Madeleine Vionnet is known today as the greatest dressmaker of all time.
You could be forgiven if you’ve never heard the name Vionnet. Her house was couture only and its heyday was the 1920s through to the early 1940s. In each of those decades she was a leading light on the Paris couture scene, but the label barely exists today compared with better known marques such as Chanel and Dior, and there is no franchise selling perfumes and tote bags and Vionnet ready to wear.
Madeleine Vionnet, born in 1876, had a tough early life that included poverty, a failed marriage and a dead child. She was already middle-aged by the time she became a famous couturier, having worked at the house of Callot Soeurs, among others – a couture house that was famous for its beaded eveningwear.
Quite plain and plump herself, and not given to dressing in the fashion, Vionnet was also bisexual and loved to dress beautiful women, having a particular admiration for South Americans. She had a unique understanding of the female body, and an architect’s abstract interest in clothing as a problem to be solved. The design and seaming of the garment was what interested her, not so much its colour, detail or pattern. She had no interest in creating ‘fashion’ or setting a style – she only wished to create the most beautiful dresses ever seen.
It is her bias dresses for which Vionnet is remembered today. The bias is the 45 degree angle between the warp and the weft of a cloth. Turning fabric to its bias automatically creates stretch and cling in a garment, and the material also falls more sinuously on the body. Until Vionnet’s time, bias-cutting had been used only for small areas of garments such as cuffs, but she revolutionised clothing by using it for entire garments.
She was aided in this by new methods of fabric manufacture, particularly the introduction of tightly twisted silk crepe in very broad widths.
The best of Vionnet’s designs of this era have an architectural, intellectual quality that is very satisfying. They don’t look much on a hanger, but on the body they cling to every curve in a particularly sensual way. The flesh-pink satin dress above is outwardly modest, but just look at the position of the slit above the breast – it promises considerable exposure if you make the wrong move.
Vionnet’s designs went through several phases. In the 1920s, they were based on geometric shapes such as squares and triangles, often with panels flying free, and she used a great deal of embroidery and beading inspired by both Egypt and Greece.
By 1930 she was designing simpler gowns based on triangles, often backless and usually bias-cut – these are among the most beautiful gowns ever made and every one of them is now a collector’s item. To see most of them, you have to visit a museum such as the Victoria and Albert in London.
By the late 1930s, she had moved on to full-skirted ballgowns, often of the finest black silk Chantilly lace over fabrics such as lame (left), or with embroidery graduated from waist to hem.
Her daywear is less well known, but this grey wool outfit (right) is a good example – the dress goes on over the head and is cut entirely without seams.
Vionnet closed her Paris house when the Nazis invaded France in 1939 and never reopened it. She was already 63 at the time and for the rest of her life she remained in genteel retirement, living to be almost 100 and dying in 1975.
Her name may be almost forgotten, except to those in the know, but her influence on modern dress design is incalculable.