Madeleine Vionnet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Evening dress, 1938
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Black silk satin and black silk net embroidered with black sequins
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.4a–c)

In Jungian psychology, the appearance of black birds in dreams is considered a bad omen and allied to fear of misfortune. For the Romantics, they hovered over battlefields to feast on the bodies of the slain. As a chilling prelude to war, the birds on this dress swarm around the body of the wearer like ominous raptors. At the same time, they serve as criticism of the vanity and ostentation ofle beau monde. Like the bird who cries cras, cras (tomorrow, tomorrow), the black bird symbolizes those who are caught up in worldly pleasures.

Evening dress, 1938
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Silver lamé and ivory silk net
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.24a,b)

Evening dress, 1938
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Pale pink and silver lamé and pale pink silk net
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, Lady Mendl, and Mrs. Ector Munn, 1946 (C.I.46.4.25a,b)


“I’m not a beautiful woman. I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.”

—Duchess of Windsor

The Duchess of Windsor lent two dresses to the exhibition Paris Openings (1940), including this ensemble by Madeleine Vionnet. Elegant, romantic, and feminine, it seems uncharacteristic of the duchess’ sober and somewhat severe fashion aesthetic. It also seems more revealing than her usual modest, discreet style. But as Danielle Porthault of Yves Saint Laurent commented, “Her Royal Highness’s style was sobriety by day and fantasy and originality at night.”


“Mrs. Harrison Williams was a chef d’oeuvre, breathing a rarefied air of mystery, like some undine or goddess from another world who yet chooses to dress in the height of fashionable conventionality.”

—Cecil Beaton

In December 1933, Chanel, Lanvin, Lucien Lelong, Vionnet, Balenciaga, Edward Molyneux, and Mainbocher named Mrs. Harrison Williams the “Best Dressed-Woman in the World.” Like Lady Mendl and the Duchess of Windsor, she possessed an inconspicuous elegance, which she achieved by choosing the clean and subdued lines of Vionnet and Balenciaga. Vogueobserved, “She never orders the ‘successes’ in a collection, but instead, the costume which is noticeable only on second glance.”

Mrs. Harrison Williams’ style and beauty have been immortalized in art, music, and literature. In “Ridin’ High,” Cole Porter sang: “What do I care if Mrs. Harrison Williams is the best dressed woman in town?” In Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers (1987), she was the model for the character Kate McCloud.

Evening dress, spring/summer 1938
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)

Gift of Madeleine Vionnet, 1952 (C.I.52.18.4)

In the 1930s, the ideal of slimness remained but the silhouette regained some curve as the natural waist and the breasts reappeared. Evening dresses during this period were made of clinging bias-cut fabrics that expressed the body underneath with every motion. In the advent of the new silhouette in 1930, oneVogue editor proclaimed that “ungainly women must be jubilant, for the new clothes are extremely becoming, and a multitude of sins can be hidden beneath the new draperies.” Still, a dress such as the Madeleine Vionnet design show here would not have allowed for too much excess flesh. The embroidery is of individual graduated lengths of silk thread passed and looped through the fabric, with each thread forming two drops of fringe. Such decoration over a clinging gown would tend to call constant attention to the line of the body underneath.

The ideas of diet and exercise as a path to the ideal silhouette were well entrenched in the

1920s. The more curvaceous figure of the 1930s required all that and the return of corsets to give more form and control to the silhouette. As a 1933 Harper’s Bazaararticle on the season’s new line of corsets cautions, “You cannot have a roll of flesh about the midriff. An uncontrolled derriere is vulgar in a slinky dress.”

Evening gown, 1939
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Pale pink lamé and black silk lace appliquéd with black silk velvet
Gift of Mrs. Harrison Williams, 1952 (C.I.52.24.2a,b)

A bias lamé underdress is visible through the veil of a lace overdress with velvet. Seeking the unity of the garment and the integrity of the cloth, Vionnet found simplification even in lace, adding only a small panel at the waist to the one-piece bodice. Thus, even in the sheerest and inherently particled garment, Vionnet insisted on the largest possible element.


About jackikellum

Jacki Kellum is a Fine Artist, a Designer, and also a writer. For one of her graduate programs, she wrote her thesis on William Blake. Like Blake, much of Kellum's work is about childhood and lost innocence. Also like Blake, Kellum strives to both write and illustrate her work. .
This entry was posted in 50 Fashion Designers You Should Know, Haute Couture, Le Colis de Trianon=Versailles, Madeleine Vionnet, Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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