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The couturier Paul Poiret broke new ground in fashion illustration in 1908 by collaborating with illustrator Paul Iribe on Les Robes de Paul Poiret, a deluxe album of Poiret’s designs.  Iribe’s illustrations concerned themselves less with line-for-line renderings and instead focused on conveying the spirit or mood of the dress.  In Poiret’s words “A garment is like a good portrait—the expression of a spiritual state and there are robes [dresses] that sing the joy of living as others that herald tragic ends.”

Many scholars cite the emergence of modern fashion photography to an April 1911 issue of Art et Decoration, which features Poiret’s garments as captured by the eminent photographer Edward Steichen. In keeping with Poiret’s vision, Steichen’s photographs, like the one shown here, are moody and atmospheric.  They evoke a particular mode of being and lifestyle. These works take a modern, artistic approach to the presentation of clothing that obfuscates the inherent commercialism of the fashion industry.

These images are certainly not the earliest fashion photographs—our department contains examples in La Mode Pratique that predate this photo shoot by nearly 30 years. These earlier images differ in the information they carry and the way they express it. They borrowed heavily form portrait painting and the established formula of the fashion plate, which for centuries had provided illustrations so detailed one’s dressmaker or tailor could recreate the look down to the last button.  

To see more of this new acquisition and other treasures from our collections please visit Material Mode, Special Collections' official blog.

Edward Steichen photograph featuring Poiret designs, 1911
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