Fashion Goes Back to the Future

Posted on September 29, 2022

by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Issey Miyake, the Japanese fashion designer who died in August 2022, was known for the finely pleated garments he first introduced in his Spring/Summer 1989 collection. In 1993, he launched a separate line, dubbed “Pleats Please,” to explore the technical and aesthetic possibilities of pleating. For Miyake, the pleats gave mass-produced clothes individuality, enabling them to mold themselves to the wearer’s body. However, he often used pleats to create volume rather than cling, sculpting the springy fabric into colorful geometric forms that could be folded flat but unfurled like wearable origami into topiary-like proportions, distorting the body instead of conforming to it.

Miyake’s futurist, high-tech approach to fashion made him a critical darling and a favorite of Apple chairman Steve Jobs, who adopted black Miyake turtlenecks as his personal uniform. But Miyake’s avant-garde clothes belied his debt to fashion history, and one fashion designer in particular: Mariano Fortuny, who was himself inspired by the dress of classical antiquity.

The charioteer. Archaeological Museum of Delphi, Greece.
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

Fortuny’s Delphos dress of 1909—named for the Charioteer of Delphi, the Hellenistic bronze sculpture excavated by French archaeologists in 1896—imitated the long, pleated tunic (called a chiton) worn by the life-sized statue of a young male athlete. Just as the ancient Greeks created clothing out of carefully folded, pinned, and pleated rectangles of fabric, Fortuny constructed the Delphos from four or five pieces of Japanese silk, pleated and hand-sewn into a tube, gathered at the neck, and fastened at intervals by beads interlaced with cording. His patented pleating process has never been successfully duplicated. The Delphos tapped into a time-honored ideal of physical beauty, turning mortal women into goddesses and infusing an ephemeral garment with the weight of thousands of years of history.

The pleats and gathers of the Delphos echoed the fluting of ancient architectural columns. But they were not purely decorative; they lent the silk an elastic quality. Unlike the notorious hobble skirt introduced by his contemporary, Paul Poiret, Fortuny’s Delphos achieved its cylindrical silhouette without impeding movement. The pleats ensured that the dress mimicked the natural contours of the wearer’s body, moving, expanding, and contracting with it. The Delphos was long enough to pool around the wearer’s feet, a detail borrowed from ancient vase paintings. Glass beads strung on silk cords and applied around the hemlines were not only eye-catching but functional, weighing down the silk to ensure that it fell smoothly.

Fortuny’s dresses may have been drawn from antiquity, but they were entirely modern in their innovative construction techniques and body-conscious silhouettes. “Gone were the buttoned boots, the curves, the boned collars, the straight-fronted stays,” Lady Cooper exulted. “Greek—everything must be Greek. I must . . . have a crescent in my hair, draperies, sandaled or bare feet . . . peplums . . . shining white limbs.” Artists, actresses, and aristocrats alike embraced the daring new aesthetic. Modern dance pioneers like Isadora Duncan wore Delphos gowns as they channeled the gyrations of the Bacchantes and Minoan women who had inspired Fortuny’s creations. Marcel Proust memorialized the designer in A la recherche des temps perdus, dressing his heroines in Fortuny gowns “swarmed with Arabic ornaments, like the Venetian palaces hidden like sultanas behind a screen of pierced stone.”

Madame Grès, Evening dress, 1962, Arthur Tracy Cabot Fund, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston [].

In the 1930s, the ancient aesthetic was especially attractive to women designers like Madame Grés and Madeleine Vionnet, who used it to celebrate the natural contours of the female form. After World War II, as some couturiers turned to the classical idiom as a utopian antidote to the horrors of combat, women sportswear designers embraced its ease and egalitarianism, translated into inexpensive yet sturdy fabrics. In the 1970s, vintage Fortuny gowns enjoyed a resurgence; they harmonized with the sleek, body-conscious minimalism of Calvin Klein, Stephen Burrows, and Halston, who spiced up classicism with bare shoulders, plunging necklines, and high slits to bare the legs.

The Delphos was not only ahead of its time, but timeless; it has never really gone out of style, a rare distinction in the fickle world of fashion. Women have kept theirs and re-worn them for decades. In 1969, twenty years after the designer’s death, socialite Gloria Vanderbilt posed for Vogue in her Fortunys. Actress Lauren Bacall wore a vintage red Delphos to the 1979 Oscar ceremony. At times of transition and uncertainty, women have returned again and again to the austere elegance of the ancient past, in search of archetypes of feminine power. Classical imagery was a feature of suffrage pageants in both the United States and the United Kingdom as women organized to win the vote in the early twentieth century. By dressing like goddesses and muses, the suffragists projected grace, beauty, and intellect without appearing problematically masculine. White unified the movement both visually and spiritually, whether in the form of classical drapery or contemporary fashion.

A century or so after Fortuny fashioned his first Delphos, the classical look was back in the spotlight for another notable transition: the inauguration of America’s first Black president, Barack Obama. For the 2009 inaugural balls, First Lady Michelle Obama chose a toga-like gown of diaphanous white chiffon. It evoked the white marble statuary (and, by extension, the democratic principles) of ancient Greece and Rome, as did the gown’s unusual wrapped-and-twisted construction.

Miyake made his own classical inspiration explicit in his 1997 collaboration with multimedia artist Yasuma Morimura. A series of three pleated dresses incorporated Jean-August-Dominique Ingres’s neoclassical painting La Source of 1856, depicting a nude woman pouring water out of a clay amphora, superimposed with an inverted half-length photo of Morimura on the bottom half, his head and torso draped in red netting. The juxtaposition destabilizes traditional binaries—male and female, east and west, naked and clothed, past and present—and expands the boundaries between art, artist, and audience.

Photo Credit: Adrea Scheidler

Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an award-winning fashion historian, curator, and journalist. She has worked as a consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. She is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-AntoinetteWorn on This Day: The Clothes That Made HistoryThe Way We Wed: A Global History of Wedding Fashion, and Red, White, and Blue on the Runway. She frequently writes about fashion, art, and culture for scholarly journals and news outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Politico, and has appeared on NPR, the Biography Channel, Reelz, and numerous podcasts. She lives in Los Angeles.

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