Le Couturier des Couturiers
How can you not want to emulate and/or follow in the path of a woman who had the uncommonly good sense to refrain from being seduced by the very business of seduction?
So intensely private was Madeleine Vionnet, dubbed the “couturier of couturiers”, she studiously avoided public displays and mundane frivolities, often expressing a dislike and contempt for the very hand that was feeding her — the alluring world of high fashion:
“Insofar as one can talk of a Vionnet school,
it comes mostly from my having been
an enemy of fashion.
There is something
superficial and volatile
about the seasonal and
elusive whims of fashion
my sense of beauty.”
Vionnet was not concerned with being the “designer of the moment”, preferring to remain true to her own vision of female beauty. She believed that “when a woman smiles, then her dress should smile too.”
Eschewing corsets, padding, stiffening, and anything that distorted the natural curves of a woman’s body, not to mention said woman’s essential comfort, her clothes were famous for accentuating the natural female form. Influenced by the modern dances of Isadora Duncan, Vionnet created designs that showed off a women’s natural shape. Like Duncan, Vionnet was inspired by ancient Greek art, in which garments appear to float freely around the body rather than distort or mold its shape.
“Taste is a feeling that makes all the difference between what is beautiful and what is merely showy – and also what is ugly!” the couturier Madeleine Vionnet once said. “It is transmitted from mother to daughter. But some people don’t need to be educated: they are innately tasteful. I think I am one of them.”
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Vionnet’s greatest distinction as a designer was her discovery of the bias cut. Cutting patterns along the bias forces the fabric to cling to the body and move with it, which created her trademark look of draped, form-conscious clothing.
When designer Issey Miyake first saw a Vionnet dress, it was like the first time he saw Winged Victory at the Louvre: “I thought then that the statue of Nike had been reincarnated in the dresses by Vionnet. She had captured the most beautiful aspect of classical Greek aesthetics: the body and movement.”
Though simple, her dresses were never plain; the use of a Cartier necklace as a halter strap is a classic Vionnet innovation. This inimitable combination of comfort and glamour made Vionnet’s clothes a favorite among European nobility, Hollywood royalty–notably Marlene Dietrich, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Katharine Hepburn–as well as socialites and other trendsetters. To this day, close to a century after its introduction, the bias cut remains an essential element in haute couture.
Vionnet’s mastery of sinuous line, proportion and, above all, how to dress the liberated and dynamic female body made her one of the most celebrated couturiers of her day, and one of the most influential on over three generations of designers. Cristobal Balenciaga, another master of purist form, considered Vionnet his great mentor and friend.
Model Marion Morehouse and unidentified model wearing dresses by Vionnet, 1930
This was a designer who toiled endlessly to liberate women from buttons, zips, corsetry and show-off embellishment. Hers was the language of extreme sophistication, where decorative elements such as rose motifs and fringes, drapes and twists formed the structure of her much-coveted dresses, rather than being mere appendages.
“Vionnet clothes appealed to the extremely sophisticated. The fabrics – silk tulle, crêpe de chine – were luxurious and the proportion and technique, perfectionist,” one expert noted. “The designs have a real presence – these were pieces that were not about prettiness but about beauty.”
Vionnet dress, 1938, made from silk tulle, panne velvet and horsehair, a silver lamé underdress and Lesage embroidery.
Her quietly sensual creations meant one had to have a strong sense of self to wear them. And, of course, only the wealthy would have been able to afford them.
“Designers make dresses,
artists make dreams”.
Each piece was developed without the traditional use of live models. Instead, and throughout her entire career, she chose to work directly with fabric on an articulated 2 ft. wooden mannequin. This created the necessary distance from the female body, encouraging a more formal vision and greater abstraction.
Without any drawing or preparatory sketch, the geometer of couture produced designs from three essential forms: the square, the rectangle, the circle. It was in the arrangement of these archetypal shapes, – which were slashed, pleated, gathered, twisted and knotted-, that her stylistic vocabulary found form and was expressed. Dresses without linings nor stays, without buttons nor hooks, making obsolete all the trimmings that had imprisoned women as if in shackles. Thus, the corset was blessedly eliminated.
Today, Madeleine Vionnet is considered one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century. Both her bias cut and her urbanely sensual approach to couture remain a strong and pervasive influence on contemporary fashion as evidenced by the collections of such past and present-day designers as Ossie Clark, Halston, John Galliano, Comme des Garçons, Azzedine Alaia, Issey Miyake and Marchesa.
It is thanks to her donation in 1952 to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs that you can, for the very first time in Paris, discover the masterpieces of her world renown work of which so little has been been revealed. Dresses, patron canvases, photographs, personal works…the first Parisian retrospective paying homage to Madeleine Vionnet is going on now, running through January, 2010 at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, which spans her work from the setting up of her house in 1912 to the glory years of the Thirties.
Fellow blogger Silent Storyteller who had the good fortune to witness the exhibit first hand, was so mesmerized, she made three, yes, three separate excursions to see the work of the world’s most renowned dressmaker.
I find the idea that these dresses, that were worn for one evening 70 to 90 years ago are now exhibited on mannequins for [eight] months. There’s something quite lovely in that, don’t you think?
Les Arts Décoratifs
107 rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris