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It Was the Most Lavish Party of the 20th Century


On June 24, 1911, French couturier Paul Poiret held his “Thousand and Second Night” party in Paris and put all other themed parties to shame.

His was a notorious, outrageous affair, one now considered the predecessor to modern-day fashion shows. As if that wasn’t ground-breaking enough, Poiret used the party to introduce two iconic garments of the 20th century: his shocking harem pants and revolutionary lampshade dress.

The party, it was agreed, was beyond fantastic, unmatched for its sumptuous decorations and indulgent theatrics. Fashion historian Yvonne Deslandres describes the scene in her definitive 1987 book, Poiret: “Persian orchestras sheltered in copses; there were parrots in trees studded with a thousand twinkling lights, pink ibis, multicolored cushions …” and on and on.

The 300 invited guests were required to dress in Persian-style costumes, an exaggerated, adventurous style of the times adopted by the most decadent and wealthy. Those who stepped outside the dress code were given two choices upon arrival: leave, or make a quick change into clothes designed by Poiret, closets of which were available for guests to borrow. However there was a catch: Poiret’s new designs included “harem” trousers, blousy pantaloons to be worn under voluminous dresses—an absolute scandal! The guests couldn’t be more delighted to be the first fashion victims and eagerly donned the new styles. The scene played out just as Poiret envisioned; he ultimately exploited his private party to stage what was possibly the very first fashion show, a fantasy-inspired arena designed to publicize his latest creations with guests unwittingly serving as models.

As guests were announced, Poiret, wrapped in a fur-bordered caftan and wearing a jeweled turban, greeted each one while seated upon a green and gold throne. His wife and muse, Denise, “languished dramatically” in a huge, gold cage (Poiret had a thing for gold, particularly gold lamé). At the height of the evening, the designer dramatically flung open the cage door and Denise emerged wearing—as always—her husband’s designs, harem pantaloons beneath what women would soon be calling a “lampshade tunic,” a knee-length triangular tent wired at the hemline and edged with fringe, creating an enticing swaying motion as she walked. The next day, American Vogue later reported, every woman in the country had bought one.

Many suggested Scheherazade, a controversial ballet staged by Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes the year before, largely influenced the party, though Poiret dismissed any comparisons. The designer frequently defended himself against such claims, as he collaborated with a number of famed set designers and other artists of the time, but the showman always kept credit for himself. The following year, for example, the illustrator Erté claimed to be the designer of the distinctive silhouette of Poiret’s “Sorbet” gown. It is a style now considered one of the most influential designs of the 20th century for marking the transition from corsets to less con-straining modernity. But the kimono neckline of that style is typical Poiret, while the underskirt directly references the designer’s crippling “hobble” of 1910.

The Thousand and Second Night party was the greatest single extravagance from perhaps the most extravagant designer in fashion history. The First World War broke out a few years later, and from its rubble emerged Coco Chanel and her dark, simplified designs. Poiret, with his peacock colors, glittering jewels and extravagant costuming, never stood a chance. —Ali Basye

Images: Top: George Lepape illustration of Denise Poiret at “The Thousand and Second Night” party; bottom: Poiret dress created for his wife Denise, probably for the 1001 Nights party, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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