Focus on Fashion: Madeleine Vionnet

by Raymond


We have talked about the top three post war designers, Jacques Fath, Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior. Now let's focus on the top three pre-war designers. It is interesting to note that before World War II the top Parisian couture designers were all women. In the next few weeks we will look at the work of those women, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Madeleine Vionnet.


Madeleine Vionnet was born on June 22, 1876 in Chilleurs-aux-Bois, Loiret, in north central France. She has been called the "Queen of the bias cut" and "the architect of dressmakers" because of her mathematical precision when cutting clothes. Vionnet is best-known today for her elegant Grecian-style dresses and for introducing the bias cut to the fashion world.

Vionnet began her apprenticeship as a seamstress at age 11. After a brief marriage at age 18, she left her husband and went to London to work as seamstress. She eventually returned to Paris and trained at the well known fashion house Callot Soeurs and later with Jean Paquin and Jacques Doucet. In 1912 she founded her own house at 222 Rue de Rivoli. In 1914, at the outbreak World War I, she closed the house and went to Rome. The house reopened in 1919 after the war. It was during this period, that artist and designer Ernesto Michahelles, known as Thayaht, created Vionnet's logo and also designed textiles and jewelry for the house.
In April 1923, Vionnet opened her new location at 50Avenue Montaigne. Dubbed the "Temple of Fashion", it was a collaboration of architect Ferdinand Chanut, decorator George de Feure and crystal sculptor René Lalique. It incorporated a spectacular Salon de Présentation and two boutiques: a fur salon and a lingerie salon. In February 1924, the Vionnet New York Salon opened at Hickson’s Department store presenting an exclusive collection of gowns. In 1925, Vionnet became the first French couture house to open a subsidiary in New York: Madeleine Vionnet Inc., located at 661 Fifth Avenue.

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 would help revolutionize women's clothing and carry her to the top of the fashion world.

She did away with corsets, padding, stiffening, and anything else that distorted the natural curves of a woman's body. Influenced by the modern dances of Isadora Duncan, she created designs that showed off a woman's natural shape. She was inspired by ancient Greek art, in which garments appear to float freely around the body rather than distort or mold its shape. As an expert couturier, Vionnet knew that textiles cut on the diagonal or bias could be draped to match the curves of a woman's body and echo its fluidity of motion.

Her deceptively simple styles involved a lengthy preparation process, which included cutting, draping, and pinning fabric designs on to miniature dolls and perfecting them, before recreating them in chiffon, silk, or crepe on life-size models. She used materials such as crêpe de chine, gabardine, and satin to make her clothes. These fabrics were unusual in women's fashion of the 1920s and 30s. She had her fabrics custom made two yards wider than ordinary fabrics to accommodate her use of the bias cut and draping. This created clothes, especially 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.

In 1927, Vionnet opened a school within her couture house to teach apprentices how to create clothing on the bias cut. In 1929, Vionnet led the establishment of a new anti-copyist association, the P.A.I.S. Vionnet introduced fingerprinted labels to authenticate models (each garment produced in Vionnet studios bears a label featuring Vionnet’s original signing and an imprint of Vionnet’s right thumb).



With her bias cut clothes, Vionnet dominated haute couture in the 1930s setting trends with her sensual gowns worn by such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn 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 were considered revolutionary labor practices at the time - paid holidays and maternity leave, day-care, a dining hall, a resident doctor and dentist. In 1932, the House acquired a new five-story building at 50 Avenue Montaigne. This building housed 21 workshops along with a clinic (equipped with both doctors and dentists) and a gymnasium. During this period the house employed 1,200 seamstresses and was considered one of the most important Parisian fashion houses. When WWII approached, a reorganization of the House was contemplated. Eventually, Vionnet decided to close her House. On August 2, 1939, Madeleine Vionnet showed her farewell collection. Although the war forced her to close her house, Vionnet acted as a mentor to later designers, passing on her principles of elegance, movement, architectural form, and timeless style.

In 1952 Madeleine Vionnet donated most of her designs to the archives of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris including 120 dresses from 1921 to 1939. Madeleine Vionnet died in 1975 at the age of 99.

Today, 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 designers as Halston, John Galliano, Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake and Marchesa.