I would have liked to have dinner with Mariano Fortuny. A well-traveled jack of all trades, he was born in Spain, moved to Paris, then on to Venice. He worked as a lighting and theater designer, a painter, and an architect before venturing into the career for which he is best known: fashion design.
Marcel Proust wrote of Fortuny in 1923 in The Captive:“The Fortuny gown which Albertine was wearing that evening seemed to me the tempting phantom of that invisible Venice. It swarmed with Arabic ornaments, like the Venetian palaces hidden like sultanas behind a screen of pierced stone, like the bindings in the Ambrosian library, like the columns from which the Oriental birds that symbolized alternatively life and death were repeated in 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 gondolas, change into flaming metal the azure of the Grand Canal. And the sleeves were lined with a cherry pink which is so peculiarly Venetian that it is called Tiepolo pink.”
Like many of his generation, Fortuny found inspiration in the past, especially in ancient Rome and Greece. These civilizations were viewed as the model of perfection. The Delphos gown, as the name suggests, was inspired by the clothing of ancient Greece, which was free in form and yet elaborate, and revealed the beauty of the female figure beneath, without a corset. The Fortuny gowns, even if they were meant to be worn in the home, symbolized liberation in women’s fashion. And it was this very gown, introduced in 1907, that made Fortuny famous around the world.
Fortuny came from a family of artists and intellectuals, and believed that clothing was an art form. He invented a machine which allowed the pleating of the fabric, but each of his dresses was dyed and constructed by hand — subtle variations ensure that no two are exactly alike. His work inspired many later designers. Issey Miyake, for example, pays homage to Fortuny with his pleated designs. Fortuny, in turn, had been influenced by Japanese and Islamic designs years before.
The Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, once the designer’s personal studio, is now a public museum with many wonderful examples of his work on display. You can also find his pieces in museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
When I was a young girl, around the age of five, my grandmother, aunts, and mother put on a fashion show of my great-grandmother’s clothing. I remember it vividly, but I didn’t find out until recently that among those ensembles was a Fortuny piece, which was later donated to a local historic society.
I see treasures like this gown every day here at Skinner. What an amazing job we have which enables us to handle such important pieces of history. And like history, these beautiful items come and go.
Your chance to bid on this dress and other clothing and textiles comes on September 12, 2012 at the Skinner Discovery Auction. While it’s no longer possible to dine with Fortuny, you could still go out in one of his gowns.