Sunday, 24 November 2013

Fortuny and the Delphos dress

Venice appears to be one place where my fabric-and-costume radar doesn’t work. Not only did I not know that it possesses a costume museum until our last visit, I have never been to the Fortuny Museum, either. (Although to be fair, in our numerous visits there we have been to almost no museums; we prefer to stroll round the city and explore instead).

Mariano Fortuny was born in Grenada, Spain, in 1871. His father, a successful artist, died when Fortuny was very young, and the family (Fortuny, his sister and their mother) moved to Paris, where his maternal uncle lived. When he was eighteen the family moved again, this time to Venice; partly because his mother felt that Paris had become too expensive, and partly because Fortuny suffered from an allergy to horses. In Venice the family lived in an eighteenth century palazzo, surrounded by Fortuny senior’s vast collection of objets d’art. From his father Fortuny inherited a love of the East, and never lost his fondness for dressing up, as seen in this photograph of him wearing a turban and a Moroccan striped djellaba. (Looks familiar, where have I seen one of those recently?)

Mariano Fortuny in the late 1930s

Fortuny began painting while still a small boy, guided by his uncle, a celebrated portrait painter. He also learned to etch, and after the family’s move to Venice he developed a keen interest in photography, eventually amassing a collection of over 10,000 negatives. He was also at various times in his life a sculptor, a stage lighting engineer and a set designer, but it is for his textiles that he is best known.

The first reference to him working with textiles appears in 1906 and around a year later his most famous garment made its first appearance; the Delphos dress. The dress was derived from the draped clothing of the Classical world, and took its name from the Charioteer of Delphi; a bronze, life-size statue of a chariot driver from ancient Greece.

The Charioteer of Delphi

Its simple shape, a cylinder of tightly pleated silk hanging from the shoulders, was unlike anything else of the time, and had more in common with the images of Romantic painters such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema than current fashion.

Silver Favorites (detail) by Alma-Tadema, 1903

Lillian Gish in a Delphos dress

Indeed the dress was so different that Fortuny regarded it as in invention, and patented it in Paris in 1909. The diagram which accompanied the patent registration shows how the dress was constructed, with fastens along the shoulders, and a gathering ribbon inside (item f) which altered the line of the sleeve.

Patent diagram of the Delphos dress

1930s Delphos dress, showing shoulder fasten and internal gathering (from Whitaker Auction)

Although shown in the diagram as a loose, straight dress, some later versions were worn with a belt at the waist, or gathered under the bust.

The dresses were made of fine silk, with small beads of Venetian glass down the sides, for decoration and to add some weight so that dress would cling to the body. Although there were numerous variations of the dress over time, and no two Delphos dresses were exactly the same, the basic design never changed.

1930s dress with overblouse

Dress with printed chiffon tunic

When not being worn, the dresses were to be stored rolled up to preserve the pleats.

Rolled dresses, © Victoria and Albert Museum

They were sold in small boxes, and must have been far easier to pack than most dresses of the time!

Delphos dress in its original box

The 1920s were the heyday of the Delphos dress. In an article in the Sunday Times Magazine in 1976 Lady Bonham-Carter recalled buying a Delphos dress in Venice in 1920, and added that, “Everybody went to Fortuny then. I think everyone I knew had a Fortuny dress”.

Natasha Rambova, wife of Rudolph Valentino, in a Delphos dress c 1924

While everybody may have gone to Fortuny, whether everyone looked good in a Fortuny dress might have been a different matter altogether. According to Lady Diana Cooper the dresses, “Clung like mermaid’s scales”. Nowadays Delphos dresses tend to be displayed on tall, slim dress forms, sometimes with the dress pooling on the floor, which is how Fortuny intended them to look. This setting shows the dresses to their best advantage.

A selection of Delphos dresses

Equally, when worn by someone like Lillian Gish in the photograph above, the clinging nature of the dress worked well. However I can’t help feeling that not all the photographs of Delphos dresses being worn look entirely flattering.

Back view of a model wearing a Delphos dress. Hmm.

Three of Isadora Duncan's adoptive daughters, looking oddly short, in Delphos dresses

That the narrow dresses only suited the very slim seems to have been recognized by some people. The dresses were originally made from three or four widths of fabric and Elsie Lee, who sold Fortuny’s goods in the United States, suggested that an extra width of fabric should be put into the dresses so that more women could wear them.

However I think that the worst ever photograph of the Delphos dress was taken early in its life. In 1907 Mrs Selma Shubart was photographed by her brother, Alfred Stieglitz, wearing a Delphos dress. The dress is a beautiful colour; a rich gold, achieved like all of Fortuny's colours by dying the fabric several times. The Cromwell shoes are a bit quirky, but given that the dress was quirky by the standards of the time, not a problem. The flowers at the waist are no doubt an addition of Mrs Shubart's, but to me they work. But the cardigan??! Even if it is a matching colour, a nice comfy cardi over a Delphos dress is, without a doubt, a crime against a costume icon.


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