed because functionality is a design quality that art has now moved towards.
This post could go on and on, but I’d like to end with a contemporary fashion designer that blends art, fashion, and functionality like no other: Hussein Chalayan.
Cyprus born Chalayan studied fashion design in England. He made his big debut with a collection called The Tangent Flows. He made clothes, buried them in his yard, and dug them up again. Here’s a picture:
The Tangent Flows Collection, close-up
Wow, someone wearing it!
Please watch this video:
I loved the coffee table skirt. Furnish your home and wardrobe in one easy step (ok, maybe two steps to put it on).
While Chalayan is a master of fashion construction, did you notice how much emphasis he puts on exhibition, installation, and social commentary? Did the work elicit an emotional reaction from you? Did you feel something? Anything? Well then, my friend, it is fashion as art.