Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo was born in Granada, Spain, in 1871 . His family moved to Venice in 1889, where he remained until his death in 1949. Fortuny created some of the most beautiful garments and textiles of the twentieth century. The clothing he designed ignored the constant change dictated by the whims of fashion. His most famous creation and characteristic is the Delphos style, which he patented in 1909; a simple dress of finely pleated silk. Lady Diana Cooper, a customer of Fortuny, describes these dresses in her memoirs as 'timeless dresses of pure thin silk cut severely straight from shoulder to toe and kept wrung like a skein of wool. In every crude and subtle colour, they clung like mermaid's scales'.
This exhibition is the first in a series that will show the work of the leading artists in fashion of the twentieth century, those whose designs changed the course of fashion in their day. As background to the innovative work of Fortuny it is necessary to look at the fashions of the belle epoque (1895-1914), the period of excessive luxury and grandeur for the aristocracy and high bourgoisie that came to an end with the first world war.
The afternoon gown in strawberry silk from the House of Worth, Paris c.1902, and the fashion illustrations from La Nouvelle Mode, 1898, and The Delineator, 1902/3, exemplify the fashion silhouette of the epoch and the point of departure for Fortuny. The garments flow in characteristic S-shapes, with boned bodice and constricted waistline producing a soft curve while the skirt and train flow outwards in another curve. The grand garments of the period are heavily embellished with flounces, lace and bows and often accompanied by gigantic hats.
Fortuny began his artistic life as a painter; it was not until 1906 that he started working with dress and textile designs. Protest against the fashion of the day for both health and aesthetic reasons was evident for already in the 1860s groups such as the Pre-Raphaelites turned to simple medieval dress as an alternative to crinolines and corsets.
Paul Poiret was the first Parisian couturier to design 'Directoire' style dresses to be worn without corsets in 1908. Fortuny took off from Poiret, developing a new concept of dress, a style from which he never deviated during the entire forty years of his working life. He was inspired by the simplicity of classical Greek costume as we know it from antique sculpture and vase painting, and created a dress that was both flattering and comfortable to wear. The Delphos dress was described in its patent of 1909 as 'a type of garment derived from the classical robe, but its design is so shaped and arranged that it can be worn and adjusted with ease and comfort'. Its form is similar to the costumes found on archaic korai sculptures from the sixth century; Fortuny kept numerous illustrations of these in his photographic archive. The Delphos derived its name from the well known bronze of the Delphic charioteer (475—470 B.C.), whose long, short-sleeved robe hung in loose folds.
The construction was simple; four pieces of pre-pleated silk handsewn together into a cylindrical shape, threaded through the neckline and sleeves with a drawstring and weighted with Venetian glass beads. The pleated silk undulated horizontally and was dyed by hand to create shimmering colours. Two variations of this garment are shown. The light pink dress is an example of the original simple form with short batwing sleeves while the light green is a sleeveless version with an attached overtunic. The navy blue gauze overtunic was designed to be worn over the simple gown. The simplicity of colour and style in Fortuny's garments permitted them to be worn in a variety of combinations: the Delphos could be worn alone or with an overgarment without loss of aesthetic appeal. It was originally worn as a teagown with few undergarments, often with a velvet jacket or tunic, and by the 1920s Fortuny dresses became more popular as fashion styles relaxed. Many women chose then to wear one when sitting for a photographer or painter. It was not until the 1930s that women in America started wearing them to the theatres and restaurants as well as at home.
Fortuny possessed a rare understanding of textiles and was interested in techniques of their manufacture and use. From his studio in Venice, at the Palazzo Orfei, he not only designed clothing but invented the processes of manufacture associated with the textiles for them. Each garment was made by hand as were the materials used in it. Fortuny worked mainly with silk and velvet which he received in a raw state. He produced the dyes and the blocks, stencils and machines needed for the patterning and colouring of his fabrics and developed new methods for pleating and printing. The methods he used were all time consuming and labour intensive and as each item was totally handmade each garment was unique. This craftsmanship extends to the exquisite label found inside the gold velvet jacket. A circular piece of pale green rep silk is handsewn onto the lining at the back of the neck. The label is stencilled in gold metallic paint: MARIANO/FORTUNY/VENISE.
The origins of the motifs used on Fortuny's textiles were derived from a wide variety of sources, including Byzantine and Italian and African. His parents had been keen collectors of textiles and he followed this tradition, decorating his studio from his large collection of antique textiles. The pink velvet jacket on display is printed in a Persian floral design and the navy blue tunic bears a combination of Persian and Italian motifs.
Fortuny marketed his own garments and textiles, beginning by setting up a small shop at the Palazzo Orfei and later opening shops in London, Paris and New York. Initially he relied on his work being publicized by a small group of influential admirers such as Marcel Proust and Isadora Duncan. He was not part of the fashion world of Paris which was ruled by the couturiers Doucet, Paquin, Worth and Poiret and his early work was seldom seen in the influential fashion magazines. A rare mention is found in La Gazette du Bon Ton, No. 3 1912, under the heading 'Deshabilles'; accompanying the text are illustrations by the artist Georges Lepape expressing his interpretation of Fortuny garments. Paul Poiret greatly admired Fortuny's work and the finely pleated garment underneath the lampshade tunic in the fashion plate 'Lassitude' is an example of the influence of the Delphos gown.
Fortuny was an original figure in twentieth-century fashion. The simplicity of shape, colour and texture in his clothing and the freedom from extraneous detail resulted in a unique style. Today, some of the fashions of the contemporary Japanese designers of the 80s, such as Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto, relate back to his work.
In an attempt to recreate an environment suitable to the display of Fortuny garments, early twentieth-century dressmaker dummies such as those on which Fortuny showed his work have been used. The two Spanish eighteenth-century 'bizarre' silks hung as backdrops are similar to the textiles Fortuny had in his studio.
Suggested further reading
De Osma, Guillermo. Mariano Fortuny: His Life and Work, London, 1980.
Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Women's Clothes, London, 1968.