Representing the creative future

A love letter to Mariano Fortuny’s Delphos Gown

A celebration of the finely pleated Delphos gown and the enigmatic figure behind its creation

We rant a lot. We know. We can’t help ourselves! So, to make sure we never forget about the delightful joy of fashion, we asked you to share what made you fall in love with it – from tiny crushes to full-on fetishes. This week CSM Fashion Communication student Sophia Ford-Palmer is helping us learn everything about one of the most iconic dresses of all time: Mariano Fortuny’s 1907 Delphos gown.

Few dresses could survive a century and still appear profoundly modern. But the Delphos, a finely pleated silk gown first created in 1907 by Spanish-born designer Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, continues to simmer with sensuality. Nestled between the emerald canals and sunbathed streets of Venice, The Palazzo Orfei served as a haven for Fortuny where he worked as an alchemist, fusing ancient techniques with new technology to create the spellbinding gown. And although the Delphos was the only style of gown Fortuny was to produce, the manner of its construction was a well-guarded secret he took to the grave, forever veiling the gown in an aura mystery that continues to enchant me, and every fashion follower alike.

Isadora Duncan, illustrated by Georges Barbier
Gloria Vanderbilt in Fortuny, photographed by Richard Avedon for Vogue Italia December 1969. (Sourse: @fortuny)

Born into a family of prominent Spanish painters in 1871, Fortuny’s artistic curiosity was nourished by his Fathers collection of exotic antiques, soaking his psyche with a taste for the past. The pleated Delphos gown was directly inspired by the Ancient Greek Bronze statue of the Delphic Charioteer, unearthed in 1896. The fluidity of the Delphos gown recalls the Aesthetic movement that prevailed in the second half of the 19th century, where artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites and Frederick, Lord Leighton looked to classical Greece to create a naturalistic style of dress without constraints. A skilled artist himself, Fortuny understood and emulated this style of dress, allowing the silk of the Delphos to stream down the body, sculpting and transforming the wearer into a glistening nymph.

 

Fortuny’s studio (source: advantageinvintage.co.uk)

The invention, which was patented in 1909, used a system of heated porcelain tubes to warm the wet silk as it was pressed between these tubes to form permanent pleats.

There are a plethora of reasons why I have devoted this letter to the Delphos dress, but for me, the most significant is the gown’s mode of construction. Although Fortuny’s loyalties lied with the past, his inquisitive mind enabled him to utilise technological advancements and devise an invention to form the feather-like pleats of the Delphos. The invention, which was patented in 1909, used a system of heated porcelain tubes to warm the wet silk as it was pressed between these tubes to form permanent pleats. But the exact process and how the invention functions, remains a mystery. Resisting the modern synthetic fabrics and chemical dyes, Fortuny imported Tussah silk from Japan, Carmine dye distilled from Mexican Cochineal Beetles, Indigo from India, and herbs from Brazil.

Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny dress
Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny dress, by Sir Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley, 1919, source unknown

Notoriously protective, Fortuny registered over twenty patents between 1901 and 1934, including a boat propeller, lamps, and the ‘Fortuny Dome’, a version of the cyclorama that radically improved the art of stage lighting. Crafted in one size, the gown features concealed drawstrings on the bodice to allow for personal adjustments, and seams were finished with Murano glass beads, allowing the luminous dress to cling and melt around the body like molten lava. Fortuny operated and refined the same pleating process throughout his career, with only subtle variations in the length of the sleeve, making it impossible for a chronology of the Delphos.

The Fortuny Dome (source: fortuny.shop)

Crafted in one size, the gown features concealed drawstrings on the bodice to allow for personal adjustments.

Fortuny’s ability to romantically evoke the past has seen the Delphos immortalised in the works of some of the greatest writers of the 20th century. A devoted admirer of Fortuny, French novelist Marcel Proust describes the Delphos as “faithfully antique but markedly original.” The 1920s proved to be a successful period for Fortuny because he was providing what the modern woman was seeking, an alternative to the constrictive corseted fashions of the time. For her revival of classical Greek dance, Isadora Duncan famously wore a Delphos gown to reveal the freedom of her movements, and patron of the arts Marchesa Luisa Casati was one of the first socialites to wear the Delphos. Fortuny cared little for the sphere of high fashion and the changing style or silhouette, as he was immersing himself in the artistic process from idea to realisation.

And it’s Fortuny’s view of Venice as an enclave of inspiration that compelled me to visit the floating city in the summer of 2019, and I relished the opportunity to visit the Palazzo Orfei, now converted into the Fortuny Museum. With a tantalising collection of Fortuny’s paintings, stencils and textiles, the Delphos was every bit the spectacle I envisioned. Light danced on the silky surface of the Delphos from every angle, illuminating the gown’s streaks of silver like the metallic scales of butterfly wings.

Tutorial of the Delphos Gown (Source: comoanilloaldedal.wordpress.com)

Production of the Delphos gown ceased in the summer of 1936 when the Italian Fascist party, in a bid to promote national self-sufficiency, prohibited the import of foreign goods, severing the last lengths of silk from Fortuny’s grasp. Fortuny died in 1949, now more than 70 years after his death, Fortuny’s excellence is preserved by Mickey and Murray Riad who have co-owned the company since 1988, and in 2017 they released a reimagined Delphos gown, successfully mastering the art of Fortuny’s fine pleats.

 

Delphos Gown: The ultimate travel dress (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Fortuny had artistry pulsating through his veins, and the Delphos is a synthesis of all his creative endeavours. He conjured illusions from the past and united this with the technological innovation of the future, and through some secret spell brought it all to the present in one dress. But for me, the Delphos symbolises the magic and fantasy of clothes, and when I become disillusioned with the rapid pace of fashion, I return to the Delphos and see the enduring timelessness of craft.

Mariano Fortuny (1871-1949), Silk Pleated “Delphos” Gown in Champagne with Murano Glass Beadwork (Source: www.skinnerinc.com)

1 Granary

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