Hofdame Note: Great minds think alike, don’t they say? Just before publishing this, one of my favorite Twitter accounts published a blog post that goes into much greater detail on the designer than we do. Read An Art Historian Around Town’s entry here!
Madeleine Vionnet was born in Loiret, France, in 1876. She is one of the most influential fashion designers of the twentieth century, but few contemporary people have heard of her.
Vionnet began her first design apprenticeship at age twelve and eventually spent six years working for Callot Soeurs before branching out onto her own business. The enterprise had fits and starts, closing entirely during World War I. However, Vionnet regrouped and, in the twenties, began anew.
Vionnet’s design process was complicated. A true design innovator, she introduced the bias cut, already used in skirt design, into dresses. The result was figure-flattering and flowing. She used bolts of fabric that were two yards wider than usual to accommodate the draping of her products. She began many designs by pinning the material to miniature dolls, often finishing by fitting the design on live models.
In 1925, Vionnet established a storefront on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, and a ‘satellite’ store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. She was known as a trailblazing boss, lobbying for copyrights for designs and setting shorter labor hours for her employees.
Her 1920s designs were well-received by the wealthy women in her clientele, but her 1930s designs established her as a design powerhouse. Her 1930s bias-cut gowns flattered the female form while allowing for freedom of movement. The designer was inspired by dancers like Isadora Duncan. She firmly rejected any padding or corseting and let the luxe materials and simple designs shine. This philosophy can be seen in the design and execution of the iconic 1936 Carnival dress. (Really, you need to click on the link! The dress is great.)
This 1938 court presentation dress shows how revolutionary her work had become. Think of the thick, heavy, intricate gowns other designers produced for that type of event, and compare them to this airy number.
We are fortunate that the Duchess of Windsor was such a clotheshorse because she was guaranteed to have a few pieces from the popular designer in her wardrobe. The Duchess wore the Vionnet day dress below in 1938 for a photo shoot. The gold evening gown, shown below on the right, was lent by the Duchess to an exhibit, “Paris Openings” and is now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Vionnet herself had no real appetite for the marketing and self-promotion necessary to thrive in the design industry. She closed her business in 1940, but her career had been prolific. She produced over 12,000 designs over the course of three decades and influenced generations of designers. You can see the impact of Vionnet in the work of Halston, Azzedine Alaia, and John Galliano.
Want to know more? The V & A has a comprehensive piece with some beautiful photos.