Designer Guide: Madeleine Vionnet

Madeleine Vionnet was born in France in 1876 and died in 1975. She is best known for „inventing“ the bias cut. Now, fashion history is obsessed with „firsts“. Many designers claim to have been the first to have freed the women from the corset, or to have put them in trousers or to first to do this, first to do that. Fact is, a greater freedom of movement, and a new Zeitgeist was in the air at the time and the designers still remembered today are the ingenious ones who grasped it.

However, Vionnet, who made miniatures of her dresses on wooden mannequins before draping them in full size, definitely perfected the bias cut. When a fabric is cut on the bias, that is in a 45 degree angle against the threadline,  it is going to create more and different drapes and fall more closely to the body, just like a second skin. This so created slender silhouette is the epitome of the 1930s.

Her house was opened in 1912, and she had previously worked for the Callot sœrs and Doucet, which explains her  distinctive signature style was being influenced by belle époque escapism and English tailoring. Vionnet’s inspirations were (as partly for Poiret) the modern ballet, represented by the Ballet Russes and dancers such as Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller, but also, she looked back to an antique ideal of beauty found in Greek statues and columns which is referred to as neoclassical.

Vionnet, upon fighting against illegal immitators of her style started producing a bi-annual photographic documentation of her original work – or what we might call a lookbook today. Also, she incorporated code numbers and a finger print on every authorized product.

Her care for her personnel, other than her contemporary Chanel, (who in 1936 fired 300 workers because they had gone on strike; the women refused to leave and it took her two months to agree on higher wages and vacations) Vionnet provided unprecedented health care and social benefits to her workers.Vionnet closed her house in 1939, due to WWII.

In the following, I will show you some of her works as well as some possible interpretations/inspirations.

Evening dress, 1938
Madeleine Vionnet (French, 1876–1975)
Black silk satin and black silk net embroidered with black sequins

„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 of le beau monde. Like the bird who cries cras, cras (tomorrow, tomorrow), the black bird symbolizes those who are caught up in worldly pleasures.“ Met Museum

Below: Evening Dress S/S 1938 and Chrysler Building, Completed 1930

Bibliography: 

Breward, Christopher. Fashion. Oxford History of Art, New York. 2003. Print.

Mendes V. and Amy de la Haye. Fashion Since 1900. Thames & Hudson Ltd. 2010. Print.

Steele, Valerie. Women of Fashion. Twentieth-Century Designers. „Chanel: L’elegance c’est moi“. Rizzoli International Publications and Valerie Steele, 1999. Print

Metropolitan Museum. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Madeleine Vionnet. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hi/hi_vionnetmadeleine.htm. Online

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