For centuries, artists and designers have looked back to Classical Antiquity for inspiration. Many were able to achieve the essence of the Classical period but few could take that inspiration and make something completely new and imaginative. Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949) was a designer who created textiles, garments, furniture, and accessories with a unique Greco-Roman style that has remained unmatched a century later. In 1907, he debuted his Grecian inspired Delphos gown which broke convention in the age of the corset for its column like shape that was meant to be worn without any undergarments. The Delphos gown is elegant and sensuous, continuing to be chic and wearable due to its simplistic, artistic design.

Mariano Fortuny

Mariano Fortuny was born in 1871 in Granada, Spain to a family of artists. When his family moved to Venice in 1889, Fortuny was introduced to the art of Classical Antiquity. However, it wasn’t until the first decade of the Twentieth Century that he would merge the two to create fashionable dresses inspired by Greco-Roman art. His first foray into fashion design was the Knossos scarf, inspired by Cycladic art. A year later, he designed his first dress to be worn with the scarf. The first Delphos gown appeared in 1907, getting its name from the greek statute The Charioteer of Delphos (471-70 BCE).  Fortuny was proud of his new garment and even had his design patented in 1909 with a note stating “‘This invention is related to a type of garment derived from the classical rob, but its design is so shaped and arranged that it can be worn and adjusted with was and comfort”. His designs are in accordance with the Aesthetic Movement, which wanted to liberate the body with a new style of dress. The Movement hoped that women would ditch the restricting corsets that society demanded and wear garments that were comfortable, allowed movement, and most important of all, were beautiful.  

Delphos Gown

Taking inspiration from Grecian statues, Fortuny’s Delphos gown is column-like in shape. The dress hangs loosely from the shoulders, gracing the body as it flows down. Only a few seams are used to achieve the shape. A side seam on either side of the body are sewn straight down the body of the dress. A row of glass beads on silk cords decorate either side, a nod to Grecian peploi which used similar closures along the side. Two seams split evenly from center front and back, known as princess seams, are also present. The sleeves are achieved by extending the body fabric out, covering the shoulders and upper arms. A hand stitched seam is used to hem the bottom of the dress, the sleeves, and the neckline. Inside the neckline, a thin cord was sewn in to allow one to adjust the shape. The dress is purposefully elongated, as to make the wearer look taller and leaner. The hem is noticeably sprawled out on the floor, emphasizing the amount of fabric used in the gown. This dress does not rely on extensive construction. Unlike most garments that used different tailoring techniques, such as darting, the Delphos relies on pleating to get its shape. The pleats emulate the drapery seen in the depictions of dress on Greek and Roman sculpture. The pleating allowed for the dress to follow the lines of the natural body. Pleating requires a lot of extra fabric, the exact amount depending on the size of the pleats. The princess seams are used to add this additional fabric. The pleating also hides the presence of the seams, adding to the simplicity achieved in this garment. This pleating technique has never been discovered; only Fortuny knew the process to achieve this pleat effect in the fabric. If stored correctly (being twisted and rolled up into a ball), the pleats still remain today, over a century later.

As stated above, the pleating draws the focus to the wearers body. This sensuality is echoed in the color of the gown. Many of Fortuny’s Delphos gowns are in natural color ways. The natural colors Fortuny worked in are in line with his design mission; freeing the body, a return to nature. Often, the textile would be dipped into the dye few times as to create a rich luminescence that would allow the dress to take on multiple colors depending on the wearer’s movement and light. This dress, like others, emulated the skin tone of his white clientele with its pinkish hue. In addition to the provocative color and cut, the textile added to the seductive nature of the dress. The fabric used to create this dress is silk. Silk has, for centuries, been the most luxurious and sought after fiber to make clothing. Silk is a filament fiber, meaning the yarns are long and continuous. It is also lightweight, making it easy to work with and wear. Silk fabric will cling to the body, emphasizing the wearers curves. Fortuny was brought up with an appreciation for textiles, which shows in his masterful understanding of the relationship between the body and garment. A woman wearing this Delphos would ooze sensuality.

The Delphos gown was one of the first dresses in the 20th century that did not require the wearing of a corset. This is because Fortuny was not focused on creating fashion; he was determined to make art. The corset was an ubiquitous garment in the first years of the 20th century and had been for the entirety of the previous century. Designers up until this time created fashions based on the corseted female silhouette. However, Fortuny did not let the constraints of fashion dictate his creations. His revolutionary Delphos design was quickly picked up by a few influential figures like Queen Marie of Romania, Isadora Duncan, and Elenora Duse, to name a few. However, if it were not for the Parisian Couturier Paul Poiret, Fortuny’s gowns would have never caught on like they did.

Paul Poiret 1908 Collection. Drawings by Paul Iribe.

Paul Poiret was a Parisian fashion designer who after years of working at different fashion houses, opened his own store in 1903. By 1906, after two and a half years of success, Poiret began to dabble in changing the shape of fashion, and with the aid of his wife, he debuted his first dress that was meant to be worn without a corset. As Paul Poiret wrote in his autobiography, “It was still the age of the corset. I waged war upon it.”. It is interesting to note the close proximity of dates between the invention of Fortuny’s Delphos and Poiret’s corsetless gown. However, unlike Fortuny, it took Poiret two years to perfect his designs, which he officially debuted in 1908. Poiret admired Fortuny’s design aesthetic, and even went so far as to sell a Fortuny design in his shop. Unlike Fortuny who was just starting out in fashion, Poiret was an already established designer with a large clientele. While Fortuny did not design with fashion or fame in mind, the contemporaneous advent of Poiret’s corsetless dress helped popularize and validate Fortuny’s Delphos.

Fortuny continued to design and sell dresses, textiles, furniture, and accessories until his death in 1949. While many of his contemporaries were either out of business or continuing to follow fashion trends, Fortuny remained faithful to his unique style. Delphos gowns remained in his stores throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century. Even today, the brand still sells similar pleated garments to customers who are hungry for his timeless designs. Many modern designers, such as Issey Miyake, take inspiration from his easy pleated designs. Fortuny, however, remains unmatched in his ability to create sensuous, chic garments that have stood the test of time for over a century.


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