Monday, October 14, 2013

Fortuny’s Delphos Gown: The Snowflake of Fashion

by Abigail Cucolo
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Photo by Brian Bohannon 
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
When looking at historic costume, the word “comfortable” does not easily spring to mind. Opulent- sure, beautiful- definitely. Romantic, stunning, intricate, and, of course, how could they breathe!? But not “comfortable.” It is rare to find a garment that combines comfort with couture. Luckily, we have two such gems in our collection, and both are now on display. With fine pleats hugging the figure in lightweight, shimmering silk, the Fortuny Delphos gown was the Versailles of rational clothing, and the two we have are in remarkable condition.

Spanish artist Mariano Fortuny’s simple, elegant, and unconventional Delphos dress made a debut in 1907. Inspired by the chitons of ancient Greece, the design reflected the fervor for neo-classicism seen during the Empire Revival. Indeed, with the columnar silhouette and fluted figure, women wearing a Fortuny resembled the caryatids of Peloponnesian architecture. Originally intended as a tea gown, the Delphos dress was driven by the ideals of the Aesthetic movement and meant to be worn without the elaborate underpinnings of the Edwardian period, relieving women of their spiral steel and cotton cages (in other words: the corset). Made in one size and easily slipped over the head, the mushroom-like pleats would expand and adapt to the wearer’s body, providing freedom of movement and making the Delphos dress incredibly comfortable- and incredibly risqué for the covered and corseted Edwardian lady.

Famous for the beauty and versatility of his textiles, Fortuny handcrafted each dress (and every feature of the dress) in his Venice studio (known as “The House of the Magician”). The silks were fashioned in a variety of dyes ranging from cool greens, blues, and purples to glowing reds and golds. Many were saturated with vibrant hues, and could be dipped up to 15 times to enrich the color. Hand-blown, Venetian glass beads were commonly attached to the side seams, weighing down the lightweight silk. To further highlight a woman’s natural figure, often the gowns would also be paired with a sash, belt, or cord of satin or velvet, printed in a design inspired by various historic cultures. The snowflake of fashion, no two Fortuny gowns were identical, and he would never use the same design or color combination on any two pieces of fabric.

The most distinctive and unique feature of the gowns- the fine pleats- were created by a secret process Fortuny never revealed. With silk being a temperamental textile when it comes to pleating, Fortuny’s method somehow managed to attain a near permanent pleat. It is believed that he finger pleated the silk when wet, possibly holding the creases in place with rows of basting along the length of the panel, then heat set the fabric with porcelain rollers. To help maintain the pleats, the dresses were rolled up and stored in little hat boxes (no folding or hanging! Woo hoo!). With each dress made out of 4-5 panels containing between 430-450 pleats, the process was incredibly thorough, and has never been successfully duplicated since.

Photo by Brian Bohannon
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
So basically, Delphos gowns were handmade, luxurious, custom creations, yet you could slip them over your head, shove them in a box, and never have to worry about steaming or ironing. It was the paradox of unfussy haute couture, a paradox beloved by enlightened women for decades. Soon, the dress was acceptable outside the home and was worn as sensuous evening wear by icons like Lillian Gish, Isadora Duncan, and Natacha Rambova (please look that lady up--she is pretty spectacular!).  With devoted clientele, Fortuny produced his extraordinary gowns relatively unchanged until his death in 1949. The surviving garments have been lovingly maintained and can occasionally be seen on some of the fashion elite today. Timeless, unique, and rare, Fortuny’s gowns are prized processions of the lucky museums that house them in their collection--and we’ve got two, so stop by and feast your eyes on Fortuny’s fabulous folds!

Coming to Fairbanks to see the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum and other area attractions? Support the museum by staying at one of the Fountainhead Hotels. All guests receive half-price admission to the museum!

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