What is a pleat other than a fold. And what is a fold other than the combination of order and flexibility.
Pleats have been around for a long time. They were around in ancient Egypt and continued to be used throughout history. Just think of Mary Stuart’s famous pleated collar, the Scottish kilt, and the Greek fustanella .
Textiles of the past were coarse and thus more difficult to fold. Now synthetic fabrics make pleating much easier for contemporary fashion designers. One such designer is Issey Miyake who loves pleats so much he’s even named a perfume in their honor.
But the most successful pleated dress of all times is that of Mariano Fortuny, the “Delphos” dress.
The son of a well-known Spanish artist, Fortuny was born in Granada in 1871. His family was wealthy enough to permit him to study and travel. At the age of 18, he moved permanently to Venice.
A painter, a stage designer, a stylist and more, Fortuny was very much a Renaissance man. “Art is my life’s aim” he said. Fortuny, greatly influenced by the Aesthetic movement and by Wagnerism, was not interested in haute couture. He considered his dresses a form of conceptual art.
In 1906 he opened his atelier (now the Fortuny Museum) that emphasized fashion. Fortuny liked appropriating ideas especially from the Greeks such as that of the chiton. A chiton is made by piecing together many woven rectangles to form a cylinder with openings for the head and arms. The cylinder was held in place by a girdle (belt) that created a pleated effect.
Fortuny’s famous dress, the Delphos, was based on the chiton worn by the “Charioteer of Delphi”, a 5th cen. BC Greek bronze found in 1896. Created with the help of his partner and wife, Henriette Nigrin, the Delphos dress, thanks to a machine he invented (and patented), is full of skinny little pleats.
The Delphos dress clung to the body and was well loved by men and women alike. Actresses such as Isadora Duncan and Sara Bernhardt adored it. Writers, like Marcel Proust, even wrote about it in their novels.
Marcel Proust saw the dress as magical and included refrences to it in In Search of Lost Time. The many Fortuny gowns owed by Madame de Guermantes are a source of envy for Albertine, Marcel’s lover, who would like to have one for herself.
Fortuny’s Knossos scarf was also well received. It was a large silk veil specially dyed with dyes of his own invention and often printed with Cycladic geometric motifs.
Actress Isadora Duncan not only loved the Delphos dress. She was also fond of his Knossos scarf. Who knows if she was wearing one when she had her car accident.
Fortuny’s dresses often made use of colored glass beads from Murano. Especially fond of the Medieval style, he liked velvet capes and often used stencils to decorate them.
The list of women who wore Fortuny’s dresses is long and impressive. The first who really helped launch the dress was the Marchessa Luisa Casati. Peggy Guggenheim was another big fan of the Delphos dress.
For about 15 years, Susan Sontag and Annie Leibovitz had an important relationship and ended with Sontag’s death in 2004. Leibovitz photographed the corpse of Sontag wearing a Delphos dress before Sontag was buried at Montparnasse (Paris).
La Marchessa Luisa Casati.
Luisa Casati was 22 and tired of being a good girl wife to Marchese Camillo Casati. Then, at a fox hunt, she met naughty boy Gabriele D’Annunzio and gave her life a new direction. At the time D’Annunzio, almost twice Luisa’s age, was Italy’s most notorious poet and novelist. The two began a relationship that was to last for several decades.
D’Annunzio was short, bald and borderline ugly. He was attracted to bored and wealthy women because they were easy prey and possible sources of income. A forger of words and of sentiments, D’Annunzio was an expert in giving women wanted they wanted—words of adoration and good sex. Luisa dazzled D’Annunzio not only because she was rich and wanting, but because she was audacious and wanted to imprint her image on the world around her.
As her relationship with D’Annunzio progressed, so did her physical metamorphosis. Luisa began tinting her hair and wearing extravagant clothing—she had discovered that an unconventional and eccentric presence turned her into a magnet attracting everyone’s attention and, becoming increasing more narcissistic, that’s exactly what she wanted.
Luisa was now D’Annunzio’s main muse. She inspired, for example, the character of Isabella Inghirami in Forse che sì, forse che no (maybe yes, maybe no). The title was taken from Francesco II Gonzaga’s motto painted on a ceiling at the ducal palace in Mantua. The story is that of violent passion and its consequences.
Exaggeration for Luisa now became a norm. Hers was the aesthetics of excess—too much was not enough. At the time there was a fascination with death and the occult so it was trendy to look more dead than alive. Luisa dyed her hair red, blackened her eyes with kohl, dilated her pupils with belladonna, powdered her face white, and was thin to the bone.
Luisa, bored with Milan, moved to Venice and bought a house on the Grand Canal (Palazzo Venier dei Leoni now the Peggy Guggenheim Museum). She animated her life redecorating her house and herself. Fortuny, known for his exotic style, attracted Luisa’s attention. She especially liked his scarves and cloaks. In Forse che sì, forse che no, D’Annunnzio describes Isabella aka Luisa as being “enveloped in one of those very long scarves of Oriental gauze the alchemist Mariano Fortuny plunges in the mysterious dyes of his vats and withdraws tinted with strange dreams.” Luisa and Fortuny became friends and often went for gondola rides together.
Luisa said: I want to be a living work of art. And this meant, for her, to live to extremes. More than supporting the arts, she supported artists who made portraits of her—Giovanni Boldini, Kees Van Dongen, Romaine Brooks, Man Ray, Giacomo Balla, etc. She was a muse to the Futurists and inspired fashion designers. Luisa’s parties and appearances were legendary. But exaggeration caught up with her. Her money squandered on excess, she spent the last years of her life penniless and making collages. La Marchesa Casati is buried in London’s Brompton Cemetery along with her embalmed dog.
Mariano Fortuny’s tomb at Verano Cemetery in Rome (located at Pincetto Nuovo, Riquadro 49).