‘When a woman smiles, her dress must smile also’
Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975) was part of a group of creative women who transformed fashion in the early 20th century. That she preferred to identify herself as a dressmaker rather than a designer is a testament to her commitment to the craft. She sought to bring about a cohesion between body and dress, starting her design process on a half-scale mannequin and working with the features of the fabric to value the natural contours of the body.
Born into an unprivileged family in the suburbs of Paris in 1876, Madeleine was required to start working at the age of 12, as a lacemaker’s apprentice. But what she lacked in status and wealth she compensated in determination and ambition.
In the end of the 19th century, Madeleine moved to London, where she worked (after a brief stint as laundress at an asylum) with court dressmaker Kate Reilly. Reilly, as with most English fashion houses of the time, specialised in copying French fashions. It was there that she learned the craft of dressmaking.
Upon her return to France in 1900, Vionnet found a position with Callot Soeurs, the prestigious couture house led by sisters Marie Callot Gerber, Marthe Callot Bertrand and Regina Callot Tennyson-Chantrell. Under the eldest sister, Marie, Vionnet further developed her dressmaking and tailoring skills.
In 1907 she switched to Jacques Doucet hoping to rejuvenate the house. Her first collection reflected an emerging desire amongst the avant-garde for a less structured aesthetic. Like Paul Poiret and Fortuny, Vionnet’s collection presented un-corseted dresses, and inspired by modern dancer Isadora Duncan, her models walked bare-feet. This was an incredibly radical approach to Doucet and its conservative clients.
‘I do not like the corset… If the figure needs support, a corset of some kind should be worn; but I do not believe in wearing a corset to give you a figure. The best control is the natural one… I do not mean some burdensome exercise, but something that makes you healthy and happy. It is also important that we be happy.’
In 1912 Vionnet opened her own fashion house, located at 222 rue de Rivoli. Although she amassed a loyal clientele, the outbreak of World War I meant the temporarily closure of her thriving business. As soon as the conflict was over, however, Vionnet re-opened her house.
Classical Lines With a Twist
Vionnet’s creations were a stark contrast to the overly adorned fashions of the pre-war period; they evoked a new form of femininity that spoke of freedom, independence and experimentation. She was particularly inspired by classical design, often visiting the Louvre to study the marble sculptures and artefacts from Antiquity.
‘My inspiration comes from Greek vases, from the beautifully clothed women depicted on them, or even the noble lines of the vase itself’.
Her four principles of dressmaking – proportion, movement, balance and truth – reference back to the classical ideals of purity and beauty. She applied these principles to create innovative and progressive garments that presented a modern vision of the fashioned body.
Although fascinated by past civilizations, Vionnet also took inspiration from contemporary art movements, particularly the cubism. Its reduction of nature into geometric shapes appealed to the designer, who translated the concept to many of her own creations. In her early designs she would take a basic shape, like a rectangle or triangle, and work it on the body, allowing the characteristics of the fabric and the contours of the body to transform the 2D into a 3D garment.
‘dressmaking should be organized like an industry and the couturier should be a geometrician, for the human body makes geometrical figures to which the materials should correspond’.
The Natural Body
In a 1924 New York Times interview, Vionnet philosophized,
‘It is a pity to go against nature, you see I believe in being natural. I do not like dyed hair, and I do not like short hair. Both go against nature. For the same reason, I also try to be logical in the clothes I design. Many have said that I make clothes only for thin women and insist on having all my customers thin. That is not true. I separate my types into four divisions – fat women, thin women, tall women, and short women. I am equally interested in all of these. If a woman has a tendency to be plump she will look better that way, although I do not think she should allow herself to get too fat. There are such interesting styles for all, and I urge women to study themselves and to be consistent.’
Although she seldom interacted with clients, Vionnet drew inspiration from real life women. Among the few clients she would consent to see was the Italian-born Duchesse de Gramont:
‘Ah! She was a real model. Tall and lovely. When I was designing a dress, I had only to ask her to come and try it on… and I knew exactly where it was wrong!’
Vionnet was famed for her innovative dressmaking techniques. The aesthetic simplicity of her designs was underpinned by an incredible level of structural complexity, particularly with regard to her original use of the bias cut.
This technique required Vionnet to cut, drape and pin fabric onto a wooden doll, working on the round instead of a two-dimensional surface. Her use of bias cutting resulted in designs that fitted the wearer’s body flawlessly, without the need for complex undergarments or corsetry.
Her first exploration into the bias technique are said to have been a skirt with a straight-cut back and bias-cut front, and a straight-cut dress with a bias look, finished at the neck with the bias-cut cowl drape. Then came the handkerchief point insert on skirts and at necklines and in 1926 Vionnet launched the first all-bias-cut dress. In 1927, Vionnet opened a school within her couture house to teach apprentices how to create clothing on the bias.
Temple of Fashion
As her business expanded, Vionnet’s original address at rue de Rivoli could no longer accommodate her ever-increasing workforce – 1,200 by 1923. With additional investments, Vionnet opened her new premises at 50 Avenue Montaigne. The five-storey building constructed of stone and steel featured over twenty ateliers, each assigned to cater for specific tasks such as: dresses, coats, furs and lingerie.
She rarely saw her employees and hardly ever visited her ateliers. Her time was spent in her own study. She shared her creative responsibilities with Marielle Chapsal, who also had her own studio. In between the two were the fitting rooms. Each had a wooden mannequin, about 80cm high, on which every toile was cut and manipulated until it was absolutely right and ready for the ateliers.
The new maison showcased the designer’s embrace of the avant-garde and modernist aesthetic. It featured contributions by prominent interior designers such as Français Jourdain, Djo Bourgeois, Rene Herbst, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Barbe.
The salon, where clients were introduced to the new the collections, featured crystal ceiling, friezes and door archways sculpted by Rene Lalique and large wall frescos painted by Georges de Feure. The women in these frescos donned Vionnet’s most popular designs and were said to each represent an aspect of her ideal woman.
In 1930 Jean Dunand created a unique games table, largely inspired by Boris Lacroix’s perfume bottles. The top incorporates a chessboard with squares of inlaid crushed egg-shell, a painstaking technique of which Dunand was a master. The lacquer and metal seats, upholstered in beige leather, slide into the table to create a compact, lustrous black cube.
Vionnet’s most notable and longstanding collaboration was with the artist, designer and illustrator Thayaht. As well as designing the company’s logo, Thayaht’s relationship with the maison can be traced through his sketches of Vionnet’s designs published in the prominent fashion magazine La Gazette du Bon Ton. These illustrations, cubist in flavor, depict Vionnet’s garments extending into the surrounding space.
As well as an innovative designer and skilful craftswoman, Vionnet was an incredibly savvy businesswoman. In 1919 she started taking copyright photographs (front, side and back) for each garment she produced. Later these evolved into a single snap simultaneously showing all three views through the clever positioning of mirrors. Each garment was also christened with its own unique name and number, and labelled with Vionnet’s signature and fingerprint.
In 1921 she co-founded the Association pour la Defense des Arts Plastiques et Appliques – an anti-plagiarist organisation aimed to fight other businesses that produced illegal copies or ambiguous advertising. A year later came the statement in the form of an almost threatening general advertisement that declared:
‘The Madeleine Vionnet models are registered and published in France… She will pursue any copyright or counterfeit, even partial, made in this regard of her rights.’
While taking extensive action to protect the copyright of her couture designs, Vionnet also partook in the profitable and wide-reaching mass market. She licensed agreements and produced ready-to-wear collections for American department stores.
Social Welfare Champion
‘I remembered the horrible work conditions when I was a girl and I wanted ours to be the best…in that way you get the best work.’
Vionnet’s working ethics extended beyond her fight against plagiarism. She was also a pioneer when it came to social welfare. Made up of a predominately female workforce, Vionnet’s premises at 50 Avenue Montaigne had an onsite clinic with a doctor and dentist as well as a day care centre for the workforce’s children.
The house provided free meals in canteen, coffee breaks and paid holidays (1 week in winter and 3 weeks in summer) to their staff. Classrooms allowed younger seamstresses and pattern cutters to further develop their craftsmanship, learning from the designer’s latest techniques. At a time when stools were common at the workplace, Vionnet provided chairs with backrests for its entire staff.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the 63-year-old Vionnet decided to close her business and retire. She lived in relative reclusiveness, avoiding most social events (something she had always done). She did, however, teach dressmaking and pattern cutting. She also worked for the Union Française des Arts du Costume (UFAC) and it was to them that she donated the entirety of her archive, including 120 dresses, 750 toiles and 75 copyright albums, drawings and account books.
‘I am a woman of the most extraordinary vitality. I have never been bored for a second. I have never been envious of anyone or anything, and now I have achieved a certain tranquillity.’