Birthplace: Chilleurs-aux-Bois, France
Madeleine Vionnet was born along the Swiss border of France. She showed a prowess for math at an early age, but she quit school at the age of twelve to apprentice with a Parisian seamstress. At seventeen she moved to Paris and worked as an assistant at the House of Vincent. In 1895 she moved to London and assisted Kate Reilly, a house which purchased and copied French designs. In 1901 she returned to Paris and became the assistant to Mme. Marie Gerber, the oldest of the Callot Soeurs. Then she spent five years as a designer with Jacques Doucet. Her first Doucet collection consisted of lingerie dresses (deshabilles), uncorseted dresses which could be worn in public.
In 1912 she opened her own house. Although the house did well, she had difficulties with her financial manager and closed the house during World War I. The war years brought a much-needed break and allowed Vionnet to begin thinking about her innovations in dress design. She reopened in 1919 after the war and closed the house for a final time in 1939.
Madeleine Vionnet: The slip-like biased-draped dresses of Vionnet, which emphasized the human form, softly glided over the figure.
Her approach to design focused on the natural body. She wanted each garment to adapt uniquely to each wearer. Corsets and even interfacing got in the way of her emphasis on the human form, and she refused to use either of them. Compared to the rigid, corseted clothing of the 1910s, Vion-net's designs seemed like underwear worn as outerwear.
Vionnet was the master of the bias cut; her skill with bias earned her many devotees and copyists. Early in her career, beginning with some of her work at Callot Soeurs, she worked with merely hanging fabric on the bias. Later, her impressively inventive designs would be cut and sewn on the bias. Because of her knowledge of fabric, she preferred using silks, jerseys, crepe de Chine, crepe romain, and charmeuse. To accommodate her bias-cut designs, she had two-meter-wide fabrics made to her specifications. The ability of these designs to slip over the head of the wearer made them unique in an era of numerous buttons and hooks. Taking her devotion to bias cut even further, she became the first designer to place furs on the bias.
Another characteristic of Vionnet's designs was her use of geometry. Beginning after World War I, her designs used the rectangular silhouette, which was composed of a loose tube with a few darts for fitting. As her work evolved, she began to use geometric shapes for gussets and to create decorative seams. Much of this work was inspired by Cubism, an art movement popular during the 1910s and 1920s. All of Vionnet's designs were draped on a miniature model before a pattern would be made. This way she could ensure the proper drape for each of her complex designs.
Vionnet selected pale colors for most of her garments, and she chose decoration very carefully. She used beading, especially during the 1920s, and employed Marie-Louise Favot to design and oversee all of the beading. Vionnet preferred nature themes in decoration. Her favorite motif was the rose. Fringe, fur trim, handkerchief hems, woven panels, and accordion pleating were other common elements in her designs. Her frequent use of the cowl and halter necks helped popularize the two styles.
Vionnet's approach to the fashion business was as innovative as her designs. She opened a school in 1927 to teach new apprentices how to use the bias; the training program lasted three years. When she built a new building to house operations, she included a medical clinic and a gymnasium. She offered her employees free lunch, coffee breaks, paid vacations, and medical and dental care. Also, she personally arranged maternity leave for her workers.
Vionnet found herself plagued by copyists. To combat the theft of her designs, she housed a dying facility on premises to change colors just prior to an opening. Also, she was known to develop new designs just prior to a show. Knock offs were described as "Vionnet-inspired" or "Vionnet-cut,"
and by the end of the 1920s they were described as being from the "Vionnet School of Design."
Twice, Vionnet tried to capitalize on America's enthusiasm for her designs. In 1924 she formed Madeleine Vionnet, Inc., to sell one-size-fits-all dresses. The venture was initially successful, but she ended it in six months. Two years later she manufactured a line of forty ready-to-wear dresses. They were available in three sizes and nine colors for the price of $150 at John Wanamaker's. Although her ready-to-wear success was short lived, Vionnet's impact on fashion has endured. Designers such as Azzedine Alai'a, Geoffrey Beene, Halston, Claire McCardell, and Issey Miyake have been influenced by Vionnet. Also, her emphasis on the natural form ushered in a new approach to women's clothing during the 1920s and 1930s. See also: Callot Soeurs; Azzedine Alai'a; Geoffrey Beene; Halston; Claire McCardell; Issey Miyake.
Demornex, Jacqueline. Madeleine Vionnet. New York: Rizzoli, 1991. Kirk, Betty. Madeleine Vionnet. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999. Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. Couture: The Great Designers. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1985.
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