This label, direct from our Special Exhibitions gallery, describes the incredible work of Madeleine Vionnet:
Some of the most awe-inspiring garments of the interwar years were created in the hand-sewing ateliers of Madeleine Vionnet. Under the guidance of Georgette Petit, former premiere for Coco Chanel, the Vionnet workrooms pushed the limits of technical design. Two outstanding examples are dresses whose gossamer surfaces are ornamented with minute pin tucks. Vionnet and her staff had to precisely calculate the amount of fabric needed, as there was no seam allowance for alterations. This complex blend of patternmaking and surface ornamentation has rarely been surpassed.
Dating to the spring of 1930, the ivory chiffon dress subtly illustrates Vionnet’s excellence at manipulating a garment’s ground fabric in order to create surface ornamentation. At first glance, it is difficult to see that the roses on the bodice were created entirely of tiny, hand-rendered pintucks. The bodice is made from four pieces of fabric – its bottom half is one piece, cut on the straight grain and laid horizontally across the lower torso, while the top half is two panels, one front and one back, with an extra piece of material attached to extend the self-scarf in back. (The scarf panel in front is cut from the front bodice.) The V-shaped neckline was created by slashing the ground fabric in front and back, while tiny gathers at the shoulders shape the top above the bust line. The overall width of the front panel is precisely calculated so that there is enough fabric allowance to make the roses. The double circle skirt is made from four pieces of fabric cut on the straight grain, then sewn together on the sides with greater fullness in front than in back. This use of quadrants is a remarkable Vionnet innovation that came about only because the couturier draped all her own designs and worked out this precise form of construction.
Mears goes on to describe the Vionnet dress pictured above:
Like the ivory version, the black chiffon dress, circa 1930 is a mind-boggling example of how a garment’s ground fabric can be engineered to create ornamentation. However, unlike the lyrical rose pattern on the ivory dress, the minuscule pintucks of the black dress are lined up in long, parallel rows along the straight grain. The fabric is draped on the bias so that the rows encase the torso in a diagonal swirl. The rows then turn at sharp angles across the grain. The resulting linear pattern is mitered, but quite unlike the bold and graphic look used by other designers, Vionnet’s mitering has the ephemeral quality of cobwebs.
Betty Kirke, a costume historian who, from 1979-1991, served as senior conservator at the Museum at FIT and professor in the FIT graduate fashion & textile studies program, published an extraordinary study of Vionnet’s work, including patterns constructed from detailed studies of actual dresses from the couturier’s collections. In this article for Threads Magazine, Ms. Kirke recounts part of her journey to know Vionnet’s designs on a fundamental level, a dedication that spans over twenty years.
Kirke sought to understand Vionnet from the very basis of her craft: innovative patternmaking and sewing techniques. Rather than seeing geometry as an escape into abstraction, Vionnet used geometric principles to enhance and elevate the human body. Her geometric lines do not deny, or seek to dictate or curb, the curvilinear form of the human body; rather they coalesce in dresses which comfortably envelop the body in elegantly flowing tracery. As Kirke notes, Vionnet united principles of shape, fit, cut, design, and decoration into “one cohesive unit.”
From the book Madeleine Vionnet, Ms. Kirke:
As [Vionnet] said, ‘the body doesn’t have seams.’ … Vionnet thought more of concave and convex areas rather than sides and parts. For example, she switched fronts with backs, inserted gussets for fit, and extended one part to the next at a common side. This gave her much freedom in draping. The result for the wearer of a Vionnet dress was that the dress fit well, moved well, and possessed aesthetic elegance beyond its two-dimensional form.
In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Patricia Mears details the magnificent crafting of this cutwork dress by Vionnet, on view now in our exhibition:
The simplicity of this dress’s square neckline, papillon sleeves, and full skirt belie its complexity. It seems likely that Vionnet would have cut the simple skirt – two half circles in which the bottoms of both halves have had extra material added for length – from a single piece of fabric had the material been wide enough. Vionnet’s co-designer, Chaumont did not always use extraordinarily wide widths of fabric because they were not readily available (although some silk crepes, such as Bianchini-Férier’s celebrated crepe romain, were available in widths of one-point-four and two meters).
Each tiny ovoid hole is overcast with minuscule, evenly calibrated stitches. Even though the dress is refreshingly modern, the scope of workmanship in this single garment is almost unthinkable today. While the lace-like fabric, rendered completely by hand, makes this garment a tour de force, its construction has a breezy restraint similar to that of the gowns by Chanel and Mainbocher.
And with that, we’ll conclude with words from the beloved virtuoso herself:
“The couturier should be a geometrician, for the human body makes
geometrical figures to which the materials should correspond.”
“If a woman smiles, her dress must also smile.”
For more Vionnet at MFIT, visit our online collections. Until next time, tweet about the exhibition with #1930sFashion.