Delphos-gown

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Anna Chancellor on Mariano Fortuny and the Delphos Gown

(It’s either from For Love or Money or something not listed in her IMDb credits)

Kittyinva: Later 1920′s Mariano Fortuny short aqua Delphos gown with Venetian glass beads at sleeves and down sides. From Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.

Kittyinva: 1920′s Mariano Fortuny deep orange Delphos gown of pleated silk with Venetian glass embellishments down shoulders and sides. From Leslie Hindeman Auctioneers.

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It’s FRIDAY FASHION FACT, and it’s time for our next designer bio! Today we are talking about the innovative and inspiring Mariano Fortuny.

Mariano Fortuny was born in 1871 in Granada Spain. Both his father and maternal grandfather were renowned painters. Though his father died when Fortuny was only three years old, he remained a source of inspiration throughout the designer’s life. Fortuny’s parents had a wide textile collection which fascinated Fortuny from a young age. Throughout his youth, he lived in some of the great art cities of Europe, including Paris and Venice. He became involved in many forms of art, including painting, photography, and even lighting and set design for Wagner operas. In fact, it was Mariano Fortuny who pioneered the idea of theatre designers working in tandem with the construction team to mold and adapt the design every step of the way. To this day, this remains one of the first lessons taught to aspiring theatre designers.

Fortuny continued to be involved in theatre for the remainder of his career, both designing and inventing new forms of stage lighting. But the reason we are talking about him today is, of course, his fashion designs. During he rise of his fashion career around the turn of the 20th Century, women’s fashion consisted of highly structured, corseted, and typically quite heavy gowns. Fortuny was inspired by classic simplicity of the ancient Greeks, though, and thus took his designs in a completely different direction from the top fashions of the day. His looks were extremely avant-garde for the time, and only the most daring women would don his sleek creations. Not only were the looks shocking to polite society, but they were originally designed to be casual tea dresses. As a result, women would only wear Fortuny designs at home. It wasn’t until post World War I, when corsets fell from favor and gowns were simplified, that Fortuny gowns were seen in public.

The epitome of Fortuny’s aesthetic is in the infamous Delphos gown. This simplistic gown, named for the ancient Greek bronze statue, The Charioteer of Delphi, was created using tightly pleated silk. First created in 1907, Mariano Fortuny made a number of variations of the Delphos gown throughout his career. The silhouette itself was extremely simple, mimicking the Greek chiton (read here.) Yet it was the perfectly pleated, airy silk which caused such a stir. The edges of the silk would be minimally trimmed with Murano glass beads which would slightly weigh down the light fabric so that it hugged the body. The fabric was created using a top secret formula where the fabric was heated and pressed with ceramic. However, the process was so closely guarded that its exact specifications remain a mystery to this day, and the pleating has yet to be replicated. Even at the time the dresses were first created, if the pleats were ever accidentally pressed out of a gown, the owner would need to return the piece to Fortuny’s personal studio to have it re-pleated.

Fortuny lived most of his later years in Venice in a 13th Century palazzo along with his wife Henriette, also a skilled dressmaker who helped create many of her husband’s designs. Fortuny passed away in 1949, yet his stunning designs remain some of the most sought after vintage pieces in the world.

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

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Above, Gertrude Sanford, portrait by William Orpen, 1922. Sanford was a socialite, big game hunter, and P.O.W. who escaped the Nazis during WWII.

For her  portrait, 20 year old Sanford posed in a lilac Fortuny Delphos gown. Over the gown she wears a malachite green stenciled tunic, also possibly by Fortuny. Below left is a Mint Green Fortuny stenciled coat owned and worn by Sanford [in the collection of the Charleston Museum]. At right, a violet Peplos from the Museo del Traje, similar to the gown Sanford wears.