During the years before World War I (1914–18), Paul Poiret (1879–1944) earned acclaim for designing flamboyant, brightly colored women's clothing. He was inspired by a range of preexisting styles, from Oriental and Greco-Roman designs to Russian peasant costumes, as well as by the fine and decorative arts.
Poiret was born in Paris, France, and his family operated a cloth business. As a child he was fascinated by the theater and the fine arts. In 1896 he was hired by fashion designer Jacques Doucet (1853–1929), proprietor of one of the era's top Paris fashion houses. While working for Doucet, he earned acclaim by designing stage costumes for some of the period's most illustrious French actresses, including Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) and Réjane (1857–1920). He also worked at Maison Worth, another celebrated Paris-based design house. In 1904 Poiret opened his own design firm, which he named La Maison Poiret, or the House of Poiret.
At the time women regularly wore corsets, stiff, tight-fitting undergarments. Poiret freed women from their corsets and dressed them in a variety of clothing: tubular, sheath-like dresses; elegant, highly ornamental kimonos, loose fitting, wide-sleeved robes; long tunic dresses; harem pants, women's pants featuring full legs that come together at the ankle; and hobble skirts, a long skirt that comes in tight at the ankles. In place of corsets Poiret endorsed the wearing of brassieres as women's underwear.
To Poiret color and ornament were just as important as the cut of a garment. He worked with various Paris-based painters and illustrators to create stylish, brightly colored fashion illustrations and textile print designs. Poiret befriended many artists, and preferred modern French painting at a time when it had not yet won acceptance. He collected the work of those who would become the era's leading artists, among them Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Henri Matisse (1869–1954), and Francis Picabia (1879–1953).
In 1908 Poiret began printing the designs he commissioned in limited-edition catalogs, which he sent to his customers. The manner in which these catalogs were laid out influenced the evolution of the fashion magazine. In 1911 Poiret marketed the first designer perfume, which he named Rosine. Under the Rosine name he also sold lotions and other cosmetic products. Then in 1912 he opened Atelier Martine, where he sold the fabrics and wallpaper created by his students at Paris's École Martine, a school of decorative arts.
During the 1920s fashion styles became less ornate and a new generation of designers came into favor. Poiret did not adapt his work to the changing tastes, and his business no longer flourished. By the time he died in 1944 he had lost his money, had long been in ill health, and was practically forgotten.