Most people can name a few famous designers. Ask any woman interested in clothes and she will reel off a few: Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint-Laurent, Versace. But only those who truly know their fashion history would be able to name one of the greatest of them all.
Madeleine Vionnet opened a fashion house in Paris in 1912. Her philosophy was simple; her techniques were not. “The dress must not hang on the body, but follow its lines. It must move with its wearer, and when a woman smiles, the dress must smile with her!” She regarded fashion as a frivolous distraction from real clothes design, which she believed should concern itself solely with the creation of beauty to enhance the human form. So it’s not surprising that her gowns have a timeless quality that would make them perfectly wearable even today. As she said, “I don’t design for fashion – my designs are made to look beautiful forever.” But how did she achieve this?
Like her famous contemporary, Chanel, she did not draw her designs. Instead, she used a two-foot tall doll on which she pinned and draped material. Like Chanel, and perhaps even ahead of her, she abandoned corsets and designed clothes that allowed total freedom of movement. She was inspired in this by ancient Greek costume, which hangs from the shoulders and does not constrict the body, and by the celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan. Whereas Chanel did something similar, she is most closely associated with elegant day wear, while Vionnet is remembered more for her evening gowns. But she was most famous for her use of clothes cut on the bias.
Cutting at a 45-degree angle to the weft and warp of a fabric increases the ‘stretch’ and allows it to fit more snugly against the body. Before her, only skirts had been cut in this way, but she introduced the technique on gowns, draping them expertly over the curves of the body and allowing the dress to ‘flow’ and move sinuously with the wearer. Her cutting techniques were masterly – and very complicated. Rich and elegant women flocked to her to be made to look not only beautiful and glamorous, but sensuous. The wives of sugar barons from the Caribbean, North American heiresses, Mona Bismarck, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Baroness Robert de Rothschild, and many more of the rich and famous wore her gowns.
Among her inventions are the handkerchief dress, the cowl neck and most notably the halter neck, making backless dresses easily achievable, and a characteristic feature of evening wear in the 1930s.
With the onset of war in 1939, Vionnet closed her salon, but the influence she exerted after running her design business for only 27 years continued well after her working life, in the work of such prominent designers as Balenciaga, Galliano and Lagerfeld, to name but a few.
Issey 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.” This effect, though stunning in its apparent simplicity, involved a complicated process to make it a reality. She often worked with fabric two yards wider than strictly necessary in order to accommodate the draping necessary to achieve her effects.
She was ambiguous about her designer peers. About Christian Dior she merely observed: “He had a pretty name.” Always a retiring person, the opposite of her rival Coco Chanel, about whom she dismissively remarked: “She is a modiste – that is to say, she understands hats”, she enclosed herself in her cork-lined Paris apartment and lived on until 1975, dying at age 99. Although her name and legend are known only to the few, her influence can still be seen in the clothes we wear today.