The year was 1914 and Madeleine Vionnet had just established her own maison of couture. She was already a seasoned dressmaker—she’d begun her first apprenticeship at age 11 nearly 30 years earlier—by the time World War I came banging down France’s door, and the designer responded by shuttering her own and fleeing to Rome. It might have been devastating timing for a lesser designer, but closing her Parisian atelier just two years after opening it provided the catalyst for Vionnet’s greatest inspirational encounters.
Once in Italy, Vionnet found herself immersed in the arts of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Those works became a fascination that would provide the basis of her style aesthetic from the time she returned to Paris and re-established her maison in 1919 until she died on this day in 1975, at the indomitable age of 98 years old. “I like to look at old costumes and fashions of times gone by because of what they say about their times,” Vionnet explained in an interview published in French Vogue a month after her death. Vionnet’s designs were, “not for fashion,” she explained. “I only like that which lasts forever.” Certainly the flowing drapery and dynamic swaths of cloth that covered women in antiquity inspired her work, but Vionnet did more than give rise to a second renaissance for the classical era.
The genius behind Vionnet’s fluid yards of silks and chiffons, crepes and satins lay in the fresh way she cut those luxurious fabrics: The bias cut. Contrary to the practice of other dressmakers, Vionnet cut fabric not on the grain, but at a 45-degree angle to it. As a result, her silks, chiffons, crepes and satins gained a natural elasticity that followed the natural curves of the female body. It was an inspiration that literally changed the silhouette of ladies dress. The new bias-cut brought a simplified ease to dressing, and it also brought its infamous body-clinging nature, the best of which was exhibited on Hollywood starlets such as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow, who all wore Vionnet’s designs. The essence of Vionnet’s sensibility was captured in 1931 by Vogue photographer George Hoyningen-Huene—the swirling yards of fabric enveloping the model evoking a modern-day Nike.
Vionnet was one of several designers in the first decades of the 20th-century working to free the female form from the constrictions of the corset—including Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel. In 1924, Vionnet told the New York Times: “The best control is the natural one—the muscle corset—which practically any woman can have by exercising. I do not mean some burdensome exercise, but something you like to do that makes you healthy and happy. It is also important that we be happy.”
Vionnet continued to create her classically inspired gowns until August 2, 1939, the date the last collection would be shown at the Vionnet maison, after which she closed up shop thanks to the Nazi’s invasion of France. Where the first World War did nothing but inadvertently provide fuel for her passion, the second World War marked the retirement of Vionnet. Over the next thirty years, Vionnet continued to live in Paris and mentor other designers, including Jacques Griffe. Like the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome—the muses of her creations—Vionnet’s designs remain as awe-inspiring today as they were a century ago. —Katrina Ernst
Credits: Top Mme. Vionnet herself, photographer unknown. All other images by George Hoyingen-Huene. Second from top, Left: Light green chiffon dress with shirred waist and scalloped hem, 1932; and Right: pajamas in pink crepe romaine, 1931. Third from top: Classical Greece-inspired white muslin directoire dress, 1938. Bottom: Left: Dress in white crepe with violet sash, 1932. Right: Asymmetrical dress photographed by Hoyningen-Huene for Harper’s Bazaar, 1936.