Sculptural yet slinky, supportive yet comfy, silhouette-defining yet bouncy – plissé wear is really quite extraordinary. Originally referred to as a fabric that had been woven or gathered into pleats, plissé is sometimes also known as crinkle crêpe. It takes its name from the French words plissér, to pleat and plier, to fold. Today, it is a lightweight fabric with a crinkled, puckered surface, formed in ridges or stripes.
Sharp as a knife or softly concertinaed plissé fabric is always eye-catching.
Plissé is posh. It comes from a very well-to-do background; aristocratic and luxurious.
Egyptian-made: It’s well assumed that the Egyptians took immense care in their appearance and took pride in their beauty. Though fabrics (linen) and styling (tunics because of the hot climate) were limited, Egyptian women were thought to be fashion and status-minded. Pleating their garments not only added decoration and differentiated them but became a symbol of power and luxury.
Tomb of Pashedu Deir el-Medina Pashedu, dated to the early years of Ramesses II,
To pleat a natural fabric (silk, cotton and wool) wasn’t simple (it was labour intensive) nor cheap (it’s thought eggs were poured over the fabric and then dried in the sun) and so only the aristocratic and the rich could afford plisse garments.
Ancient-made: The ancient Greeks and Romans used to pleat their linen tunics, called ionic peplum, fixing them at the shoulders by two brooches (fibulas) and then at the waist by a belt (kolpos). The pleating took time because it was done by hand; and worse it didn’t last, once the garment was washed, the pleats vanished and all the process had to be done again.
Ancient sculptural art is characterised by female figures in dresses with the texture of both regular folds and irregular pleating. Known as ‘wet-drapery’ to describe how the fabric clings to the body in animated folds whilst also revealing the contours of the form beneath – a look that often inspires fashion designers today;
Church-made: Many religious vestments originate from the everyday wear of the Roman Empire. As fashions came and went the clergy maintained their simple clothes until they no longer resembled the congregation and so their robes became a distinctive representation of the Church (their symbolic meanings evolved later). Roman Catholic Cardinals and Popes used pleated vestments (in muslin and silk) to display their status, even ‘holiness’.
Hand-made: Plissé pleating by hand was a time-consuming, pain-staking job. We know because linen chemises or smocks pleated with this technique were uncovered in 10th century Viking graves in Birka.
Analysis of the gowns concluded the creasing was made by sewing a vast number of seams across the cloth, which were then put in hot water. The threads were then pulled, “shrinking” the under-gown vertically, and creating loads of wrinkles in one direction. After removing the pulled threads the under-dress is made to look like an accordion. This very slow and lengthy procedure makes it rather unlikely that the vikings wore this kind of garment for every day-use. Today it is believed this is a dress used only for very special occasions, maybe weddings and funerals.
Now there’s help for hand pleaters in the form of molds – to ensure regularity and preciseness. You lay the fabric in between the scored and folded mold, roll it up and steam it in an oven. On some fabrics, chemicals are used to enhance the effects. But of course there’s a premium to pay for these garments, the time and craft they take makes them very expensive.
Machine made: Today most of us wear machine-made pleated garments. But modern technology means this fabric is much more versatile, colourful and wearable than ever before.
Cotton fabric with a puckered stripe texture caused by a chemical treatment (with sodium hydroxide) is called plissé. The chemical is applied in stripes which causes the fabric in those areas to shrink, leaving the remaining area puckered. The puckered stripes usually follow the warp of the fabric.
Mystery-made: Plisse fabrics have come and gone through the centuries depending on the fashion of the time. But one man has made the look a modern marvel. Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (11 May 1871 – 3 May 1949) a Spanish fashion designer, with many eclectic interests, made pleated dresses into an art form.
Known as the “Delphos” and the “Peplos” the exact method of pleating he used is was a closely guarded secret involving heat, pressure and ceramic rods. The gowns were made of finely pleated silk weighed down by glass beads to hold the shape and flow on the body. The pleating that he used was all done by hand and no one has been able to replicate such fine pleating or dresses that hold their shape – for many years.
The mystery of how Fortuny made his pleats in the early 20th century will probably now never be known. Innovative invention or shrewd marketing? His dresses are now worth a fortune as collector’s items and can be viewed as fine works of art in museums including his own in Venice.
Miss Muriel Gore in a Fortuny dress, by Sir Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley, 1919
Featured image: Thom Browne silk bias-pleat‑dress with bullion embroidery, made to order, price on request, and leather shoes (just seen), £830 | Image: Kevin Sinclair