Paul Poiret and the Thousand and Second Night
from Aimée Crocker Queen of Bohemia by Kevin Taylor
Paul Poiret was a French couturier, the most fashionable dress designer of pre-World War I Paris. He was particularly noted for his Neoclassical and Orientalist styles, for advocating the replacement of the corset with the brassiere, and for the introduction of the hobble skirt. His other innovations read like a modern-day dry cleaner’s list: harem pants, culottes, tunics, kimono coats, side-slit skirts, bateau and V-necklines, the sheath, the sack, the cocoon wrap, and knee-high flatheeled boots. He was known in America as “The King of Fashion.” In Paris he was simply “Le Magnifique,” after Suleman the Magnificent. His contributions to his field have been likened to Picasso’s legacy in 20th-century art.
In 1911, Poiret rented a mansion — Pavillon du Butard in La Celle-Saint-Cloud — and threw lavish parties. Part of Poiret’s plan at the Thousand and Second Night bash on June 24, 1911, unbeknownst to the 300 people that he invited, was to stage a fashion show of his cutting-edge garments with guests serving as models. Their invitations specified they must dress in Persian-styled costumes, and that if they refused and appeared in other attire, they’d have to immediately leave or change into clothes he’d designed. They thought it was a fun idea. Poiret filled his guest closet with the new lampshade dresses and harem trousers he’d recently designed. Poiret, playing the part of a reigning sultan, gifted each guest with a bottle of his new fragrance creation, “Nuit Persane.”
Mrs. Aimée Crocker Gouraud rose to the costume challenge. There was a hush as she entered. The magnificence of her costume and jewels outshone all the splendor around her. In the middle of her forehead she wore her famous immense emerald, held in place by a magnificent rope of pearls. The most dazzling accessory that she wore that evening was her date, French actor Édouard de Max, “The Most Beautiful Man in Paris.” The great tragedian with the sonorous voice often performed opposite the legendary Sarah Bernhardt. Aimée loaned him three million francs worth of jewelry in exchange for an extraordinary cloak used as a costume by de Max when he played the Emperor Nero. The American heiress’s extraordinary display of barbaric splendor, her excellence of costume and wonderful jewels, her artistic grandiosity and her celebrity date, made the rest of the scene created painstakingly by the brilliant host and hostess sink into insignificance, according to many among the French guests.
The party was complete with native dancers from around the world performing gracefully; colorful macaws, pink ibis and parrots; baskets of luscious Asian fruits; and nude African “slaves” painted with iridescent metallic flowers carrying live monkeys. Music was played everywhere by orchestras which Paul Poiret imported for the occasion from Egypt, India and Turkey. Alchemists prepared a dazzling phantasmagoria at Poiret’s bar/laboratory. They served a range of purple anisettes and garnet-coloured bitters with emerald peppermints and golden lemon liqueurs, creamy advocaats and grenadines of slightly acid crimson. There were also liquorice waters, fruit cordials, chartreuse liqueurs, gins, vermouths, orange squashes, kirsches and sloe gins.
Then Régina Badet, Prima Ballerina of Grand Theatre of Bordeaux, danced on a lawn. She was so light and ethereal that her steps didn’t even trample down the grass. De Max recounted Middle Eastern stories taken from A Thousand and One Nights, as onlookers, both men and women alike, crouched around him in a circle. He was mesmerizing and Aimée astonishing. Social commentator Melanie Radzicki McManus included this party as one of The 10 Most Amazing Parties of All Time.
The following June, Poiret had a second “grandes fêtes,” La fête de Bacchus, where he recreated the Bacchanalia hosted by Louis XIV at Versailles. Isadora Duncan, wearing a Greek evening gown designed by Poiret, danced on tables among 300 guests; 900 bottles of champagne were consumed until the first light of day. Aimée knew the modern dance phenom from San Francisco and lived in the same artist commune in Paris as Isadora at the Hôtel Biron along with August Rodin, Henri Matisse and a young Jean Cocteau.
The next year, on June 25, 1913, Mrs. Aimée Gouraud created her own harem in Paris in her residence adjoining the Bois de Boulogne in the 16th arrondissement. The guests numbered 250 and included members of French and American society and prominent actors and actresses, singers, and musicians.
The diverse costumes of the guests made a brilliant medley of color. A long procession of bejeweled maharanees were followed by trains of black slaves. Turkish harem beauties, and Egyptian princesses passed through Mrs. Gouraud’s reception rooms, which were decorated like a sultan’s lair. The hit of the affair was made by the fabulously gussied hostess herself, who wore a loose fitting, black and gold, jewel-studded dress designed by Paul Poiret himself, which was attached to her shoulders by chains of large emeralds. A huge cabochon emerald dropped in the middle of her forehead, and her neck and shoulders were literally hidden beneath ropes of magnificent pearls. Estimates of the value of the jewelry varied between $1,500,000 and $2,000,000. The actor Edouard de Max, attired as Hamlet, assisted the hostess in receiving. She was carried down the grand staircase by four stalwart slaves covered with bronze paint.
“Soul painter” Princess Eristoff was in an Egyptian costume with a genuine antique head dress. Rene Chapelle, La Tepierkowsky and Countess Swiska danced. The invited guests also included Prince Nicolas Ouroussoff, artist Jan Van Beers, Count de Govinne, legendary actresses Anna Held and Gaby Deslys, Prince Troubetzkoy, the sculptor, and General Gabriele D’Annunzio (Prince of Montenevoso, Duke of Gallese and Duce of the Carnaro). D’Annunzio was an Italian writer known for his highly refined prose style. His works paralleled those by decadent authors like Edgar Saltus and Oscar Wilde. During the First World War, perception of D’Annunzio in Italy shifted from literary figure into a national war hero. He later became Benito Mussolini’s chief political opponent.
Aimée’s party rivaled the magnificent Paul Poiret’s spectacles. It was a coup d’état. Aimée Crocker, the bold and wondrous woman from America’s Wild West, had conquered Paris.