Blog 30 31/03/2016 Mariano Fortuny: The Inspiration of Ancient Greece on 20th Century Couture.
Mariano Fortuny: The Inspiration of Ancient Greece on 20th Century Couture.
Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, 1871-49, was a Spanish fashion designer and one of the most creative designers of the early 20th century. Born in Granada, both his parents were painters and known collectors of ancient oriental fabrics. His father, an influential painter with a taste for Orientalist subject matter, died when Mariano was three years old. His mother moved to Paris and it was there that his creativity flourished. As a child, he not only painted, but experimented with dyes, a craft that he would go on to develop into a high art form and combined with his technological inventiveness, he would create some of the most unique and exquisite collections ever to grace the catwalks.
In 1897, he met his wife, Henriette Negrin, an experienced dressmaker who would help him in his work. The pair left Paris and moved to the Palazzo Persaro Orfei (now the Fortuny Museum) in Venice where Fortuny would live and work, inspired by his surroundings, until his death in 1949. Between 1901 and 1934, Fortuny patented no fewer than twenty inventions, but it was his inventiveness with dying and textiles combined with his love of women‘s clothing as depicted in classical Greek art that was to sky rocket him to fame. During the early 20th century, designers like Fortuny and Paul Poiret rebelled against the constricting designs of the Edwardian period looking eastwards for a freedom of movement and grace.
Ancient Greece and the Orient held a magical and exotic lure for artists and designers during this period. Paul Poiret would go on to create his collections based on Ottoman and Persian designs, the work of Omar Khayam and 1001 Nights, etc., whilst Fortuny looked to Classical Greece. The light and airy women’s clothing of classical Greece known as a chiton or peplos, was designed to cling to the body and accentuate the shape of a woman. This was the inspiration behind Fortuny’s famous Delphos Gown. It is thought that The Charioteer of Delphi was a particular inspiration. The Delphos created a sensation when it was shown in 1907, a year after he opened his couture house. The rich and the famous vied with each to wear one – theatrical legends such as Isadora Duncan and Sarah Bernhardt. When it was originally designed, it was intended to be as an informal “Tea gown” – solely for the privacy of the home.
What helped to really make Fortuny’s simple, shift dress was the fabric. Finely pleated silk weighted down by Venetian glass beads that allowed the fabric to hold its shape and flow on the body. Such simplicity needs little else – perhaps a waistband. Fortuny patented his own pleating machine and would take its secret to his grave even though his wife allowed some of his designs to be made after his death. What we do know of this particular technique is that it involved heat, pressure and ceramic rods. The fine pleats were so well constructed that they would retain their shape for years after. Combined with the overall shape and the new technology were the colours of the cloth themselves. Each dress was individually dyed using his own formulations of pigments and dyes based on ancient techniques which gave his materials the appearance of authentic antiquity and which “shimmered like the skin of a snake”. The whole effect – texture, shape, and colour change according to light and movement – timeless.
The Delphos would go on to make its mark in literature also. Marcel Proust describes Fortuny clothes in his novel, In Search of Lost Time and Maria Duenas describes the process of making a fake Delphos in her novel The Seamstress.
Further inspired by his admiration of Wagner, Fortuny went on to design for the theatre. His work with Wagner led him to create the Knossos scarf/cape. Rectangular in shape, it was made of silk with geometric motifs inspired by Cycladic art. For internal decoration he created the elegant Fortuny’s lamps, which diffused subtle light through opalescent silk shades, stretched over delicate wire form. The silk was hand-painted with gold motifs inspired by Oriental art and as a finishing touch, the lamps were decorated with glass beads and silk cording.
The Delphos was not the only dress by which Fortuny is known. His love of art led him to create sumptuous printed velvets based on the designs of medieval textiles of 15th century Florence, 17th century Venice, and Ottoman and Persian styles. These prints, stencilled with wooden blocks, remain some of the most prized of all 20th century couture collections and can be found in museums and private collections around the world.
Mariano Fortuny did not set out to be a couturier but it was his love of textiles and a life dedicated to art and that made his designs masterpieces in their own right. He was influenced by new styles and designs in textiles and fashion, by the new aesthetic and functional concepts promoted by reformers of the new applied arts, such as English designer William Morris or painter E. Burne-Jones, and by their theories on a modern style freed from the restraints of convention. He is buried in the Verano Cemetary in Rome.
Excerpt from The Embroiderer Chapter Four.
As the last model left the room, Sophia herself stepped out to a standing ovation. It was genuine applause that literally swept her off her feet and she breathed a sigh of relief. Dressed to perfection herself, her curvaceous figure was wrapped in a finely pleated, pale turquoise silk dress over which she wore a long robe in shades of lapis edged in silver. On her feet, she wore a pair of turquoise velvet slippers made by her grandmother. Discreetly embroidered at the back was a tiny crimson silk tulip. In her long black hair, she had carefully positioned a damask rose. At least one male guest was heard to say, “A more beautiful spectacle was never presented to my eyes.” Thanking everyone present, Sophia conceded that this collection would not have been possible without the high quality of bespoke embroidery produced by Dimitra, Photeini, and their artistic and highly skilled team of embroiderers in Smyrna.
Buy The Embroiderer
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.