L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Gowns by Vionnet, 1937, 1938, 1939

Madeleine Vionnet (22 June 1876, Chilleurs-aux-Bois – 2 March 1975, Paris), one of the greatest, most innovative, most influential fashion designers of all time. Referred to as the "queen of the bias cut" and the "architect among dressmakers", she is best known for the simple elegance of her classically-inspired designs and for popularizing the bias cut; aided by the enthusiastic embrace of Hollywood, the bias cut became the look of the Thirties.

Born into a poor family, and with hardly any education, she began her apprenticeship as a seamstress at the age of twelve. After a brief marriage at eighteen and the loss of a child, she left her husband and went to London to work as a seamstress in a hospital. There, she began working as a fitter for the dressmaker Kate Reily, but eventually returned to Paris where she worked for six years at the fashion house of Callot Soeurs as a toile maker. (A toile is a designer's test garment; in the United States it is usually referred to as a "muslin".) Her own tastes were at odds with the often elaborately decorated Callot house style, but Vionnet always noted the importance of her years there, saying, "without the example of the Callot Soeurs, I would have continued to make Fords. It is because of them that I have been able to make Rolls Royces."

She went on to design for Jacques Doucet between 1907 and 1911, and in 1912 she opened her own house, only to close it two years later at the advent of World War I. But she re-established the house in 1923, opening new premises on the Avenue Montaigne. Only a few years after that she opened premises in New York. Her work was hugely influential, especially during the early Thirties. She was highly regarded by her fellow couturiers, and she led the fight for copyright laws in fashion. She also employed what were considered revolutionary labor practices at the time: paid holidays, maternity leave, day-care, a dining hall, and a resident doctor and dentist. She was forced to close her house once more, at the coming of World War II in 1939, and retired the next year. She lived for thirty-five more years, passing away at the age of ninety-eight.

Unlike her great contemporary Chanel, Vionnet had no taste for self-promotion, and that, combined with her early retirement, has had the result that her name is not as generally well known as it should be. But like Chanel, her designs have a timelessness that ensures that the particulars of line and drape and ornamentation that she created continue to reappear - again and again, year after year - in the work of her design successors; which of the gowns shown here would be wrong today, on any lovely, celebrated woman on any red carpet?

These designs are from some of her last collections. I love the subtle variations in the garments pictured - a particular skirt will have two different bodices - and the changing but consistently imagined ornamentation; there is sort of mutation in some of the patterning from dress to dress. (And I'm so glad we have access to some of the original photographic documentation, as the ugly mannequins and the flattened, wrinkled state of the surviving garments, in the more recent images here, most definitely do not show the dresses at they ought to be seen.)

The same dress as above, but looking quite a bit less fresh....


  1. Wonderful, too marvelous for words.
    In younger days I saw one of Mrs Vreeland's early exhibitions for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, devoted to "inventive clothing of the 10s, 20s, 30s" and the designer whose garments made the most quietly potent impression was, without question, Madame Vionnet. Interesting point, about her avoidance of self promotion in contrast to the relentless ambition of Chanel--not that I am dismissing Chanel's contribution for one moment!

    As an aside: when I was studying dressmaking at FIT in Manhalttan, the working muslins were indeed referred to as toiles--and though that was some time ago, it wasn't so remote a period as that expression would imply...

    1. I'm not at all surprised that you are a devoté of the great artist. And how wonderful to have been able to experience one--or more?--of Vreeland's legendary exhibitions; so many such things I've missed having lived almost entirely on the West Coast--a bit of a curse, at least in regard to Culture-with-a-capital-C!

      Dressmaking at FIT, eh? You may not be surprised to know that, in response to your intelligent and charming comments here, I was curious as to who you actually are and what you do, Mr. Worthington. But I have found you to be a most elusive presence on the internet. And I've certainly found no mention of dressmaking! In my very confused and confusing jeunesse, I came very near to attending San Francisco's FIDM, FIT's bastard country cousin (if that isn't being too soft/harsh), and got right to the point of signing papers before changing my mind. And thus ended my chances of being made suitable for any useful trade.

      (It also marked the end my education, which had been quite a poor one anyway. I did end up learning to sew and all that, at a junior college. Well enough that during the Eighties, and living in SF, I designed and made quite a lot of my own, sometimes outrageous, clothes. And well enough that two decades later I still had sufficient skill to be able to design and make my wife's really rather lovely wedding dress. It seems too preposterous to say, attached to a post about the divine Vionnet, but I really hope to be able to resume being a bit of a "monsieur modiste", and run up some other interesting things in my waning days...!)

  2. Oh my...I have never heard of her, thank you for sharing. LOVE these dresses, I can fantasize about wearing one now...thank you :)

  3. http://hcoakley.org/2paint/hcopp024.html#further
    thought you might find this interesting, Caleb Morris was my husbands Great Grandfather.

    1. Very interesting. I'd never heard of that painter.