Madeleine Vionnet transformed the way in which designers approached the female figure. Eschewing the restrictiveness and rigidity of the corset, she favoured free-flowing silhouettes which accentuated the natural curves of a woman’s body. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, she revolutionised the fashion industry through her use of the bias cut, a technique of cutting on the diagonal grain of the fabric to give it a sinuous and stretchy quality. Previously confined to small and often hidden details of garment design, this cut became the defining feature of the 1930s female silhouette. Vionnet applied it to the entirety of a dress’s design, enabling the fabric to cling to women’s bodies without the support of padding, fastenings or buttons. This was a pivotal moment in dressmaking history, as it meant women could be elegant yet comfortable in their occasion wear, and appear feminine, yet be free to move around.
When Betty Kirke interviewed former employees of Vionnet’s fashion house on the Rue de Rivoli, they insisted she was a “technician” rather than a “designer”. Her bias-cut dress designs, though chic and simple in appearance, were highly complex and technical to execute. She did not sketch, but instead worked three-dimensionally on miniature dolls, cutting and pinning fabric to fit their form. She ordered fabric two yards wider than her original measurements to accommodate for extensive drapery, and left it to hang in her studio for a week to allow gravity to stretch it out to its full length. Once satisfied that the fabric was sufficiently stretched out that it would not warp over time, she re-created her designs on full-size models in the round. This corporeal approach to dress earned Vionnet the title “the architect of dressmakers”. Her mastery of the technicalities of fabric, and its potential to work with the natural curvature of the female figure, was unparalleled for decades to come.
The most striking aspect of Vionnet’s designs was the freedom of movement they allowed women. Inspired by ancient Greek sculpture, Vionnet used classical style drapery and folding to create a sense of motion and lightness in her dresses. As she said in an interview for French Vogue in 1974, “I proved that fabric falling freely on a body liberated from heavy armature was beautiful in and of itself… I attempted to bring to fabric a balance that movement in -no way altered, but rather magnified.” Far-removed from the support and structure of 19th century corsetry, her dresses took on the form of a silky second skin which moved gracefully with the bodies they covered.
In 1940 Vionnet’s label went into liquidation and her name faded quickly. However, for designers and dress historians her contribution to fashion will never be forgotten. As Azzedine Alaïa said, she was “the source of everything, the mother of us all”. Her ingenious use of the bias-cut to accentuate the natural female form changed the shape of fashion forever.
By Violet Caldecott