In 2002, my favorite skirt was a Vivienne Westwood dove grey accordion-pleated skirt scored at a resale shop. I wore it with my own cut T-shirt creations and sometimes with white little boy’s Hanes sleeveless undershirts.
Exactly 110 years prior, Loïe Fuller’s Serpentine Dance became a sensation in Belle Époche Paris. Along with being perhaps the first American modern dancer, she is credited with inventing the accordion pleat. No small feat… err… pleat. Shameless.
Art Nouveau muse and later inspiration to the Futurists and Cubists, Fuller’s free-form skirt dance, with dervish twirling skirts and colored lights, was the marriage of the natural and the modern that was the embodiment of the Art Nouveau. One of the most iconic images of the Art Nouveau is Jules Chéret’s 1893 poster for Fuller’s performance at Folies Bergère. Her dancing was the inspiration for many other images and sculpture.
Fuller, a good ole Midwestern girl born in Illinois, had her start as an actress and singer in vaudeville, stock theater, and burlesque. The invention of the accordion pleat came somewhere between 1870, when she was performing the popular Skirt Dance at London’s Gaiety Theater, and her invention of the Serpentine Dance.
She was always modifying her costumes for greater effect, adding complex pleating, more and more yards of fabric (one of her costumes used nearly 500 yards), and sewing wands into the skirts to extend her reach into space. She also innovated skirting further by starting the fabric at the shoulders, draping around the body, instead of at the waist.
This is same technique – resulting in a free-floating dress created using unstructured tiny-pleated silk fabric hung from the shoulder – was used by Mariano Fortuny to create the iconic Delphos Gown, one of only two garments in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
As recreated by the Lumière Brothers in the film shown, credited as the first filmmakers in history, Fuller used rotating discs of colored gels to shine light on her skirts, often in theaters stripped of stage elements and dark otherwise. In other works, she further used new technology in lighting to project images onto her costumes, light from underneath the stage through plate glass, and choreograph shadows and silhouettes; Loïe truly was the Goddess of Light. I’ll credit her with an assist on the goddess dress also.