Early 20th Century Ethnic Inspirations

I’ve written in the past that one of my biggest problems with the idea of cultural appropriation is that it is the mix of cultural influences that makes fashion (and music and art and  …) so interesting.  Take away all the cultural aspects of fashion there is not a lot to build upon.

20th century fashion had an on-again, off-again love affair with ethnic looks from around the world.  From the Oriental craze of the early years of the century to the re-emergence of Bohemian looks at the end of it, the ethnic influences of the 20th century add lots of spice to our fashion history.

Women had been flirting with Orientalism in the form of fabrics for several centuries.   Shawls of Eastern design were in high favor for many years, along with paisley and other Oriental prints.  But it was in the designs of Paul Poiret that  Oriental motifs came to the forefront of fashion.

Illustration: Closeup of Victorian Paisley Shawl

Poiret opened his salon in 1903, and he was soon designing dresses that did not require the wearing of a corset.  He began experimenting with bolder colors, perhaps influenced by the art of Matisse and other Fauve artists.  He was soon traveling to the East in search of fabrics to use in his designs.

In 1909, Sergei Diaghlev and his Ballet Russes debuted in Paris.  The costumes of designer Leon Bakst became a major source of design inspiration from 1909 into the 1920s when the ballet disbanded.  Many of the ballets were based on Oriental subjects, such as Scheherazade, but even  European topics such as The Sleeping Princess  had costumes that were based on various folk costumes from Eastern Europe and Russia.

Illustration: Costume from the 1921 production of the Ballet Russes’ The Sleeping Princess. This costume is in the collection of  the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

And while Poiret claimed not to have been influenced by the Ballet Russes, the current rage for all things Oriental, as inspired by the Ballet, made the work he was already involved in all the more popular.

In 1911 Poiret staged a party – “A Thousand and Second Night” – where his wife Denise stunned the gathering with her Arabian themed costume:  tunic with full pantaloons, topped with a turban.  Poiret himself wore a caftan and turban, and was seated upon a throne.  And for a time he was the Sultan of Paris Fashion, as his Oriental collections continued to be successful up to the beginning of World War I.

Illustration: 1922 Poiret design as pictured in Harper’s Bazar. In the 1920s Poiret’s clothes continued to be exotic in design.

Another designer of this period who is known for his culturally inspired designs is Mariano Fortuny.  In 1907, Fortuny made the first of his Delphos dresses, a design inspired by the costume of Ancient Greece.  Fortuny continued making various forms of this dress into the 1920s and beyond.  He also printed textiles, using Japanese and Islamic inspired motifs, and often borrowing design ideas directly from antique Oriental textiles.

The dress above is a full length Delphos dress. The fabric is finely pleated, using a process that was known only to Fortuny. The resulting dress is very Greek goddess-like.

Illustration:  Photo courtesy of and copyright of Pinky-a-gogo

Next week: The 1920s


Filed under Vintage Clothing

5 responses to “Early 20th Century Ethnic Inspirations

  1. I saw a Poiret exhibit at the Met a few years back. Each piece was more beautiful than the last!


  2. Barb

    What a great post. I love Poiret and Bakst. I would love to see these beautiful garments in person.


  3. Pingback: Early 20th Century Ethnic Inspirations Part II, the 1920s | The Vintage Traveler

  4. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation | The Vintage Traveler

  5. Pingback: Diaghilev and the BalletsRusses at the National Gallery of Art | The Vintage Traveler

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