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Kunsthistorisches Institut

Dipl. Arch. ETH Joya Indermühle



Espace construit et rêvé. Paul Poiret's Strategies of Representation. A Study in Early 20th-Century Fashion and Visual Culture

The beginning of the 20th century marks a turning point in visual culture. Considering fashion as an intrinsic part of our visual experience, the research project examines the role of fashion and its different forms of representation within this process. The project focuses on images that were produced in the circle of the French fashion designer Paul Poiret (1879 – 1944). Fostering a concept of fashion that is part of an all-embracing lifestyle, Poiret had a major impact on various fields of aesthetics and in particular on the production of images. Across his multifarious activities – ranging from theatre and film productions, an art gallery and a collection of contemporary art, to a perfume company and a studio for interior design – he aimed at developing artistic and unique images, reaching beyond the mere depiction of clothes. Poiret’s main concern was to mediate through the images an overall avant-garde manner of life, encompassing interior design, architecture, contemporary art, movements, postures, and gestures.

My analysis is primarily based on a selection of photographs, films and theatrical performances that emerged from Poiret’s collaboration with artists and photographers of the Parisian avant-garde, amongst others Man Ray and Edward Steichen. A major part of my research project is to reveal the archive material, since the pictures have hardly been studied so far. The five chapters of my dissertation are organized around a selection of images from different contexts, collaborations, and media. Therefore, each part focuses on specific aspects and modes of representation of the textile, clothing and finally fashion as an expression of an all-embracing manner of life. The selected images are analyzed according to a cultural historical approach in order to involve social, economic and technological structures that were crucial to the image production. In particular, two aspects of my project offer a new perspective on the shift in the image culture at the beginning of the 20th century: on the one hand, the collaborative working process enables through the involvement of the various participants, a multilayered view on the image production. On the other hand, Poiret’s contribution indicates a shift from fashion drawing, towards the use of the new media of photography and film, and thus originates new and media-specific modes for visualizing fashion. Furthermore, the aspect of reception points to questions such as: Where and how were the images diffused into the society? To what extent do they generate values, ideals or notions and how are they modified in the individual or collective imagination? Subsequent to the analysis of the aesthetic of production and the contemporary reception, the project reflects Poiret’s images as an index to culture and society in this period. As fashion and its representations are specifically connected with social, economic and technological factors, the images shed a new light on the artistic avant-garde and on the changing visual experience in the early 20th century.