Madelaine Vionnet 1876-1975

When you have spent two days draping a Vionnet bias evening dress the sheer ability of the designer impresses itself on you. This fabulous French designer made over 12,000 individual dresses and other garments(I can hardly believe this quantity of individually custom made outfits in just 25 years), each one hand made (and mainly hand stitched) for the wearer. These she protected by autographing each piece with her signature and thumb print and providing each with its own certificate – revolutionary at the time. This lovely 1931 chiffon dress in the lightest weight silk is perhaps not the sort of outfit we most associated with Vionnet but it uses the drape in the body and the sleeves, while being fairly closely shaped across the bodice. It is carefully pieced to make the most of the patterned fabric. The uneven hem is created using the full piece of fabric and letting it fall where it will -a version of the handkerchief dress which she was famous for.

Vionnet tea dress (V&A)
Vionnet tea dress (V&A)

Vionnet started her own fashion house, formed in 1912 but which closed with the outbreak of the Second World War. Her work expressed the dynamism of the interwar period when women’s roles were changing and she encapsulated a new, relaxed, sensuous and luxurious look for women. Her designs work best when they are deceptively simple, usually made up in silk and sometimes lighter wools and velvets. Above all this was achieved by turning fabric on its head – or at least on its side. She widely used and in many ways pioneered the “coup en bias”, the bias cut, invariably making the fabric bend to the shape of the body and to create an elegant and exciting line – and draped her designs rather than flat pattern cutting.

Vionnet working on a half scale model
Vionnet working on a half scale model

She draped the clothes on artistic, barefooted house models, or on a half scale mannequin. In her Paris (and later New York) show rooms wealthy women would chose a dress from the rack but have it fitted precisely in the atelier. She rejected the modern sense of fashion as being an ever changing jamboree and said:

“Insofar as one can talk of a Vionnet school, it comes mostly from my having been an enemy of fashion. There is something superficial and volatile about the seasonal and elusive whims of fashion which offends my sense of beauty”

This 1935 ball gown outfit (with matching, embroidered muff) doesn’t automatically make you think of Vionnet but I find it interesting. The “ribbons” are made black chantilly lace backed with cream organdie,  gathered differentially to create the waves of shaping across both the cape and skirt. It is a very dramatic look and the play of light and shade are very appealing. The two garments shown on this page were “saved for the nation” when they were going to be sold abroad. This was the first time an export stop was placed on examples of 20th-century couture. Hurrah!

Vionnet ball gown (V&A)
Vionnet ball gown (V&A)

.One of my favourite bloggers A.G.Nauta Couture, covers her work extensively. But the prize as ever goes to Sarah of Pattern Vault for her research on many of Vionnet’s commercial paper patterns.

17 Responses

  1. Katherine

    So odd that I had just read a piece on her as a 7 page chapter in the wonderful vintage Threads book, Great Sewn Clothes, 1991, which I bought at the library book store. It features many designers and goes into construction techniques for items they made. The chapter on her is longer than most with sketches of some patterns and techniques, and photos of clothes. They look like they could have been made today, they are so fashion forward.

  2. Katherine

    Oh forgot to say, the article was written by Betty Kirke.

  3. Stephanie

    Love the quote about fashion and her sense of beauty. Touché.

  4. Joan from Texas

    Thank you so much for the links you included at the end of your blog. They are wonderful!

    I look forward to watching them all again several times (with liberal use of the pause button) to see all these lovely clothes more leisurely!

  5. What an interesting woman, I’d love to see what she is wearing in that photo. She was most definitely an artiste and what incredible workmanship. I’ll be following your links too, thanks.

    I’d forgotten about your impending trip to Brussels, you could argue that security will be tighter now but all the same, be vigilant and stay safe.

  6. Fabulous clothes, Vionnet was one of a kind. Best wishes for your trip, I hope you find a fabulous piece of fabric, and of course that all stays calm in the city.

  7. One can see late 1920’s fashion in action in the series “Miss Fishers Murder Mysteries” set in Australia. The clothing is fantastic, and many seem to be inspired by Vionnet. I love seeing the clothing in action on real bodies.

  8. Would love to hear about your Brussels trip – I’ll be there in the Summer and will have time to shop too. Also really enjoyed hearing about your draping again. I’m thinking of having a go at making a top, like you draped last week and have earmarked a piece of fabric. Don’t know when I’ll do it though.

    • In terms of making specific garments I often take for ever to get round to it, Karen. I had planned the trip in order to see a specific exhibition but I think it will be closed now. So I will have to find new things to do.

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