FORTUNY, Mariano

Born Granada, Spain, 1871.
Died Venice, 1949


Fortuny’s full name was Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo. A creator of fashion as art, like Delaunay, Fortuny was a painter and inventor who became interested in the possibilities offered by clothes. He was born into a wealthy, privileged and artistic world and his extraordinary intellectual and artistic gifts were apparent very early. A mixture of artisan and alchemist, he endlessly examined, questioned and developed his theories on painting, photography, stage-lighting, architecture and theatre design. He was influenced by the Aesthetic movement, with its emphasis on linear qualities and functional beauty, and also by Wagner’s contention that art must be a cathartic experience which should purify and ennoble the spirit. Fortuny’s friends and admirers included the poet D’Annunzio, the novelist Proust, and the dancer Isadora Duncan. His complex concepts of clothing were intellectual and far removed from the world of haute couture. The background for his designs was the Greek influence found in the English painters, Alma-Tadema and Lord Leighton, the ‘Liberty’ style, and above all. Art Nouveau. From these he developed the idea of the natural dress, uncorseted, hygienic and allowing the body freedom of movement.
Fortuny actually considered his dress concepts to be inventions, and had his ‘Delphos’ dress and his method of pleating patented in Paris in 1909. They were based on the archaic korai sculpture of the 6th century BC.
His most famous was named after the Delphic charioteer: the ‘Delphos’ dress was like the Ionic chiton and its overblouse resembled the Ionic himation. It was very simple: from a boat-or V-neck fell a column of finely pleated silk with batwing, short or long sleeves which were usually caught at the wrist. It always had a cord at the shoulders to adjust the fit — an amazingly modern concept and a surprisingly modern dress. It never lost its pleats and was easily rolled into a tightly twisted ball for storing. Fortuny’s ‘Knossos’ scarf was a large veil of silk, usually printed with Cycladic geometric motifs. It was an item of clothing which could be used in a variety of ways and it always allowed the wearer freedom of movement. Following his work in silk came his work in printed velvet. He created a neo-Medieval style which consisted of two printed velvet panels joined with pleated silk. The design content was minimal and applied decorative additions did not exist. Having created a simple prototype, he did not change it.
The quality of Fortuny’s work lay in its total individuality. Everything came from his own head and hand. The dyes he used were his own special invention, semi-transparent so that movement and light would affect the colour. At Palazzo Orfei, which was his base, all prints and dresses were made by hand and dyed on the premises. His textiles were inspired by the Renaissance, especially by the Venetian painter Carpaccio. He used silk velvet which was hand-dyed and then hand-printed or stencilled; he also invented and patented his own special way of stencilling. Fortuny was in charge of all processes: he created the vegetable-based colours, the dyes, the blocks and the pattern designs. The results were unique.
In the 1960s Fortuny’s dresses began to be collected by museums and therefore became the status symbols that they are today. Like his name, they had sunk into obscurity after his death. His elegant and timeless solution to the problem of clothing, but not constraining, the female form has become classic. ‘A Fortuny dress’ conjures up a precise mental picture just as ‘a Chanel suit’ does. For this reason his name will endure.