Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Pythia of Fashion: Madeleine Vionnet & The Art of Dressmaking

Image courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com

Taste is the feeling that permits one to tell the difference between what is beautiful and what is merely spectacular.

Whatever form it may take, the purpose of good design—design of true integrity—is to set a standard against which all other standards are measured; to allow one to instantly distinguish between the great, the atrocious or the disappointingly banal. Truly great design also has the ability to withstand that most rigorous of tests: time. And so it is with fashion as it is with any other form of decorative art or design - those who stand a 'cut above' the rest are few and far in between. But of all the magical names in fashion that have come and gone through the twentieth-century, none stand taller than that of the mythical name of Madeleine Vionnet; although it is largely unknown and unrecognized by the general public, her name alone is considered sacrosanct by the legions of world-renowned designers who have been “Vionnet-inspired” or have used the “Vionnet-cut” in their own collections. As the Tunisian-born fashion designer (and  the custodian of a substantial, private collection of Vionnets) Azzedine Alaïa—a legendary figure in his own right and the heir of Vionnet's design legacy—once reverentially acknowledged, She is the source of everything.” (Quote: Dialberto, G., nytimes.com, August 27, 2006)

Madeleine Vionnet working on a toile in her studio ~ 1923
Image courtesy of: http://www.nytimes.com/
The unassuming, stout woman who would ascend to the highest pinnacles of fashion came from the most modest beginnings. A toll collector's daughter, Vionnet was born in a village along the Swiss border of France, Chilleurs-aux-Bois, Loiret, on the 22nd of June, 1876. From an early age, Madeleine displayed an aptitude for mathematics—an aptitude which she would later cunningly incorporate into her designs—and had originally aspired to become a teacher. But in spite of her academic prowess and obliged to find work, the girl quit school at the age of eleven or twelve to apprentice with a Parisian seamstress. A few years later, at seventeen, Vionnet moved to Paris and worked as an assistant at the House of Vincent. Then in 1895, having left her husband whom she had married at the age of eighteen, she moved again, this time to London, to work for Kate Reilly, a fashion house that purchased and copied Parisian designs. In 1901, she returned to Paris once more and this time, she found employment as an assistant with Mme. Marie Gerber, the oldest of the four Callot sisters of the prestigious fashion house, Callot Soeurs. From Mme. Gerber's, Vionnet moved, in 1907, to another distinguished (albeit musty) establishment, that of Jacques Doucet, where she spent five years as a designer modernizing the brand; her decision to show a collection of  déshabillés—uncorseted lingerie dresses which were meant to be worn in public and presented on bare-footed models—cost Vionnet her position at Maison Doucet and she was asked to leave. (Sources: encyclopedia.jrank.org, undated; Quick, H., fashion.telegraph.co.uk, June 24, 2009; Dialberto, G., nytimes.com, August 27, 2006)

(Photo: Les Arts Décoratifs)

The Art Deco Salon de Présentation of the House of Vionnet at 50 Avenue Montaigne 
(The venue/atelier/boutique was referred to as the “Temple of Fashion”)
The two images above are courtesy of Dovima Is Divine II: http://www.flickr.com/

It was not until 1912, and after her tenure at Maison Doucet had come to an end, that Vionnet established her own maison d'haute couture. Maison Vionnet did quite well in the couple of short years just before the onset of World War I; Vionnet, however, after experiencing difficulties with her financial manager, took the decision of closing her House during the Great War. Not one to waste an opportunity when it presented itself, the war years were a welcome respite for Vionnet, who used the time to take account of her establishment and to think about new innovations in dressmaking. After the war came to an end, Vionnet re-opened her House once more in 1919.

And it was during the next two decades—until she finally closed her House (situated at 50 Avenue Montaigne, the first couturière to found a maison d'haute couture on the famous Avenue) at the dawn of the Second World War—that Vionnet invented and perfected her design signature: the bias-cut. By the time she permanently closed her House in 1939, hers was the largest couture establishment in Paris. Earlier in her career, while still working at Callot Soeurs, she experimented with only hanging fabrics on the bias; now she experimented with cutting and sewing on the bias, exploiting the languid and hitherto untapped qualities of silks, tulles, jerseys, gabardines, crêpes-de-chine, crêpes-de-romain, velvets, and charmeuse to great effect (she pioneered the handkerchief-hem dress, the halter top, and the cowled neckline).
  I have never seen a fabric that refused to obey me.
Because cutting on the bias requires more fabric width than usual (otherwise, dresses would entail more seams to incorporate the entire pattern cut on regular-width fabrics), Vionnet had two-meter-wide fabrics especially made to accommodate her new design requirements. So skilled did she become with the bias-cut technique, so identified was it with her name, that she even placed furs on the bias as well—the first designer to ever do so. But with innovations come devotees as well as plagiarists. Vionnet so jealously guarded her designs and so plagued was she by copyists that she took the unheard-of step of housing a dying facility on her premises in order to change colours just before an opening; she was also known to develop new designs prior to a presentation. (But even with such rigid precautions, the Vionnet ateliers were infested with spies: contraband patterns, dresses, and even labels were routinely smuggled out to counterfeiting rings, and the Americans were the most avid copyists of all.) By the end of the 1920s, facsimiles of her designs were described as being of the “Vionnet School of Design.” (In an effort to combat counterfeit copies of her dresses, she allegedly espoused copyright laws for her designs. Eventually, however, her patterns became so complex and  intricate that even the best copyists found them virtually impossible to duplicate.) (Sources: encyclopedia.jrank.org, undated; Loyer, M., nytimes.com, October 11, 2000; reference.com, undated; Collins, A. F., “Toujours Couture”, Vanity Fair, September 2009)

Image courtesy of Dovima Is Divine II: http://www.flickr.com/


Designers make dresses; artists make dreams,” Vionnet was once quoted, and nothing was dreamier than a Vionnet gown. At the height of her career, the House of Vionnet employed over 1,200 workers or petites mains (as they are still referred to): seamstresses, embroiderers, fur and lingerie specialists and assistants, all housed in a specially constructed building behind the Avenue Montaigne boutique. (For the bead-work required, Vionnet employed Marie-Louise Favot in the 1920s to design and oversee all of the necessary beading.) But she used bead-work sparingly and only when it served  a secondary role: “I only like decoration if it plays second to the architecture of a dress,” she once famously said. (Quote: nytimes.com, 2009)

Vionnet was as innovative an employer as she was as a designer. A forward-thinking woman who always identified with working girls, she  took the welfare of her employees' seriously and, unlike most of her contemporaries at the time, provided them with fair, decent salaries along with benefits such as access to dental and medical care, a dining hall, a day-care facility, and even a gymnasium—all sur le site. “Good health creates good work” was the motto she abided by and to that end, she ensured that her workers were offered free lunches, coffee breaks and paid vacations. More importantly, she personally arranged for her workers to have maternity leave. Furthermore, in 1927, Vionnet opened a school which, for the duration of a three-year program,   provided young apprentices the necessary training and knowledge to master the bias-cut and its uses.
(Sources & quotes: Quick, H., fashion.telegraph.co.uk, June 24, 2009; encyclopedia.jrank.org, undated; reference.com, undated)

(Photo by Edward Steichen)


An intensely private individual who shunned the limelight, Vionnet often expressed a dislike for the world of fashion. “Insofar as one can talk of a 'Vionnet School,' it comes mostly from my having been an enemy of fashion. There is something superficial about the seasonal and elusive whims of fashion which offends my sense of beauty,” she is reputed to have once said. Vionnet's dislike of the tyrannical cycles of fashion, as expounded by her contemporaries, extended to 'showy' designers as well. She often derided Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, who had ventured into fashion initially as a milliner with her penchant for publicity, by always referring to her as “just a milliner.” (Later in life, although Vionnet conceded that Chanel had taste, she nonetheless felt superior to her; on the other hand, she considered herself to be the 'da Vinci' of dressmaking and couture's only true artist.)
(Source & quote: reference.com, undated; Dialberto, G., nytimes.com,  August 27, 2006)

Irene Castle ~ 1922
The two images bove are courtesy of: http://patternedhistory.blogspot.com/
 I hate sketching. Designers who sketch have no feeling for fabric.
A purist of the female form, Vionnet was considered a great mentor and friend by another of the twentieth century's hallowed designers, the Spaniard, Cristóbal Balenciaga. (The two great designers became close life-long friends and, even in the extremity of old age, Vionnet would tearfully recall the memory of the late Balenciaga in conversations.) In the glory years of the 1930s, as Vionnet sophisticated and perfected her bias-cut and drapery techniques, she strove to eliminate superfluous details and unnecessary seaming, paring down a dress to its most essential and fundamental elements. As Pamela Goblin, curator in chief of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs  in Paris, has said, “She redefined the way he body is looked at. She believed the body had no side seams, so neither should clothes.” Such a purist vision required hours of work and dedication to craft; hours devoted to experimentation as Vionnet worked on her toiles. Clothing of such calibre were, naturally, very costly to create, involving great skill and time that only the wealthiest women were able to afford. But even in this, Vionnet was ahead of her time in another, crucial way and developed a new concept to reach a wider clientele. (Sources: Dialberto, G., nytimes.com, August 27, 2006; quote: Collins, A. F., “Toujours Couture”, Vanity Fair, September 2009:322)

Yves Saint Laurent is most often credited with inventing the notion of  'ready-to-wear' when he introduced his Rive Gauche line in 1966. But in fact, it was Vionnet, more than forty years earlier, who essayed into the mass-market (in order to capitalize on her appeal in the United States) when she formed, in 1924, Vionnet Inc., the purpose of which was to create and sell a 'one-size-fits-all' line adapted for the American market. Although initially successful, she ended the venture within six months. Then two years later, in 1926, she manufactured a true ready-to-wear line when she produced a collection of  forty dresses which were available in three sizes and nine colours; dresses were priced at $150 and sold at John Wanamaker's. (Sources: encyclopedia.jrank.org, undated; Quick, H., fashion.telegraph.co.uk, June 24, 2009)


Lamé gown ~ ca. 1937

(Photo by Patrick Gries)
Beaded gown & cape

Black silk satin & black silk net embroidered with black sequins ~ 1938

Photograph by Edward Steichen ~ ca. 1930
The five images above are courtesy of Dovima Is Divine II: http://www.flickr.com/

Image courtesy of: http://www.style.com/

The woman who would come to have such a lasting influence on fashion, who would come to be acclaimed as the 'architect of fashion,' and whose innovations would surface in the collections of such diverse designers as Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Azzedine Alaïa, Halston, Geoffrey Beene, Claire McCardell and, of course, John Galliano (who built his own career on Vionnet's bias-cut), was herself influenced by the draperies of ancient Greek art and sculptures as well  as  the free-spirited dances of Isador Duncan. More specifically, Vionnet was inspired by the Greek peplos, a garment made of a rectangular piece of fabric which was draped around the body, knotted at the shoulder and cinched in and gathered at the waist. She was also one of the first to eschew  interfacing, padding, stays, boned corsets, buttons and zippers—anything that interfered with or hindered the natural movement of the body; essentially, she emancipated women from unnecessary embellishments or constrictions and dressed them in fluid draperies. “The final aim of our métier is to create dresses that make a harmonious body and a pleasing silhouette. It is about making beauty. That's what it's all about.” (Quote: nytimes.com, 2009)
Vionnet created her designs—though deceptively simple in appearance they are, in fact, highly complicated—not by sketching them on paper as many designers are wont to do, but rather, on 31.5-inch (80-centimeter) tall wooden mannequins on which she draped, pinned and directly cut her toiles, working out a design in the round before cutting and sewing it in full, life-size. She was the first designer to create a one-seam dress, a challenge that other designers have emulated and attempted to better, including Cristóbal Balenciaga, Yohji Yamamoto and Azzedine Alaïa. (Sources: encyclopedia.jrank.org, undated; Quick, H., fashion.telegraph.co.uk, June 24, 2009)

Inspired by the fluid draperies of Greek sculpture
Image above is courtesy of: http://patternedhistory.blogspot.com/

Black silk velvet & silk georgette ~ 1932-1936

Satin ~ 1932-1934

Organza, tulle & silk velvet ~ 1935

Day dress of woollen jersey, chrome & leather ~ 1933 

Printed silk chiffon dress ~ 1931
The above six images are all courtesy of: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/

A 1938 dress of silk tulle, panné velvet, & horsehair with a silver lamé under-dress 
(Embroidered by Lesage)
Image courtesy of: http://www.nytimes.com/
Some people don't need to be educated; they are innately tasteful—I think I am one of those people.”

A sketch of one of Vionnet's designs

Gold lamé
The above two images are courtesy of: http://verrier-fashion.com/

Pale pink & silver lamé & pale pink silk net gowns ~ 1938
(The Duchess of Windsor once owned & lent a similar ensemble to the 1940 exhibition, Paris Openings)
 Fringed rayon gown ~ 1938
Though there are separate specialists for applied braid and fringe, known as the crépinières, Vionnet chose in this instance to employ an embroidery of individual graduated lengths of silk thread passed and looped through the fabric, with each thread forming two drops of fringe. The scallop arcs constitute the sole decoration of the dress.”
Pale pink lame & black silk lace appliquéd with black silk velvet ~ 1939
The above four images are courtesy of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

(Photo: Les Arts Décoratifs)

Madeleine Vionnet in old age
The two images above are courtesy of: http://verrier-fashion.com/

Madeleine Vionnet died at the grand old age of ninety-eight on March 2nd, 1975. Her legacy is still evident in the collections of young as well as more established designers. The first retrospective of her work was held at the Musée de Marseille in 1991.
(Source: encyclopedia.jrank.org, undated)

Following in the footsteps of other luxury brands—such as Gucci, Vuitton, Dior and Balenciaga—that have been revived in the last fifteen or sixteen years, a similar revivification of Masion Vionnet has been undertaken. In 1988, while heading the ready-to-wear department of the House of Balmain, Guy de Lummen bought the rights to the Vionnet name and brand. For a while, de Lummen sold perfume, alligator bags and hand-painted scarves under the Vionnet label from a boutique situated on the Place Vendôme. In 2004, Lummen's son, Arnaud de Lummen, took over from his father with the intention of introducing a Vionnet ready-to-wear line. A young Greek-born designer by the name of Sophia Kokosalaki was hired on as creative director. The first ready-to-wear line debuted and sold at Barney's New York early in 2007 as well as at the Vionnet studio in Paris. Kokosalaki's first runway presentation was in October, 2007. More recently, a new designer was installed at the helm, Rodolfo Paglialunga, who worked for many years at Prada. Paglialunga showed for Vionnet in October of 2009. (Sources: Dialberto, G., nytimes.com, August 27, 2006; Quick, H., fashion.telegraph.co.uk, June 24, 2009)

Also in 2009, and thirty-four years after her death, a second retrospective exhibition of Vionnet's work entitled, Madeleine Vionnet, Puriste de la Mode was held at Paris's Musée des Arts Décoratifs until January 31st, 2010. The curator of the show and of the museum's fashion collection, Pamela Goblin, spent the better part of two years preparing the show, gathering together 125 dresses and 750 patterns, including 13,000 photographs and artifacts which were donated to the museum by Vionnet in 1952 for the purpose of educating future generations. (Two of Vionnet's famed wooden mannequins on which she pinned, cut, and  perfected her complicated designs are also showcased in the exhibition.) It is reported that John Galliano, so taken with the significance of this exhibition, urged his staff to visit it. (Sources: Quick, H., fashion.telegraph.co.uk, June 24, 2009; nytimes.com, 2009)

The first object to greet visitors to the exhibition, Madeleine Vionnet, Puriste de la Mode:
One of Vionnet's articulated wooden mannequins on which she created her legendary designs
(Photo by Luc Boegly)

A bias-cut crêpe dress with a gilded-leaf belt ~ ca. 1936
(Photo by Patrick Gries)

(Photo by Patrick Gries)

(Photo by Patrick Gries)
The above four images are courtesy of: http://www.nytimes.com/

Madeleine Vionnet: Puriste de la Mode
Video courtesy of: Susan Tabak ~ vimeo.com

Label sketch for the House of Vionnet by Thayaht

 No one has carried the art of dressmaking farther than Vionnet ~ Christian Dior

Suggested readings:

Madeleine Vionnet (1991), by Jacqueline Demornex & Patricia Canino: Rizzoli

Madeleine Vionnet: Les Années d'Innovation, 1919-1939 (1994), by Madeleine Vionnet & Musée Historique des Tissus de Lyon: Musée des Tissus

Madeleine Vionnet (1996), by Lydia Kamitsis: Assouline

Madeleine Vionnet (1998), by Betty Kirke: Chronicle Books

Madeleine Vionnet: Créatrice de Mode (2006), by Sophie Dalloz-Ramaux: Editions Cabedita

Madeleine Vionnet (2009), by Pamela Golbin: Rizzoli


  1. amazing!! Loved the read- she is my favourite designer of all time!

    1. Dear Cecylia, I quite agree with you: Vionnet is one of my favourite designers of all time, too. In my opinion, her innovations (in cut & construction) set the foundation for so many designers & dressmakers who followed in her wake ~ and path.

      Thanks for your comment.
      ₵. Ð.