Madeleine Vionnet (pronounced: [ma.də.lɛn vjɔ.ne]; June 22, 1876 – March 2, 1975) was a French fashion designer. Born in Loiret, France, Vionnet trained in London before returning to France to establish her first fashion house in Paris in 1912. Although it was forced to close in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War, it re-opened after the war and Vionnet became one of the leading designers of the inter-war period in France. Vionnet was forced to close her house in 1939 and retired in 1940.
Called the “Queen of the bias cut” and “the architect among dressmakers”, Vionnet is best known today for her elegant Grecian-style dresses and for popularising thebias cut within the fashion world and is credited with inspiring a number of recent designers.
Born into a poor family in Chilleurs-aux-Bois, Loiret, Vionnet moved with her father to Aubervilliers at the age of five. Having already left school, Vionnet began her apprenticeship as a seamstress alongside members of the garde champêtre at the age of twelve. After a brief marriage at age 18 – and the loss of a young child – she left her husband and went to London to work as a hospital seamstress. While in London, Vionnet worked as a fitter for Kate Reily. Vionnet eventually returned to Paris and worked for six years in the fashion house Callot Soeurs as a toile maker, praising Marie Callot Gerber as “a great lady” and later remarking that “without the example of the Callot Soeurs, I would have continued to make Fords. It is because of them that I have been able to make Rolls Royces”. However, her desire for simplicity was at odds with the lacy frills of the fashion house.
She designed for Jacques Doucet between 1907 and 1911, although her use of barefoot models and loose robes clashed with the style of the house. In 1912 she founded her own fashion house, “Vionnet“, although it was forced to close in 1914 owing to the advent of the First World War. Re-establishing the house in 1923, Vionnet opened new premises on Avenue Montaigne which became known as the “Temple of Fashion”. In 1925, Vionnet’s fashion house expanded with premises on Fifth Avenue in New York, selling designs purchased off the peg and adapted to the wearer.
Vionnet’s bias cut clothes dominated haute couture in the 1930s, setting trends with her sensual gowns worn by such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo.Vionnet’s vision of the female form revolutionized modern clothing and the success of her unique cuts assured her reputation. She fought for copyright laws in fashion and employed what, at the time, were considered revolutionary labor practices – paid holidays and maternity leave, day-care, a dining hall, a resident doctor and dentist. The onset of World War II forced Vionnet to close her fashion house in 1939,and she retired in 1940. Vionnet created some 12,000 garments over the course of her career.
An intensely private individual, Vionnet avoided public displays and mundane frivolities and expressed a dislike for the world of fashion, stating: “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”. Vionnet was not concerned with being the “designer of the moment”, preferring to remain true to her own vision of female beauty.
Vionnet Design 1914
Styles and technique
Alongside Coco Chanel, Vionnet is credited with a move away from stiff, formalised clothing to sleeker, softer clothes. Unlike Chanel, Vionnet had little appetite for self-promotion and her retirement in 1940 marginalised her contribution to the wider movement. Madeleine Vionnet is quoted as saying that “when a woman smiles, her dress must smile with her”. Eschewing corsets, padding, stiffening, and anything that distorted the natural curves of a woman’s body, her clothes were famous for accentuating the natural female form. Influenced by the modern dances of Isadora Duncan, Vionnet created designs that showed off a woman’s natural shape. Like Duncan, Vionnet was inspired by ancient Greek art, in which garments appear to float freely around the body rather than distort or mold its shape. Her style changed relatively little over her career, although it became a little more fitted in the 1930s.
In the 1920s, Vionnet created a stir by introducing the bias cut, a technique for cutting cloth diagonal to the grain of the fabric enabling it to cling to the body while moving with the wearer. Vionnet’s use of the bias cut to create a sleek, flattering, body-skimming look revolutionized women’s clothing and carried her to the top of the fashion world. Although sometimes credited with its invention, Vionnet claimed to have applied the technique, already used in skirts, to full-body dresses. As an expert couturier, Vionnet knew that textiles cut on the bias could be draped to match the curves of a woman’s body and echo its fluidity of motion. She used the cut to promote the potential for expression and motion, integrating comfort and movement as well as form into her designs.
Vionnet’s apparently simple styles involved a lengthy preparation process, including cutting, draping, and pinning fabric designs on to miniature dolls so that they hung in sinuous folds. The garment was recreated in chiffon, silk, or Moroccan crepe on life-size models. Vionnet used materials such as crêpe de chine, gabardine, and satin to make her clothes; fabrics that were unusual in women’s fashion of the 1920s and 30s.She ordered fabrics two yards wider than necessary to accommodate draping, creating clothes – particularly dresses – that were luxurious and sensual but also simple and modern. Characteristic Vionnet styles that clung to and moved with the wearer included the handkerchief dress, cowl neck, and halter top
Influence on later designers
Madeleine Vionnet is considered one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century. Both her bias cut and her urbanely sensual approach to couture remain a strong and pervasive influence on contemporary fashion as evidenced by the collections of such past and present-day designers as Ossie Clark, Halston, John Galliano, Comme des Garçons, Azzedine Alaia, Issey Miyake and Marchesa. Miyake once remarked that on seeing Vionnet’s work for the first time, “the impression was similar to the wonder one feels at the sight of a woman emerging from bathing, draped only in a single piece of beautiful cloth.”
Evening dress, winter 1921, collection Les Arts Décoratifs, U.F.A.C
Madeleine Vionnet, Dancer Irene Castle, 1922
Madeleine Vionnet, in la Gazette du Bon Ton, illustration by Thayaht
Evening dress, summer 1931, collection Les Arts Décoratifs, U.F.A.C
Evening coat, summer 1936, collection Les Arts Décoratifs, U.F.A.C
Madeleine Vionnet, Dress, made from silk tulle, panne velvet and horsehair with a silver lamé underdress and Lesage embroidery, 1938
Evening dress, 1938 Silver lamé and ivory silk net The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Evening dress, spring/summer 1938 Rayon The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Evening gown, 1939 Pale pink lamé and black silk lace appliquéd with black silk velvet
The Metropolitan Museum of Art