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Madeleine Vionnet – Sculptural Modeling

Madeleine Vionnet (1877-1975) French

Vionnet by Edward Steichen.

Madeleine Vionnet trained in the well known fashion houses of Callot Soeurs (Callot Sisters) and Jacques Doucet. While there she discovered a way to work with fabric that sealed her destiny.  Her influence is now seen in every slinky, body-skimming dress. She developed a style of three-dimensional cutting, using the three ways of fabric: lengthwise, crosswise, and bias. Cutting on bias is the practice of cutting cloth diagonal to the grain of the fabric that enables it to cling to and move with the wearer. To better accommodate the use of bias and to eliminate using multiple seams, Vionnet would order from her supplier fabrics that were two yards wider than usual for draping.

Silk day dress, 1920.

In 1912 she founded Vionnet, her own fashion house. She was one of the first designers (along with Poiret and Chanel) to liberate women from corsets. Her designs produced sensuously shaped, floating dresses with lowered waistlines that transformed Greek and Medieval inspirations into distinctly modern clothes made in silk, organdy, chiffon, velvet, and clinging lamé.

Evening dresses, 1938-39.

Unlike other designers of the times, her dresses defied copying. To obtain the patterns her designs would have to be unassembled and laid flat in order to be understood. Some of her dresses, shapeless on the hanger, only made sense when viewed on the body and some even required instructions to wear!

Wedding gown, 1929.

To learn more about her work and method, you can consult Vionnet by Betty Kirke and the book’s complementary Japanese volume with reproducible patterns and photos of their reproductions published by the Bunka Fashion College -Vionnet Research Group who studied and recreated the work of Vionnet according to Kirke’s researched methods. Another book, Patterns of Fashion 2: 1860-1940 by Janet Arnold includes five patterns from Vionnet. View a finished project here.

Silk evening dress, 1939.

Her style, innovations, and influence on fashion:

  • Through her reliance on bias cutting, she was the first to design a dress without fasteners that could be slipped on over the head.
  • The use of crepe de chine as a dress fabric when it was formerly only used for lining coats.
  • She pioneered innovative seam decoration with her visible seams sometimes forming star or flower shapes.
  • The elimination of interfacing in order to keep the fabrics and the silhouettes flexible.
  • Characteristic Vionnet inventions included the handkerchief dress, the cowl neckline, and the halter neck dress.

Hollywood Connection: She worked uncredited on 1931’s The Bachelor Father starring Marion Davies, fashion plate and tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s mistress. On the movie, she worked alongside fellow uncredited designers John Redfern, Captain Edward Molyneux, and Gilbert Adrian.

Home sewing connection: Found on the internet, one Vionnet designed pattern for the McCall pattern company in 1921. Unable to find out how many more she may have designed for the company.

Images: Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sources: Dressmakers of France, (1956) Mary Brooks Pickens, Dora Loues Miller; Secrets of the Couturiers, (1984) Frances Kennett; Fashion (2003) Christopher Breward; 100 Dresses, (2010) Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Who’s Who in Fashion (1980) Anne Stegemeyer.

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On , Dulcimer said: | brubakerville.com

This was a really educational and lovely post! I had never heard of Vionnet — thanks for introducing me to her.

On , Mary Beth @ ✄ Fabric U ✄ iPhone app said: | tinyurl.com

Vionnet also has a Chicago connection – Mrs. Potter Palmer wore a court presentation dress by her in 1938. Back to the dresses above…so many look so contemporary. My favorite would be the black with the bows, which seems to be a popular motif in the 1930s; you see it on a lot of fabric from that era.

On , the fabled needle (jen) said: | thefabledneedle.com

lovely post! i love hearing about women who are far beyond their time, trend-setters, etc.

i LOVE that sheer black dress with bows, it’s amazingly beautiful.

On , KB said:

The designs look current, even today!

On , Nathalie said:

Stunning and informative. Thank you!

On , Janine said:

I like the black bow dress also.