Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Futuristic Fashion of Pierre Cardin

Back in the summer when I was deciding whether or not to go to New York this fall, I saw that the Brooklyn Museum was having a retrospective of the designs of Pierre Cardin, and that made up my mind.   I love Cardin's futuristic clothing, so to have an opportunity to view it in person was not to be passed up.  The verdict?  The show is definitely worth a visit.

Pietro Cardin was born in Italy in 1922, and in 1924, his family moved to France to escape fascism.   One of Cardin's various part-time jobs included one with a local tailor, and at the age of 18, he left home to pursue his dream of becoming a couturier.  His apprenticeship with a tailor in Vichy was interrupted for wartime service. After the war, he moved to Paris and worked as a tailor for Maison Paquin, followed by a stop at Elsa Schiaparelli's atelier, and finally landing a job as the first employee at Christian Dior's new fashion house in 1946.   In 1950, he left Dior and started his own Pierre Cardin company which created costumes for European masquerade balls.

The coat in the above photo was part of Cardin's earliest collection, in 1952, which was an immediate success.  The original coat and suit designs in the collection were praised for the cut, inventiveness, generous use of fabric and attention to detail.

The exhibit includes 170 pieces, including both contemporary and historical haute couture, accessories, photographs, videos, furniture and home decor.  The majority of the items are displayed in groupings around a particular theme. 


Innovative Materials

Cardin has been quoted as saying "When I design a dress, I don't design it around a woman's body, I design the dress, and then put the woman inside it".  This is certainly true for many of the piece in the show.   His childhood fascination with the American and Soviet Space programs inspired him to experiment with unconventional materials and shapes to create sculptural, space-age designs.

The dresses above are examples of the innovative materials Cardin used in his designs.  The dress on the far right is from a 1968 collection of 3-D molded dresses made from Cardine, the designer's own Dynel fabric.  Cardin also used vinyl (left) and plexiglass (center) as dressmaking materials.

L:  Bandeau and skirt made of vinyl and plastic from 1968;  R:"porthole" dress made from wool crepe and silver leather, also from 1968


Geometric Shapes

Throughout his career, Cardin's interest in geometry has shown up in his designs.  His most frequently used shape is the circle.  He also began working with the parabola (technically, a symmetrically mirrored U-shape) in the 1950's.   

L: cocktail dress with "parabolic" cap sleeves from 1990; R: suit with "parabolic" sleeve detail on jacket from 1991

The use of stretch fabrics and hoops allowed for amplified parabolic shapes in Cardin's designs.  Some of Cardin's "Parabolic" fashions collapse flat and are easily packed

L: velvet evening gown from 2010 embellished with painted styrofoam balls; R: satin "pendulums" form the skirt of the dress from 2019

four pairs of linen men's pants from 1972, two of which incorporate a circle shape and a "target" design

 L: two-piece suit from 2015; centre: cocktail dress from 2013; R: outfit from 2018

Cardin's designs from the last decade (as seen in the above photo) show that his love of circles persists.

 shelving unit (no year), "circle" coat from 1988, "Balance" lamp from 1977

The exhibit contained a few pieces of Cardin's furniture designs.  He used traditional woodworking and lacquer techniques to create handmade cabinets, tables, dressers, and chairs which he described as "Couture Furniture".  The circular shelving unit in the photo above is a stunning example of his striking designs which, like his clothing, often incorporated a circular motif.


Unisex Dressing


 Designs from Cardin's "Cosmocorps" collection

Cardin and other Western designers such as Rudi Gernreich began showing gender-neutral collections in the 1960's.  Cardin's "Cosmocorps" collection from 1964 was his earliest experimentation with unisex dressing. The base garment was a black body stocking over which was then layered neck pieces, vests, codpieces, skirts, tunics, belts and aprons.  Fashion forward men like Truman Capote, Salvador Dali and Rudi Gernreich worn the suit designs.

"Parabolic" jumpsuit from 2010

Suit from "Cosmocorps" featuring the rolled collar and decorative zippers that appeared frequently in that collection

 Bold Shoulders

A revival of the "bold shoulder" began in the 1970's as other elements of men's suits (lapels, ties) also grew wider.  Cardin's extreme shoulder silhouettes gave the wearers the appearance of a superhero.

L - R:"American Football" suit from 1980, coat and turtleneck from 1991, "Origami Suit" from 1981

Cardin's men's leather jackets featured "American Football" shoulders (above left) and his first trip to China in 1978 inspired a coat with shoulders imitating the shape of Chinese pagodas, and  "origami shoulders" with complex fabric folding.

"Origami Suit" from 1981

"Computer" jacket from 1981 with intricately pleated back


Accessories were an important element of Cardin's designs.  Hats were created to accompany most daywear looks, and those outfits that did not include hats often incorporated over-sized plastic sunglasses or masks made of leather and clear plastic.  The exhibit featured several pieces of enormous silver metal neckpieces from the late 1960's which could be worn today.

Articulated necklace from 1969

 Evening dress with metal collar, 1968, shown next to a photo of model Penelope Tree wearing same dress

leather and plastic masks from 1982

L - R:  Two examples of red leather and metal shoes from 1967, along with a patent leather and metal pair from 1969

Statement metal and leather belt (no year given)

The Wall of Hats

The hat was an important element in Cardin's silhouettes.  In the 1960's he introduced new shapes such as the helmet and "halo" (worn with the 1968 "Cardine" dress).  His hat designs in the 80's and 90's often obscured part of the wearer's face, suggesting armour, hijabs or burkas.  Later shapes were often large in scale, and whimsical or surreal in shape.

One of Cardin's more recent surreal hat designs

In the late 1960's, Cardin began to license his name to a series of products to be sold in department store chains in England, Germany, Japan and Argentina.  This was an unusual thing for a couture designer to do at that time, and to ensure that the quality of the goods remained high, Cardin's company employed managers who supervised the design and manufacturing process.  Each product had a visible Pierre Cardin logo.  Over the years, his logo would appear on over 850 licenses, in over 110 boutiques around the world.  The success of his licensed products gave him creative freedom in his couture designs and allowed him to pursue other interests, such as the purchase of Maxim's Restaurant in Paris.   He even got into car design beginning in 1969; in 1981 he redesigned the Cadillac Eldorado Evolution, which featured virgin wool carpeting, mahogany and walnut dash, hand-tooled leather seats and a thirty-layer lacquer paint finish similar to that of his "Couture Furniture".

Cardin, captured above by photographer Michel Boutefeu in 1982, with his three "Golden Thimble" awards which were given to French couturiers.   He was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1983, and in 1992 Cardin became the only designer to be given a seat in the Academie des Beaux-Arts.  Cardin is 97 years old, and still working.

Over all, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit, but I would have liked to have seen a few more pieces from the 1960's, and I thought the labels describing individual pieces were very small, contained minimal information, and were often hard to locate.    Cardin's day wear looks were definitely more interesting in terms of colour and shape then the evening wear looks that were included in the retrospective.

an evening gown from 2017 definitely lacked the youthful, modern charm of his day wear

I'll leave you with a photo of myself, and my exhibit companion, Jean (one half of the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas) in front of the hat wall.....

I'm wearing a vintage velvet and silk Oscar de la Renta tunic dress I found at a thrift store 

Jean in not-so-basic black accessorized with leopard print headpiece

Pierre Cardin:  Future Fashion is on at the Brooklyn Museum until 
January 5th, 2020  


  1. Thanks for this detailed account of this exhibit.

    I think it's incredible and wonderful that at the age of 97 he is still working. It means he loves what he does.


    1. I know! I can't imagine still working at that age, but it makes a big difference when you are in a creative profession, and love what you do.

  2. Very cool to get a taste of the exhibit, for those of us who live in the Far West and almost never make it to NYC!

  3. I've been reading a bit about Pierre in "The Battle of Versailles" book - I love these gorgeous clothes! I have a vintage piece of Pierre Cardin, but it doesn't look like any of these. It's a long pencil skirt in red silk with yellow polka dots, all hand-stitched, absolutely incredible.

    I want all the metal neck-pieces, that amazing belt and some of the hats. Please break into the museum, steal them and ship them to me. :)

    1. Only if you're willing to bail me out of jail if I get caught!

  4. What an incredible exhibition! I love that evening dress that Penelope Tree was photographed wearing and the space age feel to his 1960s designs. I'd kill for one of those neck pieces.
    Such a shame he allowed his name to be used under licence, we come across the most appalling clothes made in his name in charity shops. It can't be that he was short of money. xxx
    PS Your outfit rocks!

    1. I'm not sure why he made the decision to license so many products - he was the first designer to do so and I've seen some very cheesy products with the Cardin logo too.

  5. I totally agree that those 60's designs are particularly fabulous so I understand you wanted to see more of them. Love all the amazingly geometric dresses in those innovative materials, love the Cosmocorps collection and love those hats and accessories!
    And you totally rock in your dress!! so cool!. Love to see you enjoying NewYork in good company!

  6. Fabulous Design excellent fabrics collection. Spectacular exhibition. best wishes from Fabrics World USA

  7. That was fun! And I like your dress the best, Shelley. I remember my dad had a tie (or two) with the Pierre Cardin label, very wild. I had no idea he was still alive, much less working. Thanks for visiting and sharing it all with us.

  8. Okay, you're right. I didn't see this one!!! Perhaps I need some of those 1960s day dresses and hats. Yes. These are adventurous and so space shippy. I remember Audrey Hepburn in one of his hats - one of my favourites. I love that he's still working. Looks like you had an incredible time there. But I swoon for your OdlR dress. Wow!

  9. Awesome designs of The Futuristic Fashion of Pierre Cardin. Ideas are great and really creative.