The Delphos gown or How the Charioteer of Delphi went to the Oscars!

Charioteer of Delphi
The statue of the Charioteer of Delphi (exposed in Delphi Archaeological Museum), was dicovered in 1896.

The «Delphos» gown was a finely pleated silk dress first created in 1907 by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo and Henriette Negrin (his wife) and made until the early ’50s. It was inspired by, and named after, the classical Greek bronze statue of the Charioteer of Delphi discovered in 1896.

Since the 1970s the «Delphos» have been desirable and collectable pieces of vintage clothing, with one selling for a world record price of $10,000 in December 2001.

The «Delphos» History

Fortuny, a Spanish-born artist turned textile designer, produced garments that parisian society welcomed. In «In Search of Lost Time», Proust’s fictionalized peek into the intimate society of France’s gratin, or upper crust, there are at least sixteen references to Fortuny or to his dresses.

«Of all the indoor and outdoor gowns that Mme de Guermantes wore, those which seemed most to respond to a definite intention, to be endowed with a special significance, were the garments made by Fortuny y Madrazo from old Venetian models. Is it their historical character, is it rather the fact that each one of them is unique that gives them so special a significance that the pose of the woman who is wearing one while she waits for you to appear or while she talks to you assumes an exceptional importance…?».

Fortuny became famous for his pleated dresses, the «Delphos» and the related «Peplos». He blended his love for medieval history and classical Greece with a fascination for technology and the skills of the craftsman.

Peplos - The «Delphos» gown -
Purple silk Peplos with sleeves (Peloponesian Folklore Foundation collection)

All his experience with theatrical costumes and stage curtains, as well as experiments with the effects of light on fabric, fed into the art for which Fortuny is still best known: the figure-skimming, sleek, slinky, sophisticated, glowing, daring, No-Corsets-Need-Apply pleated silk gown.

"Elena vestida con túnica amarilla" by Joaquín Sorolla, 1909. (Elena Sorolla Garcia in a yellow Delphos)
“Elena vestida con túnica amarilla” by Joaquín Sorolla, 1909. (Elena Sorolla Garcia in a yellow Delphos)

The exact method of pleating was a closely guarded secret involving heat, pressure and ceramic rods, which has never been replicated. The developed pleating machine had a patent filed by the National Institute of Industrial Property (France) of Paris on June 10, 1909. In a signed hand-written note on a copy of the patent, Mariano Fortuny acknowledged his future wife as the inventor of the machine: «Ce brevet est de la propriété de Madame Henriette Brassart qui est l’inventeur. J’ai pris ce brevet en mon nom pour l’urgence du dépôt.» (This patent is the property of Madame Henriette Brassart who is the inventor. I submitted this patent in my name given the urgency of filing).

The «Delphos» was a deliberate reference to the chiton of Ancient Greece and meant to be worn without undergarments, since the chiton was itself a form of underwear, a radical suggestion during the early years of the 20th century.

A chiton was a cloth cylinder made by piecing together a number of woven rectangles, joining them at the shoulders, and holding them in place with a girdle that formed a loosely pleated effect. Fabric was not easily come by in ancient times, so the material had to remain in reusable rectangles.

Between the cords and the pleats, the gowns can adapt to a range of sizes. Murano glass beads strung on the cords around the armholes and down the sides–as well as around the shaped hem of the Peplos overblouse– so as to keep the light silk pleats from gaping or ballooning or wandering off with the first stray breeze. The result is both simpler and richer than anything that had been worn before. Each element is necessary. Nothing is extraneous. This may well be the first modern garment.

What appears to be ruffling at the neckline and sleeve is not ornamental but the visible result of lacing front to back with silk cords, which also ran through the neckline.

Even care of the «Delphos» is easy: simply twist the gown into coils and pop it into a little 25cm round box, ready for storage or travel.

After Fortuny died in 1949, no more gowns were made, yet women lucky enough to find them at auction continue to collect them, cherish them, and wear them.

Delphos packaging
Delphos packaging

The «Delphos» in America

In 1927 an American interior designer, Elsie McNeill Lee, discovered Fortuny’s work and became the the exclusive distributor in the United States. This venture proved highly successful until the second world war made imports impossible.

Mrs Conde Nast wearing a Delphos gown
Mrs Conde Nast wearing a Delphos gown

The «Delphos» at the Academy Awards

The «Delphos» was originally intended by Fortuny as informal clothing or a tea gown for wearing solely in the privacy of the home.

Lauren Bacaull in the 1979 Academy Awards ceremony.
Lauren Bacaull wearing a Delphos in the 1979 Academy Awards ceremony.

In the 51st Academy Award ceremony (April 9, 1979) Lauren Bacaull was the presenter of the Writing Awards. She was wearing a red, silk dress with extremely fine pleats bringing to mind Ancient Greek statues. Lauren’s dress was a «Delphos» gown and since then it became formal wear!

«Delphos» fans have included Isadora Duncan, Gloria Vanderbilt, Sarah Bernhardt, Peggy Guggenheim, Nijinsky, Lillian Gish, and Orson Welles.

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