Art and design were more closely tied at the turn of the twentieth century than they are today. Artists did not see the difference between creating an original work of art, such as a painting, and designing a textile pattern that would be reproduced many times over. Each was a valid creative act in their eyes.
The famed French couturier Paul Poiret moved in artistic circles, employed Parisian artists, and collected their work. He went to art galleries and showed his artistic sensibilities by preferring Impressionist paintings at a time when they were new and unappreciated by the public at large. Poiret became very interested in modern art and said, "I have always liked painters. It seems to me that we are in the same trade and that they are my colleagues."
The Fauvist painter Francis Picabia was his friend, and they shared a love of bright color with other painters Maurice Vlaminck and Andre Derain, whom he knew from sailing excursions on the Seine in Chatou. Among other artists whose work he collected were Picasso, Matisse, Dufy, Rouault, and Utrillo.
Poiret also loved the theater and throughout his career designed costumes for the theater that served as a springboard for his couture designs. He was famous for his parties, elaborate costume dramas with decorations by modern artists.
Poiret’s theatrical background explains his great interest in the Ballet Russes, whose first appearance in Paris in 1909 impressed Poiret so much. With their colorful designs by Leon Bakst, echoing Russian peasant art, the costumes and sets expressed for Poiret not only the exoticism celebrated by painters like Picasso, but the appeal of spontaneity, a concept at the heart of much modern art. Immediately he began including "oriental" motifs in his dress designs.
The fashion press employed fine artists to illustrate the designs of the day. A new technique in printing–pochoir–allowed fashion illustrators to show broad, abstract expanses of bright color and a simple line. Poiret realized its potential from the beginning and employed printmaker Paul Iribe to illustrate his radically simplified gowns.
Poiret was only the best known and best documented of couturiers with connections to the art world. Many other couturiers in the first half of the twentieth century were not only collectors, but also friends of artists. Some collaborated with modern artists in the design of couture or in other artistic projects, especially for ballet and the stage.
The interest of artists in fashion was not restricted to France. From the artists of the Glasgow School in the nineteenth century, to the Russian Constructivists, Bakst, the Wiener Werkstatte, many participated in other aspects of art and design–including illustration, theater design, decorative arts, and even advertising art. Couturiers traditionally participated in events that showcased the decorative arts, taking part in international expositions since the first appearance of the designer Charles Worth at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851.
Through the first half of the twentieth century, fashion design tracked and echoed trends in modern art. The developing aesthetic of modernism can be followed in the progression of fashion design from the heavily corseted S-curved silhouettes that reflected Art Nouveau interpretation of the female form early in the century to the first uncorseted, tubular, simplified silhouette that arrived before the First World War and continued into the 1920s, to the streamlined, body-hugging dresses of the 1930s.
Designers in the early years of the century could choose fabrics with designs from the stylized organic motifs of Art Nouveau or the flat, abstract designs of the Vienna Secession movement–both styles having originated in the 1890s. Cubist painters, whose canvases presented greatly abstracted objects to a shocked world, influenced fashion silhouettes. Tubular dresses and rounded cloche hats turned women’s bodies into geometric shapes that echoed those found in modern paintings.
The chemise dresses of the early 20s were a perfect foil for surface design. Taking advantage of the plain tubular shape as a painter’s canvas, each garment could be highly decorated with beading and ornamentation. Underlying this would be a textile pattern based on Japanese, Egyptian, Persian, or Viennese design.
In the late 1920s, a new streamlined design aesthetic dubbed Moderne (now known as Art Deco) combined Cubism’s geometric base with sinuous embellishments. Once again, textile patterns and fashion design echoed the trend. Shiny fabrics only enhanced the connection with the "speed" of modern life–and art.
The dresses, coats, bathing suits, and evening wraps found in the Tirocchi shop, when placed chronologically, chart for the observer not only the changing silhouette of fashion, but reflect the fact that fashion was part of an aesthetic that was part and parcel of its time. From the chemise and cloche of the 1920s, echoing Cubist concerns, to the evening dresses of the 1930s, with the body-skimming silhouettes and reflective surfaces, each garment has a particular relationship to the art of its time.
The designers of these garments–and by extension Anna and Laura Tirocchi and their clientele–were reflecting the developing aesthetic of the early twentieth century and asking the question, "What does it mean to be modern?" The Twentieth Century felt "new" to people. Advances in technology increased the speed of life and the speed of change. Artists and designers responded to this new age with their work. The Tirocchis and their customers watched modern trends with interest, and did their best to wrap themselves in clothes of a new age.