Classical Influences and Cutting on the Bias

In 1912 Vionnet opened her own house in the rue de Rivoli. It was closed, however, at the outbreak of war in 1914, and Vionnet moved to Rome for the duration. Her experience there, as well as her studies of ancient Greek art in museum collections, became another crucial aspect of her work. Classicism, both as an aesthetic and design philosophy, provided Vionnet with a language to articulate her belief in geometrical form, mathematical rhythm, and the strength of proportion and balance as a basis for the garments she created.

During the late teens Vionnet focused on the process of wrapping lengths of fabric onto the body in the style of the Greek chiton. Through these experiments she exploited the advances made in fabric technology during World War I that had produced yarns that could be made into more supple fabrics, and she had extra wide lengths of material created for her to allow even greater drape. Vionnet was thus able to push her examination of construction methods that not only draped but twisted fabric still further than before; moreover, she formulated the potential of the bias cut for which she is so often remembered. To do this she cut the fabric diagonally, across the grain, to produce a springy, elastic drape. Although cutting on the bias had been used for accessories and had been applied to fixed, molded dress forms, it had not been used this extensively for the body of a garment. Vionnet took an experimental leap forward in her desire to release both fabric and figure from the tight-fitting ethos of traditional Western dressmaking.

Vionnet reduced the use of darts, often eliminating them completely and therefore allowing bias-cut fabric to hover freely around the body. She also introduced lingerie techniques—such as roll-tucked hems or fagoting to disguise the line of a seam—to both day and evening wear. Her designs aimed for simplicity of overall form and impact, while they frequently employed complex construction techniques.

One of the most dramatically minimal of her designs was a dress from 1919-1920, now in the collection of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It demonstrates Vionnet's search during this period of her career for new ways to push the boundaries of the fabric while maintaining tight control over the ul timate hang of the garment. In this example she used four rectangles of ivory silk crêpe, two at the back and two at the front, held together at one point to form the shoulders of the dress. The rectangles hang down the body from these two points, to form two diamond forms of mobile fabric at front and back. Vionnet, in the act of turning the geometric shapes onto the diagonal for the final dress, swung the weave onto the bias. Thus the dress is stripped of dressmaking's usual devices to nip and sew the material for a "fit" with the body beneath; Vionnet instead used the movement released in the fabric to flow and drape around the wearer as she walked and danced. The deep drape of the fabric created vertical bands of light flowing down the figure. These elongated the silhouette, which was first blurred and then brought into relief as the wearer's movements caused the swathes of fabric to shift and form anew.

In Vionnet's hands the bias cut was a means to rethink the relationship between fabric and flesh. She constantly tested the methods she had learned during her early career, and her attention to anatomy led to her use of bias cutting not just to allow material to cocoon the figure, but to produce sophisticated forms of decoration. She varied the direction of the material's grain to encourage light to bounce off contrasting matte and shiny pattern pieces. The complexity of her construction techniques meant that her designs came alive only when worn or draped on the stand. They were conceived for the three dimensions of the body and cut to smooth over the figure: evening dresses dipped into the small of the back; day dresses slid under the clavicle to form a soft cowl neckline; and bias-cut fabric draped artfully to allow for the curve of the stomach or the arch of hip bones.

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