The Perfect Dress (Just Ask Proust, Sontag, Bacall)




(Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr)





One shows up now and again for auction, but the surest way to find a Delphos dress (if you would rather not exhume Susan Sontag, who was buried in one and might resent resurrection) is at a museum. Fortuny’s iconic dress (which was really the creation of his wife, Henriette Negrin, and at least he admitted it) is timeless art as well as a symbol of feminine liberation.

“Women’s liberation,” you want to correct me. The word “feminine” is seldom feminist. But I chose it deliberately, because Fortuny’s dress frees the body to be both elegant and erotic. He did not throw us into a well-tailored pantsuit. Instead, he and Negrin made a dress that required no undergarments, and they did so in a corseted and slipped Edwardian era that refused to trust the female body to be itself.

It is hard not to think that the designers of women’s couture, lingerie, and high heels hated women, or at least enjoyed their pain. Fortuny did not. He braved the world’s disapproval (and worse, his mother’s) to move into a Venetian palazzo with a divorcée. Twenty-two harmonious years later, partners in both work and love, they married. When they registered the Delphos dress at the Office National de la Propiété Industrielle in 1909, they described it as “a type of garment that is derived from the classical robe, but designed in such shape and with such mechanism as to permit easy use and comfortable adjustment…. The dress consists of a robe, open both at the top and at the bottom, whose width can be equal to its length, widening or narrowing from top to bottom or at various points,” with sleeves shirred by a silken cord. The dress was held together and weighted with Venetian Murano glass beads until it draped just so.

A handwritten note was attached to the application, explaining that l’inventeur of the gown was actually Henriette, but to expedite the registration, Fortuny was applying under his own name.

The pleating technique was a separate patent application, and the method remains a mystery. Hundreds of narrow, irregular pleats, all made by hand, probably gathering up the silk while it was wet and securing those careful pleats with a piece of thread. Then, the real feat: The fabric was laid overheated copper or porcelain tubes until the pleats curved in certain places, so they would undulate like waves against the body. Soon pronounced the ideal dress, the Delphos moved. Isadora Duncan and Eleanora Duse both danced in a Fortuny dress.


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At Röhsska Museum, Stockholm University graduate student Alba Sanz Álvarez is handed a cotton bag. Inside, rolled to preserve the pleats, is a Delphos. Wearing white cotton archival gloves, Álvarez gingerly unrolls a dark bronzed-green dress, light as a spider web, and falls under its spell. She writes to the dress’s donor, Tonie Lewenhaupt, a Swedish costume designer and fashion illustrator. “It felt like putting on a cloud,” Lewenhaupt replies, adding that the stains are champagne. When she wore that dress, she says, she instinctively moved “like a dancer,” hyperaware, posing without intending to. The Delphos made her entire body a gesture.


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Born in Granada, Spain, Fortuny moved with his widowed mother to Paris, then Venice. Remembering the feel and color of the ancient fabrics she kept in a trunk, he began to dye fabric, dipping it in bath after bath until the color was subtle, mysterious, iridescent. (I have tried the same approach with Easter eggs, but they all wound up gray.) Fortuny produced a smoky blue-green; a paler blue touched lightly with green and silver; a black gold, burnished and tarnished at once; an aubergine that whispered rose; a silk-velvet cape that is either brown nor black, depending on how the light strikes. The trees in its border are traced in dull silver, the Coptic designs are gold, and the water is an inky dark blue.

Proust, who mentions the Delphos dress or Albertine’s Fortuny cape at least sixteen times in Remembrance of Things Past, writes of “the mirror of the fabric, of an intense blue which, as my gaze extended over it, was changed into a malleable gold, by those same transmutations which, before the advancing gondola, change into flaming metal the azure of the Grand Canal.” D’Annunzio wraps one of his fictional characters in “one of those very long scarves of oriental gauze that the alchemist dyer Mariano Fortuny steeps in the mysterious recesses of his vats, which are stirred with a wooden spear, now by a sylph, now by a hobgoblin, and he draws them out colored with strange dreamlike shades.”

Swatting away ugly “what’s in” trends, “its” timed to expire so you must rush to buy the next one, I read about Fortuny the way a desert traveler sips clear, cool water. More than a century has passed, but few dresses have even come close to the Delphos. Do designers still hate women? Too often they copy mindlessly, cribbing to look good, quoting without understanding. Few take the time to study history, honor anatomy, and refine technique.

Fortuny is called a revivalist, but that feels too flat, smacks of preaching and nostalgia. Though inspired by the past, and perhaps baffled that we had let all that beauty slide away from us, he nonetheless developed brand-new methods and, with Negrin, created designs that were utterly fresh—and remain so. Indifferent to the avant-garde, he studied the Greek chiton, a shoulder-fastened tunic, worn by the Charioteer of Delphi. He also gathered Minoan design motifs and ornament from the excavations at the Palace of Knossos, and he stared for hours at the paintings of Botticelli and Titian. How easy it would have been to come up with romantic “retro” designs that simply imitated those influences. Instead, he dyed fabric in inimitable colors, made photographs, and immersed himself in the new science of electricity, even creating an indirect electric lighting system to mimic translucent daylight. (La Scala installed it immediately.) Because he understood light, he knew how a dress could reflect it.

And because time did not trap him, he and Negrin—whose artistry equaled his, if her reputation did not—were able to create a garment that lives outside time.

No wonder Proust, with his fascination for felt and lost time, loved Fortuny. The Delphos dress is itself a madeleine, a flashback that holds the past within the present. Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Gish, Lauren Hutton, Lauren Bacall, Peggy Guggenheim, Susan Sontag—many women have treasured their Fortuny dresses, and I envy them the chance to slip into one, even for only one evening. To feel those shimmering silk pleats against my skin, breathe and move like a gazelle, or stand for a moment, thinking, and become a column of light.

We think we are progressive, but have you ever tried to wriggle out of shapewear? The only constraint of the Delphos is its hemline, which extends four or six inches beyond the toes. Seeing women standing, often barefoot beneath the dress’s swirls, and perfectly poised, one suddenly wonders why anyone needs to wear clunky shoes or traipse from the bar to the hors d’oeuvres table to the loo.

Nonetheless, the dress does hamper the stride. Nothing has ever freed us completely. Negrin and Fortuny came close, offering a dress that cast away inhibition and constraint without looking ugly, sloppy, or mannish. More than a century later, why are we choosing between sweats and misery?


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.