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  • Danielle Bennignus

A Visit to the Homeland - Cincinnati, the Queen City

Updated: May 27, 2018


Though I often speak of my years in New York City, my roots are solidly installed in Cincinnati, Ohio. It's something of an under-the-radar gem, literally piled to the sky with phenomenal 19th and 20th century architecture, a thriving cultural movement and some of the finest art collections in the nation. Matt and I made a pilgrimage to my hometown last week, and gorged ourselves on everything the old city had to offer. One of these things is a serious throwback to my youth - the Paul Poiret dressing gown that I donated to the Cincinnati Art Museum at the fledgling age of twenty-one.


Before we get to the wonderful garment, let's have a look at the man behind it...

Paul Poiret was a couture revolutionary, known among other reasons for playing a great role in liberating his clients from the corset. But beyond that, his aesthetic was a riot of colors, patterns, sumptuous materials and remarkably innovative draping and construction techniques that often threw the controlled, tight-laced fashion standards of his era on their heads.

From simple, traditional approach to a full-bore enthusiasm for all things Eastern, Poiret lived in the spirit of his creations, often hosting grand parties with extravagant themes. His most famous was the "1002nd Night" event, and he is shown below with his wife and muse, Denise, in costume:

The hooped lampshade dress Denise is wearing is a signature silhouette of Poiret's work, recognized immediately in his iconic "Sorbet" gown. Last but not least is one of my favorite style influences, the notorious Marchesa Casati, wearing one of her many pieces designed by Poiret. Casati was (and still is) a universe unto herself, and I strongly recommend you devote a solid day of reading up on her life...

But now, back to the delightful confection by the man himself, that I was freakishly fortunate enough to acquire in my younger days.

Now, I never, ever expected to luck into owning such a magnificent garment, especially at such a young age, but the early 1990s constituted that last gasp of pre-Internet, pre-eBay era of junk shopping and flea market rooting. Even at the age of nineteen I was an inveterate reader, and knew my way around the great couturiers of the early 20th century. With that in mind, you can imagine my shock at finding this piece at a local antique mall, in nearly pristine condition at a price my paltry bank account could just cover. I snapped it up, immediately placed it in a strong trunk, and began thinking about what to do with it.

Though this rare creation certainly cast a spell from its spot in my collection, I knew that I would never have the proper archival facilities for storage - and beside that, my place in its existence was basically a steward, protectively ushering it toward permanent safety. I allowed myself the joy of hands-off ownership for a year, and decided to make the call. At the time, the great Otto Thieme was the head curator of the Fashion Arts and Textiles collection at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and an acquaintance of mine. Based upon prior conversations with him I knew that he was a great enthusiast of the work of Poiret, and would know if my labeled piece was, in fact, the real McCoy. I rang him up, and was in the archive the following day. After many gentle prods and draping, he asked me to don the robe, to determine the flow of the burnout velvet. I did so tentatively, and he gasped, "It's the real thing."

My late father, a creative force and preservationist in his own right, had joined me for the adventure. When Otto suggested that I take some time to consider whether I would rather sell the piece elsewhere than donate to the CAM, my father asked, "Danielle will never ask you such a question, but I will - what would this piece typically appraise for?" Otto clarified that appraisal wasn't his business, but it was safe to say that the value would likely be upward of $10,000.00. I still wasn't fazed, but Otto again insisted that I take time to think things over. A month later, I was back in the archive, signing the donation documents.

I've never regretted my decision, but I won't deny that a good handful of people thought that I was crazy. I was working several part-time retail jobs at the time, and could have benefited profoundly from such a windfall. But the caveat was that this prospective income came at a price - sending the piece off to auction, and not having any say of who would end up with it - or, most importantly, what they would do with it. Within a private collection it might never be seen, and if bought and worn, it would suffer damage. With my donation, the robe would be kept in a safe, secure, calibrated environment, seen by archivists, designers and researchers, and - happily enough - be available should I wish to pay a visit.

I've made the pilgrimage twice over the last twenty-four years, and Paul Poiret's wonderful creation hasn't aged a bit. The silver, peach and rose shades are a beautiful as they ever were, and the ombre-dyed ostrich feathers are still largely intact. The original label remains delicately stitched along the collar area and, most importantly, Poiret's signature ribbon rose and wired ribbon leaves remain on the left lapel. This rose echoes Paul Iribe's design that graces the label, and often appeared on Poiret's garments. Though the rose is a bit tattered, it hasn't degraded since I found it that way. Another interesting thing about this piece - though I haven't spent the time to track down my suspicion, I'm almost certain that the burnout velvet was designed by Raoul Dufy, in one of many collaborations with Poiret.

In short, a dream, created by a visionary, for a clearly discerning woman. When I purchased this robe, the only information provided by the dealer was that it came in a sealed trunk, alongside a spherical Bakelite purse and 1920s fetish shoes. Had I the funds, I would have nabbed the entire lot - but this piece was clearly the winner.

Over two decades later, I am endlessly happy that I had the sense of perspective as a young woman to convince me that donation was the best option. Over the years the pattern, color, drape and trim have inspired my illustration, something I can't begin to assign a value toward. Knowing that it's safe and accessible to those who should see it is a great source of happiness. And the knowledge that my name will be connected to this marvelous robe, and its incomparable character of a designer, is worth more than any amount of riches could ever offer to me.

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