VIONNET, Madeleine

Born Aubervilliers, France, 1876.
Died Paris, 1975.

The name of Vionnet, though it is barely known outside, is legendary within fashion circles. Even today, designers who understand what dressmaking is really about see her in an undimmed light as one of fashion’s true immortals. Although she lived to be almost one hundred years old, she practised under her own name for less than twenty years. It was, however, during those years, in 1926, that she evolved a totally new way of manipulating fabric with her introduction of the bias cut. It is for this that she will always be remembered. Her unrivalled technical knowledge which enabled her to use cloth in such an original and strong way was based on a long and thorough training as a seamstress before she opened her own house.
Her apprenticeship began when she was twelve. By the time she was sixteen she was working in the rue de la Paix with a well-known dressmaker called Vincent. There she stayed until she was twenty. She married a Russian refugee called Nechvolodoff at eighteen, had a child who died, and was divorced when she was nineteen. The following year found her in London working in a tailor’s workroom in charge of twelve men. She remained in London for five years and, at the age of twenty-five, returned to Paris to take up a post with CALLOT SOEURS. She worked very closely with one of the sisters, Madame Gerber, for whom she made toiles. This woman profoundly influenced Vionnet, who considered her to be a great artist, greater even than POIRET. In 1907 Vionnet left Madame Gerber to join DOUCET. Here, she always claimed, she abolished corsets before Poiret. She presented clothes with mannequins who were barefooted or sandalled. In 1912 she opened her own house, but just as her success was growing, World War I forced her to close. It was not until 1922 that she re-opened, in large premises on the avenue Montaigne. She remained here until 1940 when the lease ran out. She quarrelled with her backer and decided to retire.
Vionnet’s approach to clothes was basically that of a classicist. As with GRÈS, draping was the foundation of her skill. She did not sketch. She worked directly with the material on a lay figure. Her skills with toiles, which she learned with Madame Gerber, enabled her to drape and cut with a unique flair and skill. She knew precisely what she could and could not achieve with fabric and scissors. Technically, she was probably without equal until the advent of BALENCIAGA.
Vionnet was happiest creating individual dresses for private customers, among them Mme. Citroën and the Rothschilds, but she also had to sell toiles to be copied in America and Europe, although she also worked tirelessly to prevent copyists stealing her ideas. Although she is remembered for her biascut, draped and handkerchief-pointed dresses, she never allowed her fashion intelligence to ossify. In 1934, sensing that she was out of step with the new roman
ticism resulting from MOLYNEUX'S costumes for The Barretts of Wimpok Street, she had the courage, determination and business sense to throw away her almost-completed collection, two weeks before her opening. She remade the entire collection and managed to show on time. She was the complete professional. Her understanding of fabric and the subtlety of her construction put her in the vanguard of dressmakers. Her 'looks' were clinging skirts, bare backs, fluttering crêpe de chine, satin evening dresses and superbly draped Grecian folds.
The influence of Vionnet on dressmaking techniques is unparalleled, and sprang from her philosophy that ‘you must dress a body in a fabric, not construct a dress’.