Pleats and draperies have always been a certain status-defining element in clothing, because of the element of abundance and richness they bring: some designers, however, have gone so far as to make them a key stylistic feature.

The Art of Pleating in Women’s Clothing: A Historical Journey through the Centuries

Pleats in women’s clothing represent a timeless element of elegance and style. This practice, which has ancient roots, has evolved over the centuries, influencing fashion in surprising ways. In this article, we will explore the journey of pleats, starting with the draperies of ancient Greek garments, through medieval glamour, to the modern revolutions brought about by the likes of Mariano Fortuny and Issey Miyake.

Ancient Egypt and Greece: the origins of drapery in fashion

Already in ancient Egypt, pleated fabrics were intended for the upper classes, considered worthy of queens and pharaohs. Pleating, still present in some garments found in the Valley of the Kings, was obtained by soaking the fabric in a liquid rubber solution and then compressing it with a very heavy instrument, which fixed the pleats permanently in the fabric.

Egyptian tunic
Egyptian tunic.

In ancient Greece, pleats in clothes were more than just an aesthetic matter; they were an art form. Women’s dresses were often made of lightweight fabrics, such as wool and linen, which were skilfully folded and draped to create flowing shapes. These draperies not only gave the clothes a regal appearance, but also allowed for fluid movement, suitable for the dances and social events of the time.

Charioteer of Delphi, pleated dress
Charioteer of Delphi

The Middle Ages: folds between sacredness and Gothic style

In the Middle Ages, pleats in women’s dresses took on a different feel. Heavier fabrics and more structured silhouettes characterise the clothing of this era. Clothes were often decorated with elaborate pleats around the waist and sleeves, creating an image of majesty and sacredness. Gothic-style pleats, with vertical and horizontal lines, were particularly popular, helping to emphasise the verticality of the female figure. Obviously, the evolution of the folds continues over the centuries, always finding new declinations. Think for instance of the return of neo-classical style dresses typical of the 18th century.

Simon Marmion (France, c. 1425-1489). Detail from Scenes from the Life of Saint Bertin, 1459. Oil on panel; 58.5 x 146.4 cm. Berlin: Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, 1645A. Source: SMB
Simon Marmion (France, c. 1425-1489). Detail from Scenes from the Life of Saint Bertin, 1459. Oil on panel; 58.5 x 146.4 cm. Berlin: Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, 1645A. Source: SMB

Mariano Fortuny and the eternal charm of the Delphos gown

However, we can say that in modern times the name that first became inextricably linked to pleated fabric is that of Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, an artist, inventor, costume designer, painter and set designer of Spanish origin born in 1871, who lived in Venice between the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century.

Fortuny left an indelible mark on the history of fashion with his iconic creation: the Delphos gown, first shown in 1907. This extraordinary garment is a hymn to timeless elegance, a symbol of Fortuny’s craftsmanship and his ability to fuse it with inspiration drawn from ancient Greece.

Ancient Greece as a source of inspiration

Fortuny was fascinated by ancient Greece and its artistic heritage. His quest for perfection led him to carefully study ancient Greek draperies, trying to capture the magic of those pleated fabrics.

French archaeologists working at Delphi, north of Athens, had recently discovered a bronze statue dating back some 500 years before Christ. The figure was called ‘The Charioteer’ and was dressed in elegant pleated robes. The Delphos gown was inspired by the draped costume of this and other Greek statues. Fortuny and his wife Henriette Negrin, who specialised in fabric design, not only designed a dress that perfectly captured the mood of turn-of-the-century Paris, but also invented and patented a pleating technique that gave the Delphos dress its unique fluidity and elegance.

Delphos gowns on show at the MET in 2016.
Delphos gowns on show at the MET in 2016.

The Delphos gown: a masterpiece of pleats and luminosity

Fortuny’s Delphos gown is an extraordinary garment, combining luxurious hand-worked pleats and vibrant colours. The silhouette of the dress is long, slender and fluid, creating an effect of grace and movement when worn. The real innovation lies in the folding technique: the fabrics, often silk, were subjected to a pleating process that permanently fixed the folds, giving the garment a fixed yet flexible structure.

What made it an iconic garment, however, was the perfect timing in relation to the era in which it was conceived. Women were freeing themselves from complicated corsets that altered the shape of the female body and restricted its movements, the trend was towards more fluid, less structured garments that slid over the body, accompanying its lines and facilitating its movements, while retaining elegance and refinement. The Delphos gown was the answer to all these requirements.

Isadora Duncan wearing a Delphos gown in 1907.
Isadora Duncan wearing a Delphos gown in 1907.

The creation of a Delphos gown involved a series of complex craftsmanship steps. Fortuny, also known for his inventions, had developed a device for dyeing and printing textiles, enabling the creation of intense and vibrant colours. Dyeing took place after pleating, adding depth and brightness to the folds of the fabric.

In un primo momento le creazioni di Fortuny venivano vendute esclusivamente a Parigi, sebbene realizzate a Venezia, poi il mercato si estese anche agli Stati Uniti e la lista delle clienti divenne impressionante, da Eleonora Duse a Peggy Gugghenheim, da Sarah Bernhardt a Isadora Duncan.

Peggy Gugghenheim wears a Delphos gown.
Peggy Gugghenheim wears a Delphos gown.

Mariano Fortuny died in 1949, but his legacy in the field of fashion endures. The ‘Delphos gown’ continues to be a symbol of timeless elegance and craftsmanship and is still produced and sold in small runs. His creations have inspired generations of subsequent designers, recognising Fortuny’s genius in combining the ancient and the modern, the technological and the artistic. In 2016, the Metropolitan Museum in New York dedicated an exhibition to him, and also in the TV series Downton Abbey and more recently in the films that continue the story, one of the main characters, Lady Mary Crawley, has repeatedly worn Delphos gowns.

Lady Mary Crawley
Lady Mary Crawley

Madame Grés: the fabric sculptress

Born in Paris in 1903, Germaine Emilie Krebs, known as Alix, was one of the greatest seamstresses of the 20th century. Known by the stage name Madame Grès, she liked to say: “I wanted to be a sculptress. For me, it is the same thing to work with fabric or stone.” This ‘sculptural’ aspect will be particularly present in his creations.

Madame Grès began her career as a theatre costume designer, where she learned how to handle fabric and create three-dimensional shapes. In 1935, she opened his own fashion house in Paris, where she began to experiment with pleating. Also present in his case was an attraction to ancient Greece and an icy, minimal ante litteram. During the Second World War, the house had to close for a period and reopened in 1942 under the simple name of Grès.

Madame Grès, dress.
Madame Grès, dress.

Madame Grès’ pleated dresses were characterised by clean, simple lines that allowed the fabric to fall naturally over the body. Grès often used silk jersey, a soft, flowing fabric that lent itself perfectly to pleating. Grès was particularly interested in creating clothes without seams, or with a minimum number of seams, typical of the traditional costume of various peoples.

I suoi abiti erano spesso monocromatici, in colori neutri come il nero, il bianco o il grigio. However, Grès also did not disdain the use of brighter colours, such as red or blue.

Madame Grès’ dresses were worn by famous women all over the world, including Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy and Brigitte Bardot, and there were numerous collaborations with film and theatre.

The influence of Madame Grès is still present in contemporary fashion today. Her pleated dresses have been a source of inspiration for many designers, including Issey Miyake, and also for photographers such as Richard Avedon.

Grès was a revolutionary figure in the fashion world. It helped create a new style, which enhanced the natural beauty of the female body. Her pleated dresses are still considered masterpieces of tailoring.

Pleated dresses by Madame Grès
Pleated dresses by Madame Grès.

Issey Miyake: Pleats, Please!

After World War II, womenswear experienced another folding revolution, this time led by Japanese designer Issey Miyake. Miyake, born in Hiroshima in 1938, is known for his quest for innovation through the use of advanced textile technologies. His training started in Japan, continued in Paris, where he moved in the 1960s, and then in New York. He had the opportunity to collaborate with designers such as Guy Laroche, Hubert De Givenchy and Geoffrey Beene.

His ‘Pleats Please’ line, launched in the 1980s, introduced permanent pleats into fabrics, allowing clothes to retain their pleated shape even after washing.

The peculiarity of the textile folding technology developed by Miyake is that the fabric is first sewn by making the garment, then the folds are made, supported by layers of paper, and finally the garments are placed in a steam press, which imparts a permanent character to the folds. Finally, with the layers of paper removed, the clothes are ready to be worn. Miyake combined technology with minimalist aesthetics, creating garments that embrace the concept of practicality and modernity.

Issey Miyake, "Pleats, please" line dress.
Issey Miyake,Pleats, please line dress.

The use of a versatile material such as polyester, together with resins and polymers, gives the pleated fabric strength and flexibility. This technique not only guarantees unprecedented durability but also creates a three-dimensional surface that captures light in a unique way, giving the garments an almost sculptural appearance.

What makes Miyake’s pleated dresses so distinctive is their versatility. Questi capi sono progettati per adattarsi a una varietà di corpi e stili, grazie alla capacità del tessuto di estendersi e adattarsi. Moreover, the lightness of the fabric allows unprecedented freedom of movement, combining aesthetics with functionality.

Issey Miyake has broken new ground in the fashion world, proving that technological innovation can coexist with uncompromising elegance. Miyake’s legacy is evident not only in his iconic creations but also in the inspiration he provided to successive generations of designers, who continue to explore the limitless possibilities of pleated clothing. Miyake’s fashion is a bold statement that the future of fashion can be pleated, folded and shaped through the connection between traditional craftsmanship and advanced technology.

Flying Saucer' dress, by Issey Miyake, 1994.
Flying Saucer’ dress, by Issey Miyake, 1994.