Erté, the trend-setter of the 1920s

Erté, the trend-setter of the 1920s

“I believe that feminine clothes should serve to adorn women’s charm”
— Romain de Tirtoff (Erté)

Not many artists have the privilege to represent the art movement of their time, and perhaps no one is more associated with the idea of Art Deco style than Russian-born French artist and designer Erté. It is hard to imagine any book of Art Deco that does not include the evocative work of this designer. At the time, Erté name was synonymous with fashion magazines covers and theatres sets of the interwar period in France, Britain and the United States. He designed for everyone (famous and infamous) his stylized women often draped in beads and expensive jewels. He was considered a trend-setter who defined fashion rules for that “lost generation” of Flappers living during the Jazz Age.

A young Erté at the beginning of his career (1892 – 1990)

A young Erté at the beginning of his career (1892 – 1990)

Romain de Tirtoff (aka Erté) was born in St Petersburg in 1892. He grew up in a well-to-do upper class family and as a little boy he was introduced to the elegance typical of the haute bourgeoisie. Her mother used to take him with her during cultural gatherings, so he had the chance to watch the alluring elegance of well-dressed high society ladies adorned with sparkling fine jewellery. Russia's social elite used to meet in fine interiors' apartments full of arts like paintings and ancient objects such as Greek vases and similar artefacts. His passion for classical art will inspire him so much during his career.  Also his father's Perisan miniatures can be found as well in many of his illustrations. 

However, the experience that changed his life for ever was his visit at the Universal Exposition of Paris in 1900. During that year, the Belle Epoque was at its most sparkle, with Paris as the cultural Capital of the world. This period, starting in 1871 and ending with the beginning of the Great War in 1914, was known as an age of happiness, peace, optimism and prosperity. The non-stop discoveries and technological innovations instilled good vibrations in people of the time and the industrial production as well as the world trade increased consistently. The little Romain was so fascinated, both with the city as well as by what he saw at the fair that, later on, he decided to moved to Paris to pursue a career as a designer.

The Grand Palais, Paris, Universal Exposition, 1900. The young boy Romain de Tirtoff fell in love with Paris after visiting this world exposition eventually deciding to move there later on. 

The Grand Palais, Paris, Universal Exposition, 1900. The young boy Romain de Tirtoff fell in love with Paris after visiting this world exposition eventually deciding to move there later on. 

While waiting for his first brake in Paris, Romain frequented as many ballets as possible, where he could admire the magnificent costume-like clothing accessorized by sophisticated jewellery. This passion would lead him to reap dividends for his career alongside his future works. 

Erté early fashion designs, Erté Museum, 1911 

Erté early fashion designs, Erté Museum, 1911 

Loge de Théâtre, Erté, 1912

Loge de Théâtre, Erté, 1912


Finally, his unique talent was immediately recognized by Paris most established couturiers and in 1913 he was summoned to work with couturier Paul Poiret, who fell in love with his drawings. The flowing curvilinear form of the extravagant gowns characterized its works that sometimes were signed by Poiret himself. While working for the French maison, Romain designed a number of costumes for various theatrical productions under the pseudonym of Erté that he will use along his whole career.

Erté, for Paul Poiret, 1913. This is one of the few drawings that Poiret allowed the Russian artist to have his own signature on. 

Erté, for Paul Poiret, 1913. This is one of the few drawings that Poiret allowed the Russian artist to have his own signature on. 

Erté, for Paul Poiret, 1914  

Erté, for Paul Poiret, 1914

 

But it’s in 1915 that Erté actually started to make a name for himself. He decided to send his drawings to Harper’s Bazaar, a leading American fashion magazine that hired him the same year. After just few months of covers, he was considered by the magazine as a famous creative and talented designer so they offered him a 10-year exclusivity contract. What readers liked of Erté appealing front covers where the colourful and elegant lines that they perceived as innovative fashion. 

Harper's Bazaar, 1915-1929
 

Erté Harper's Bazar cover 1915.jpg
Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1917

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1917

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1917

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1917

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1918

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1918

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1918

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1918

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1918

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1918

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1918

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1918

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1919

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1919

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1919

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1919

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1919

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1919

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1920

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1920

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1921

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1921

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1921

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1921

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1921

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1921

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1922

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1922

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1923

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1923

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1924

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1924

Blossom Umbrella, Erté, 1924

Blossom Umbrella, Erté, 1924

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1925

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1925

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1925

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1925

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1926

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1926

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1926

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1926

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1926

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1926

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1927

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1927

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1927

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1927

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1927

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1927

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1928

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1928

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1928

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1928

His covers for Harper’s Bazaar were not intended as dress design but rather as more abstract notions of style and fashion. His delicate figures and sophisticated, glamorous designs were instantly recognisable (they still are today) and became pretty notorious and appreciated all over the world.


Taking Paris, New York and Hollywood

While creating front covers for Harper's Bazaar, he exploited his knowledge and love for theatre starting new collaborations. One of those was the fruitful association with legendary Folies-Bergères in 1923 - a cabaret music hall and strong symbol of French and Parisian life that was at the height of its fame and popularity through the 1920s. He had the amazing opportunity to design not just the costumes but also the setting, creating elaborated clothing for the actors. 

Costumes design by Erté for Folies Bergères, 1920s

Costumes design by Erté for Folies Bergères, 1920s

Costumes design by Erté for Folies Bergères, 1924

Costumes design by Erté for Folies Bergères, 1924

Costumes design by Erté for Folies Bergères, 1920s

Costumes design by Erté for Folies Bergères, 1920s

The echo of his successful collaboration with the Parisian cabaret reached the other side of the Atlantic, where in 1923 theatre impresario George White commissioned to Erté the costume design for its own Broadway revue Georges White’s Scandals that had been running on Broadway since 1911. The Scandals launched popular dances like Charleston, Black Bottom and Lindy Hop, all symbols of the Jazz Age. 
The collaboration with White continued until 1929, when Wall Street Crash suddenly bock out the crazy Roaring Twenties. 

Throughout this period, the artist also created original costume and fashion designs for many of the era’s most renowned screen actresses, including Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish, Marion Davies, Anna Pavlova, Norma Shearer and others. His creations for the stage included extravagant designs for productions at such venues as New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the Casino de Paris and the Paris Opera.

"La Mer Blanche",  Costume Design for "Les Mers," George White's Scandals by Erté, 1923

"La Mer Blanche",  Costume Design for "Les Mers," George White's Scandals by Erté, 1923

"La Mer Baltique", Costume Design for "Les Mers," George White's Scandals by Erté, 1923

"La Mer Baltique", Costume Design for "Les Mers," George White's Scandals by Erté, 1923

"L'Océan", Costume Design for "Les Mers," George White's Scandals by Erté, 1923

"L'Océan", Costume Design for "Les Mers," George White's Scandals by Erté, 1923

"The North Sea" Costume Design for "Les Mers," George White's Scandals by Erté, 1923

"The North Sea" Costume Design for "Les Mers," George White's Scandals by Erté, 1923

After he took over Paris and New York, Erté also conquered the west coast. In 1924 he was approached by MGM studios in Hollywood to design sets for the film Ben-Hur. He was already known by American society for his works at Harper’s Bazaar so that he was given a warm welcome on his arrival, like a true star. The costuming phase in silent motion  pictures production was of crucial importance, that’s why the director chose him. He also worked on the set of other movies during his stay in Hollywood. 

The actress Carmel Myers in Erté’s costume from “Ben-Hur” MGM Studios, 1925

The actress Carmel Myers in Erté’s costume from “Ben-Hur” MGM Studios, 1925

Aileen Pringle, as Zara in The Mystic, costume design by Erté, directed by Tod Browning, 1925.

Aileen Pringle, as Zara in The Mystic, costume design by Erté, directed by Tod Browning, 1925.

Costume designed forThe Mystic, Erté, 1925.

Costume designed forThe Mystic, Erté, 1925.



Harper's Bazaar, 1930 - 1936

 Despite the economic Depression in Europe and in the United States after the 1929 crash, Erté continued to draw for theatre and ballet and he was also involved in designing objets d’art and jewellery. He created more than 230 covers for Harper's Bazaar between January 1915 and December 1936. 

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1931

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1931

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1931

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1931

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1931

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1931

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1931

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1931

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1932

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1932

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1933

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1933

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1933

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1933

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1934

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1934

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1935

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1935

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1935

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1935

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1936

Harper's Bazaar cover by Erté, 1936

Erté continued working throughout his life, designing revues, ballets, and operas. After a period of relative obscurity in the 1940s and 1950s, Erté's characteristic style found a new and enthusiastic market in the 1960s when the artis was about 75. He had a major rejuvenation and much lauded interest in his career during these years with the Art Deco revival and his works appealed the so-called "psychedelic generation" of the period. He branched out into the realm of limited edition prints, bronzes, and wearable art. 

During the 1980s his works, as popular as ever, were being reproduced and sold as expensive serigraphs and lithographs signed by Erté and issued in limited editions. One of his best known images is Symphony in Black, where he depicts a curvilinear stylized woman, very tall and draped in black, holding the leash of a sinuous black dog. This print has become through the years a timeless piece among his entire collection, being reproduced countless times. It reveals how Art Deco style looks still modern because of its elements of fantasy and idealization.

Erté, Symphony in Black, 1983

Erté, Symphony in Black, 1983

Erté died in 1990 at the age of 97. He will always be remembered for the gloriously extravagant costumes and stage sets as well as his sophisticated drawings capable to mesmerize everyone and that keep enthralling subsequent generations of admirers. 

Brigitte Helm: the woman behind the screen vamp

Brigitte Helm: the woman behind the screen vamp

A pretty 114 year-old sewing machine

A pretty 114 year-old sewing machine