Paul Poiret

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Par Stéphane-Jacques Addade

24 June 1911.

Just over one hundred years ago, on a mild summer's evening, Paul Poiret hosted the most creative and most extraordinary fancy dress party of the XXth century in the gardens of his Parisian hotel at 107, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and 26, avenue d'Antin (the current Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt). It was a Persian party and news of it reached as far away as us, so great was its impact at the time.

It was the Thousand and second night.

Between 1899 and 1904, a non-expurgated translation of a Thousand and one nights was published by a Doctor Mardrus, amid much fanfare. Most significantly though, on 4 June 1910, a year before the Thousand and second night, the première of Shéhérazade was staged at the Opéra in Paris. As such, there was an explosion of oriental colour and sensuality right across the capital, with every Parisian from then on identifying with the beautiful Zobéide, Sultan Shaharyar's concubine, who was stabbed by her master for letting herself be captivated by the lascivious and passionate embrace of the Golden Slave...

Three hundred guests, mainly artists, were invited by Paul Poiret to the Thousand and second night. The invitation comprised two elements, both of which were created by two of the fashion designer's closest colleagues, Raoul Dufy and Georges Lepape. Never before had the two elements that made up this legendary invitation, been published together.



First of all there was a programme, engraved on wood by Raoul Dufy (1). Each of the three hundred copies of this programme was embellished with gouache by the painter himself. In this way, none of them were truly alike. Its text read as follows:




"And this will be the Thousand and second Night
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX And on this particular night there won't be any clouds in
the sky and nothing of what exists will exist#
There will be the lights & perfumes &
flutes and timpani & drums of the
women's sighs & the birdsong of the
Straight and in a single casting like the Aleph letter, slender
& flexible like the branch of the Tan Tree,
she will dance as beautifully as the Moon,
your sight and your hearing will be absolutely delighted to the very
point of rejoicing# The miming, which is
clever & rich in artifice, will improvise with
beautiful & well-played scenes, and softer
than dishevelled honey cake will be
the poet's verses# As regards
the old, myopic potter, he will be in
his shop as they will be in theirs
& the slave trader for whom the least
beautiful is worth a thousand gold dinars and the filthy
cobbler and the doddery old tailor and the divine
blind man and the chef from the land of Sindh (3) XXX
And this is for them XXX And we shall see some
rather extraordinary things & and some staggering
marvels # There will be a white Carnelian vase
XXXX And there will also be a lot
of other things which would be interminable
We'll enter via Faubourg St. Honoré
And it will be the Thousand and second night".



What followed was a reply card with a detachable coupon, for which Georges Lepape (4) was to paint the profile of a Persian prince embellished with emerald and gold gouache in a black triangle. The text on this reply card provided guests with some useful information:

The party will take place on Saturday 24 June 1911. # # #
It shall be postponed in the event of bad weather. # #
A costume borrowed from Oriental tales is
an absolute must. # # # # # # # # # # # # #

                 0930 hours                        R. S. V. P."


In the memoirs En habillant l'époque, which Paul Poiret published in November 1930, whilst he was then ruined and his fashion house but a memory, the latter dedicated a long chapter to the finest of his parties, which he described in the following way:      It was on returning from a Bal des Quat'z-Arts (a very famous annual ball in Paris), in May 1911 I believe, that I decided upon an unforgettable party in my lounges and gardens in Paris which I called "The Thousand and second Night". I'd gathered together several artists and I placed my means at their disposal to put together an ensemble that nobody had ever created before that time. Here I provide a copy of the programme, which will better explain the means I used to fire their imaginations. The artists, stimulated by this document, were all keen to reply to my appeal in a flattering manner, which is what created the marvellous situation which I shall tell you all about!
     The house was closed off by tapestries, so that those looking in from the street couldn't see through into it. We were greeted as if we were entering a theatre, by a group of elderly Gentlemen in evening dress, inspectors if you like, who didn't joke and carefully dissected the guests. "Excuse me Sir, you're in evening dress. It's a fancy dress party. I'm afraid you cannot be allowed to enter.
- But Sir, my evening dress is covered with an authentic Chinese coat. – Sir, we are not in China, we are in Persia, and your costume has no place in this context. As such I cannot allow you in unless you switch costume. – At this hour, that's impossible. – Excuse me Sir, should you wish to go up to the first floor, we can improvise a Persian costume for you, with the authentic documents, which will do you credit and would be in keeping with the whole party."
(I was familiar with the carelessness of some of my regular visitors and I'd planned for just such an eventuality.)
Some refused to dress up as I'd have liked and withdrew, while other wise guests accepted the costume I imposed on them.
Sorted through in this way, the guests went through into a second lounge in small groups, where a half-naked Negro, draped in Bukhara silks

 (5),and equipped with a flaming torch and a yataghan(6), grouped them together and brought them to me. Initially they traversed a sandy courtyard where, beneath a blue and gold canopy, fountains gushed forth in porcelain basins. One would have said that it was reminiscent of the sunny patio from some of Aladdin's palaces. Through the canopy's colours fell multicoloured light. They went up a few steps and found themselves in front of a huge golden cage, fenced off with twisted fittings, and inside which I had locked away my favourite mistress (Mrs Poiret), surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting, who sang authentic Persian tunes. Mirrors, sorbets, aquariums, small birds, cloth and feathers, such were the distractions for the queen of the harem and her ladies-in-waiting. We then entered a lounge, where there was a jet of water, which appeared to come up out of the rug and drop back down into an iridescent crystal bowl.


In the following room, which was accessible via two wide doors, there was a bank of multicoloured cushions all gathered together and embroidered, at the summit of which was crouched the grand tragedian Max


(7). He was dressed in a black silk gandoura and wore innumerable pearls on a chain around his neck. He told me that one of his American lady friends had entrusted him with all her jewels that evening (there were three million Francs worth). He recounted stories taken from a Thousand and one Nights, a finger raised in the air in line with the traditional gesture of the oriental storytellers, and the onlookers, both men and women alike, were crouched around him in a circle.

Les tapis du jardin     Without stopping in this passageway, we went through into the garden which was both dark and mysterious. Rugs covered the flagstones of the steps leading to the entrance and sand covered the paths, so as any noise was muffled there and a great silence reigned. Overwhelmed, the walkers spoke in low voices, as if they were in a mosque. In the middle of the embroidered flooring sat the white carnelian vase announced on the programme. Lights concealed within the surrounding foliage illuminated it in a bizarre manner. From it escaped a slender jet of water, similar to what you see in the Persian engravings, and pink ibises strolled all about taking in this coolness and this light for themselves. Some of the trees were covered in dark blue fruits of light; others sported berries of purple light. Live monkeys, macaws and parrots brightened up all this greenery, which looked like an entrance to a deep park. One can spot me at the far end, looking like some kind of swarthy sultan with a white beard, holding an ivory whip. Around me, on the steps up to my throne, all the concubines are stretched out and lascivious and appear to be awaiting and dreading my anger. It is here that the guests were led in small groups to bow and scrape according to Islamic tradition.

Baies de lumière violetteLes salamalecs

Once my three hundred guests were gathered together, I rose and, followed by all my ladies, I headed towards my favourite mistress' cage, who I set free. She escaped as a bird might escape, and I hurried off in pursuit of her, cracking my unnecessary whip. She disappeared into the crowd. Did we know that evening that we were telling the drama of our life?

Denise Poiret bondissantAnd so the buffets were broken open, and the spectacles began. Hidden orchestras were discreetly audible, as if to respect the calm splendour of this night of ecstasy. For the whole night long I very much enjoyed playing on the sensibilities of my guests as I would on a keyboard. Two of my friends constantly came up to me to take instructions, and I pointed out to them the attractions which were likely to have growing appeal. In one corner of the place there was a prophetess (8), who had diamond encrusted teeth, and a tripe butcher, which the painter Luc-Albert Moreau (9), honoured in a ghastly and bloody manner. There was the potter too, who threw clay bowls with his awkward but skilful fingers. And all of a sudden we met the marmoset merchant, who was covered in animals which climbed onto his shoulders and head, casting evil glances and making shrill cries. And here we have the obscure bar where solely the liqueurs were illuminated. What alchemist had prepared the dazzling phantasmagoria of this worrying laboratory? A hundred long-necked carafes, a hundred crystal ewers contained all the concoctions, from a range of purple anisettes and garnet-coloured bitters with emerald peppermints and golden lemon liqueurs, to creamy advocaats and grenadines of slightly acid crimson. There were also liquorice waters, fruit cordials, chartreuse liqueurs, gins, vermouths, orange squashes, kirsches and sloe gins. One entered here and all these painters, who were my guests, played as they would a palette, with these pure tones which they mixed for the sake of it, in the transparency of their flute glass.

Les invités réunis     In this way mysterious, reprehensible drinks were prepared, which were a delight to look at and a surprise to the taste buds. Then Régina Badet (10) danced on a lawn where, so light and ethereal was she, that her steps didn't even trample down the grass. The sight of the spectators gathered around (fig 7), seated or stretched out on cushions and rugs, was no less beautiful than the dance spectacle itself. It was a confused mass of silks, jewels and feathers, which shimmered like a stained glass window in the moonlight.

We saw Trouhanowa(11), a generous and whimsical houri, dance again. Then along came the exquisite and delicate Zambelli (12) , shunning the fervour of an agile, passionate mime. Later on, from out of the foliage and at ground level, we see flames and showers of sparks rising noisily up to the finials and opening up like glass flowers.
Then a large cascade of fire encircled the palace and suddenly the atmosphere reverberated with a harrowing sound. From the terrace which overlooked the garden, the shower of fire gushed forth, striking the steps leading to the entrance. We feared the rugs would catch fire. Sometimes silver and sometimes gold, this exciting storm electrified the crowd and, once it was out, it left phosphorescent insects all around, either hooked up in branches or suspended in the ether. The monkeys and parrots, disturbed in their sleep, called out in alarm. The early morning found them livid and breaking the chains that held them in the branches, with some taking flight, whilst others escaped to the Champs-Elysées in great, long strides via the neighbouring rooftops.

     Whilst the twenty male negroes and twenty female negroes kept the perfume burners fuelled with myrrhs and incenses, whose blue smoke filled the atmosphere, a flute and a zither could be heard in a grove, unsettling the senses. Some Hindu chefs prepared the hors-d'oeuvres and the culinary specialities in their own special way, using produce, fruit and device from their own climates.
In the morning we saw the painter Fauconnet (13) , dressed in a white gown similar to that of a professional tightrope walker or juggler, entertain and amaze the crowd with an orange, which he made disappear and then reappear like the fakirs do.
The audience was made up of artists and discerning amateurs, who came into line and sought to increase the appeal of this imposing occasion through their presence. The wealthiest of them, such as Princess Murat(14)and Mr Boni de Castellane (15), have often said that they had never in their life seen anything so moving as the spectacles which filled this miraculous night."



(1)Raoul Dufy (1877 - 1953), a painter who was one of the major figures in Fauvism, and who, in turning towards Cubism, met Paul Poiret in 1911. Together at 104, boulevard de Clichy, they created la petite usine, (the little factory), a workshop where the fabrics were printed according to his designs and which were to contribute to the design house's renown.(Revenir)
(2)The Arabian bulbul is a kind of sparrow. (Revenir)
(3)Sindh is one of four provinces in Pakistan. (Revenir)
(4) Georges Lepape (1887 - 1971), a painter and illustrator whom Paul Poiret had just entrusted with creating his second promotional album Les choses de Paul Poiret vues par Georges Lepape (Paul Poiret's things viewed by Georges Lepape), whose publication in February of this same year, 1911, was an event in itself, due to both its luxuriousness and its innovative aesthetic. (Revenir)
(5) Town to the South of Uzbekistan. (Revenir)
(6) Oriental sword with a curved blade.(Revenir)
(7) Edouard de Max (1869 - 1924) was considered to be one of the greatest lyrical tragedians of his time. An exuberant, perceptive character, he was the patron to André Gide and Jean Cocteau among others. (Revenir)
(8) Originally, an oracle from Apollo's temple, a soothsayer, then by extension a woman predicting the future. (Revenir)
(9) A realist painter, who was born in 1882 and died in 1948, who was very close to André Dunoyer de Ségonzac and Jean-Louis Boussingault, two painters who had close ties with Paul Poiret.(Revenir)
(10) Anne Régina Badet (1876 - 1949) was a star of the Opéra-comique (a dramatic and musical institution) in Paris.(Revenir)
(11) Natalia Vladimirovna Trouhanova or Natacha Trouhanova (1885 - 1956) was a famous Russian dancer born in Kiev, who via "La péri ou la fleur d'immortalité" (The loss or the flower of immortality) produced among other things a dance poem composed by Paul Dukas in 1911 for the Russian ballets and created for the Châtelet theatre in 1912. (Revenir)
(12) Carlotta Zambelli (1875 - 1968) is an Italian dancer, who was discovered by the director of the Paris Opéra where she became a star. (Revenir)
(13) Guy-Pierre Fauconnet (1882 - 1920) was a French painter and decorator who regularly worked for Paul Poiret. (Revenir)
(14) Princess Lucien Murat then Countess Charles de Chambrun, née Marie de Rohan-Chabot (1876-1951). The princess, a woman of letters and a painter when the fancy took her, who was always supposed to be "a woman with a frantic desire for freedom", was one of the major figures of Parisian society around 1910 and 1930. (Revenir)
(15) Boniface, Count of Castellane (1867-1932), was "the prince" of the dandies. Married in 1895 to Anna Gould, a fabulously wealthy daughter of an American railway magnate, he was to devote his wife's fortune, until their sensational divorce in 1906, to the construction of the famous Palais Rose, his residence in Avenue du Bois. He also gave some lavish receptions to which he invited up to 2,000 guests, like that given in 1905 in honour of the King of Spain and the King of Portugal. The opinion voiced by Boni de Castellane about the Thousand and second night was certainly a valid one then.(Revenir)