(This essay was originally written for my independent study: Early 20th Century Formal Wear THEA 4300 on May 4th 2017.)
Madeleine Vionnet was a designer in the early 20th century whose contributions to the fashion world were most prevalent in the decade before her retirement in 1939. She is credited with inventing bias cut gowns and had her own fashion house from 1912 to 1939. Vionnet was a cutting edge employer of her time, providing many benefits to her employees that are still lacking nowadays. She was also known as quite the recluse and did not spend much time with clients or other designers, preferring to work alone in her study.
Born on June 22, 1876 to a poor family in Chilleurs-aux-Bois, Vionnet went on to start her seamstress apprenticeship at the age of twelve. When she was eighteen she was married for a short time, but lost the child that came of that union and ultimately left her husband to go to England as a hospital seamstress.
In England, Vionnet found further work as a seamstress when she became a fitter for the court dressmaker, Kate Reilly. Vionnet was able to learn more of the ins and outs of her trade and the styles of her home country, as Reilly was famous for re-creating French designs. This was Vionnet’s first experience with the insidious phenomena of the fashion world to unabashedly copy each others garments. It is, perhaps, part of what caused her to fight so readily against it later in her life.
In 1900, she returned to Paris and found work at the couture fashion house Callot Souers. She started off as a toile maker (a maker of muslin mockups) but after a disagreement with the manager of the house, that was resolved by the eldest Callot, she received a promotion. She then worked alongside Marie Callot Gerber and began designing the draping of garments under her supervision. Vionnet worked at Callot Souers for 6 years, and when she discussed this time later in her life she was quoted as saying that "without the example of the Callot Soeurs, I would have continued to make Fords. It is because of them that I have been able to make Rolls Royces" (Polan and Tredre, 13 – 14).
At the end of this six years, Vionnet was scouted by designer Jacques Doucet who was looking for someone to rejuvenate his brand and design a collection that appealed to a younger clientele. He ultimately lured her away and she designed a collection that was shown without corsets or shoes on any of the models, an inspiration from the dance sensation of the time, Isadora Duncan. Duncan performed without shoes in very simple shifts, and she inspired many designers of this period. Vionnet was with Doucet from 1907 to 1911, but ultimately the elegant but simple and unembellished cut of her garments clashed with the style of the house, which leaned far more towards elaborate and lavish clothing.
In 1912, Vionnet opened her own-name fashion house at 222 Rue de Rivoli and amassed quite a large following before closing her doors at the beginning of the first World War. Like many privileged artists of the time, she spent the war years in Rome and returned in 1919 to open her doors again.
By 1923, she had established such a large clientele that she was able to open a new headquarters for her fashion house at 50 Avenue Montaigne. Here, she was able to employee over one thousand employees, and the premises became known for a time as the “temple of fashion”.
The truly exemplary history of the Vionnet fashion house has only in part to do with the designer and garments produced. The greater part of Vionnet’s legacy was the conditions that she kept for her many workers. There was a resident doctor and dentist for her employees, as well as a daycare, paid maternity leave and holidays, and a subsidized dining hall. She revolutionized labour practices of the time, and her standards are still not upkept by some major fashion houses in our current times.
By 1925, the brand was large enough for Vionnet to open a shop on 5th Avenue in New York City. She is credited as being one of the first designers to sell ready to wear garments from Paris in New York. They would be purchased and could be tailored at the store, but they were already constructed before they arrived. These were referred to as “off the peg” garments.
By the 1930’s, Vionnet’s bias cut gowns were dominating the world of fashion. They clung to women’s natural curves and were perfect for the renewed femininity that was rampant in haute couture following the boyish cuts of the 1920’s flapper era. Her gowns appeared on many famous women including Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich.
Her success built rapidly throughout that decade, culminating in her main fashion house with its thousand employees, and 26 smaller ateliers. However, the onset of the second World War in 1939 caused her to close her shop in Paris. She then retired in 1940 and dissolved her label, but kept 120 dresses for her own archive, as well as 750 mock-ups, and 75 copyrighted album that contained all her drafting, designs, and photographs of her work.
Vionnet’s choice to be rather withdrawn from the world of fashion, and the liquidation of her company following her retirement, caused her work to be rather forgotten following the war. Styles changed so quickly in the 20th century that she was rather forgotten until the late 1970’s when Diana Vreeland created an exhibit on Parisian fashion from the 1920’s and 30’s.
Vionnet, the brand, has been revived several times in the last years, most recently by Goga Ashkenazi. Ashkenazi took a majority stake in the company, and has since acquired it completely. She uniquely heads both the creative and business portions of the company, and is inspired to renew this historic brand to its former glory.
Other modern designers who have taken inspiration from Vionnet include Ossie Clark, Halston, John Galliano, Comme des Garçons, Azzedine Alaia, Issey Miyake and Marchesa.
Madeliene Vionnet was truly a game changer in the world of fashion in the early 20th century. Her biggest contribution to 1930’s fashion, that we will look more in depth at now, was her popularizing the bias cut for the entirety of a gown.
Before Vionnet, cutting on the bias when making a garment was reserved only for trim, collars, and detailing work. She is often credited as inventing the bias cut, which is not true, but she did popularize the use of that cut in all areas of the garment. Before her, it was used merely for bits and bobs to create more flow, but following Vionnet it could be used for the entire gown. She was so inspired by the Greeks that she sought to capture the same fluidity in her garments that she saw in theirs. She was also exceptionally put off by stays and corsets, wishing for her garments to truly accentuate the natural curves of the female body.
Her bias cut gowns truly changed the game in the 1930’s. Corsets were done away with for good, and her gowns were even able to be put on over the head as the bias cut allowed them to stretch over the body and not require clasps of any kind. Some of her gowns were famously known for having a single seam, for they had been draped so impeccably as to not require more than one.
In terms of draping, Vionnet was an absolute master. She was famous for having 80 cm mannequins, which were exactly half the size of the human body, that she used to practice draping garments on before she would recreate them in full size. Both she and her trusted business partner, Marielle Chapsal, had a mannequin in their adjoining workspaces that they used to make up perfect to scale toiles that would then be sent out to the many ateliers to be copied into full-sized, realized garments for sale. This was not a common practice of the time, and she became well known for this. Some of her mannequins are still preserved in museums today with some of the toiles she created.
Her preferred fabrics to use in garment making were crêpe, crêpe de chine, gabardine and satin, that she got woven specifically 2 yards wider than the eras normal lengths of fabric to accommodate for her chosen bias cut and draping.
Vionnet is credited with inventing many of the classic 1930’s silhouettes that come to mind today, such as the cowl neck, the handkerchief dress, and the halter top. All of these were close fitting and sensual, which suited the period greatly.
Vionnet’s designs heavily influenced the fashion world at this time, but of course her designs were also influenced by the socio-economic changes of the decade. The sultry, fluid dresses she was making were very popular in this time because the world was seeing a turn back to the styles of the hyper-feminine. The 1920’s had seen women looking boyish, following a time of female independence in the first World War, silhouettes had come to reflect women’s status as being a part of the “male” community. That suited the roaring twenties in a post-war fueled economy, but the 1930’s saw a turn back to the more traditional feminine female silhouette as society too became likewise more traditional in the wake of the great depression. The people who had celebrated to excess in the twenties, now moved away from such vices in the thirties as this tragedy befell them.
Clothing, as it always does, followed suit to the changing mood of these times. Evening wear returned to being floor length and regal, though embellishments of the previous decade, such as fringe and beading, was still around for some time.
Vionnet’s designs were also suited to the time because of the sparsity of fabric involved. As mentioned earlier, many of her dresses were famous for being made in such as way as to only have one seam. They were not the decadent creations that had consumed the rest of the 20th century, they were garments that utilized little in a time when there was little to go around. Of course, the clientele of people purchasing true Vionnet’s would not have struggled with a scarcity of fabric, but those who may have been making their own clothes at home would have benefitted from these designs that lacked in excessive volume.
Vionnet truly defined fashion during the 1930’s with her designs and inspirations, but she also defined the entire fashion world for years to come with her work on plagiarism and copyrighting in the fashion world.
She saw how easily French designs were being plagiarized in the Americas and believed it to be unjust. She herself, was particularly a victim of this, due to her wide-spread success. In 1921, she founded the The Association for the Defence of Fine and Applied Arts and began to try and protect artists and their designs. A year later, she published a statement saying that “The Madaleine Vionnet models are registered and published in France…She will pursue any copyright or counterfeit, even partial, made in this regard of her rights.” She kept scrupulous records of her own work and garments, photographing each one from the front, back, and side. She also named and numbered each item and was famous for marking the label of each garment with her own fingerprint to stop imitations from being made.
Other couturiers followed her lead and blacklists of clients were made up. These were lists of clientele that was suspected of purchasing key designs to be given to manufacturers at other companies. Vionnet fought against these practices until her retirement and is one of the most well known designers when it comes to fighting for artistic credit in the early 20th century.
Madeleine Vionnet was truly a game changer to fashion in the 20th century. She popularized bias cut gowns, and clothing free of underpinnings or fasteners and was key in “ridding women of the corset”. She revolutionized labour practices, and was known as being one of the best employers of the early 20th century. She also fought for copyright laws in her industry and cut down on plagiarism of garments between Europe and America. She was an inspired designer and her contributions to the world of fashion are visible in everything from halter tops to this years Met Gala.
Buxbaum, Gerda. Icons of Fashion: The 20th Century. Munich: Prestel, 1999. Print.
FashionModelDirectory.com, The FMD -. "Madeleine Vionnet - Fashion Designer | Designers | The FMD." The FMD - FashionModelDirectory.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.
Kirke, Betty, and Issei Miyake. Madeleine Vionnet. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 2012. Print.
"Madeleine Vionnet." Vionnet. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.
"Madeleine Vionnet." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Apr. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.
Mahe, Yvette. "History of Haute Couture: Madeleine Vionnet." History of Fashion. N.p., 01 Sept. 2013. Web. 04 May 2017.
McDowell, Colin. "Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975)." The Business of Fashion. N.p., 23 Aug. 2015. Web. 04 May 2017.
Polan, Brenda, and Roger Tredre. The Great Fashion Designers. Oxford: Berg, 2009. Print.
Vionnet, Madeleine, and Jacqueline Demornex. Madeleine Vionnet. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Print.
I am definitely gearing up to talk about body positivity here, but before I get started, let me just say that more important than all of us feeling good about our bodies, is all of us having the freedoms and rights to be treated equitably in our bodies. It is vital and important that we all unlearn the hate we may have for ourselves, but it is more necessary that institutional oppression centered around the body be fought against and deconstructed until none of us are denied respect, rights, or services based on what we look like or what we’re able to do. If these greater issues are something you want to learn about (and you should want to learn), then check in at the bottom of this post for people to follow on twitter who are amazing educators on body politics.
But back to our own personal relationships with our bodies, an idea that has become greatly talked about in the age of watered down body positivity.
My relationship with my body is something I have taken very seriously since the first moment I realized I had one (realized I had a body that is). I think I was relatively late to realizing that I had a body that exists outside of my experience of it. Or maybe I was really early? I’ve not run into a lot of people who had a similar experience to mine. I think most people fall into one or the other categories of “have always known I had a body outside myself” or “will never experience this feeling because there are no societal pressures on my body and/or I’m oblivious”.
Let me explain a little more. Obviously, I have always known I had a body, I just didn’t always think about the fact that others see and form opinions about me based on my body and how it looks. This fact just plain-old passed me by until the first day of grade 8, when sitting at my desk with my shorts on, thighs stuck to my plastic chair due to the humidity of a Northern Ontario September day, it suddenly hit me that other people could see me! They might even be thinking about me! They were maybe watching me try to peel my legs off the chair and move them to a different, less sticky spot. I was absolutely flabbergasted by this realization. I wish I could tell you why a relatively smart kid took until the age of 13 to figure out that other people saw her and thought about her, but I can’t.
All I know is that at that moment, with the teacher droning on in the background, sweat accumulating between my legs and the ugly maroon chair, I had my first moment of self-doubt about what other people might be thinking of me. Then seconds later, I had my first thought of who the hell cares (except, not hell because I wouldn’t have used a bad word, even in my head). This sparked a decade of working actively to remind myself that my body was my own and anyone else’s thoughts on it were unnecessary and unwanted (unless they were compliments, those are welcome). I waged war on my own feelings of inadequacy, and it was an easy battle tbh. I was a confident kid, who felt that caring about how others perceived me was a waste of time. Now, I can recognize that a lot of that ease came from privilege. I was an able bodied, thin, white girl. There weren’t exactly a lot of road blocks on the way to feeling good about myself. I may not be an identical match to magazine celebrities, but I’m not a lot different either. I could also just never find enough energy to care that much about my body. That, plus my work to deliberately not care anytime I felt differently, have resulted in a pretty easy road to feeling generally okay about myself at any given time.
I’m was very lucky and I felt that, until this privilege became a road block to understanding how other people felt about their bodies. Specifically, when my 8-year-old sister started talking about whether she was fat or not (she was not fat).
(I will get to the part about eyebrows eventually, I promise)
I was just devastated the first time she said something to me about her appearance. She was 8! I was crushed that no matter how good I felt about myself, I couldn’t bottle that and give it to everyone, I couldn’t even give it to the people I loved most in the world, to the child I love who looked at me and said “I can’t go into the store with you because I look fat in these pants”.
That’s part of what made me realize that the way I feel has to be reflected in the language I use to discuss bodies. It has to inspire my own inquiry into how others feel about theirs. It has to drive my actions in how I treat those with bodies different, or the same, as my own.
That brings me to eyebrows. There are lots and lots of things that I feel neutral about with my body (the ideal way to think about your body imo). My eyebrows are not one of them. Since I was a small child, barely more than a babe, I have had a total unibrow. Not even a sleek, fresh one (there are probably really sculpted, every-hair-in-place ones?). I have an absolutely wild, out of control single eyebrow that spans my face. In all my, “we should all be comfortable in our bodies” attitude, I didn’t feel that bad about having one thing I regularly changed. Plucking my eyebrows seemed super fine and normal.
Until my sister started being upset about hers.
Overall, she has a much more fraught relationship to her body than I do. She has long thought about the way she looks to others, starting at age 8 and just going from there (maybe even for longer than that, 8 is just when she started telling those thoughts to us). There has never been a lot of ways that I can relate to her on these issues. I’m 12 years older than her, and her half sister. We’re separated by age, experience, personality, and just our general, physical look. She looks so much like her mom, and I look so much like mine, and there are big differences between us.
So when she first said “My eyebrows look wild and not normal” I was like, ah ha! Finally, it was a thing we could relate about! I too, had wild eyebrows and cared about them a lot. So I said, “hey! Me too!”
“No you don’t,” she said “Just look at them, yours look nice and mine look bad”
Ah, she caught me. Mine did look nice.
“But mine used to look like yours,” I said “They looked like yours for my whole childhood, they’d still look like yours if I didn’t pluck them”
“You don’t get it,” she said.
It didn’t matter to her that mine used to look bad. She was a kid, the only thing that mattered was right now. And I just couldn’t stand that she felt so bad about hers. Here was our one relatable issue, where me, with all my fun, positive vibes should have been able to be like “nah, don’t even worry about it, I’m the same and I don’t” and I couldn’t, because she was right and we weren’t the same, and I did worry about it.
So I stopped plucking my eyebrows.
I figured, if my relationship with my body is supposedly so great, then I should be able to withstand having wild eyebrows. If this is what it takes to relate to my sister on this 1 (one!) issue that we share, then I’m going to do it. And boy, has it almost killed me.
Like whew, I would love to pluck my eyebrows. I miss not looking like Frida Kahlo lent her eyebrows to a small, Canadian woman. But so be it. When I first told my sister that I was going to stop, she was pretty nonchalant and doubtful, like “Cool, Becca, what does it have to do with me”. But when we started to look the same, even in that little way, she was happy. When we talked about our eyebrows, she felt like I got her.
I still have trouble with my eyebrows. They’ve grown in particularly wonky with the changes that have come with years of plucking. They are less “unibrow” and more “sparse odd hairs between two brows because you plucked them so much not all the hairs will grow back”. But they still make her happy. Anytime I think about changing them now, I have to think “is it worth not relating to my sister? Is it worth telling her that I think I don’t look good, so she must not look good either?”
Sometimes, I get the impression that contemporary (and crappy) body positivity would have us believe that the ultimate goal is doing what’s best for us and what’s best for how we feel about ourselves. Will it make you feel good to pluck your eyebrows? Then do it! And to a certain extent, I agree. But also, change will never occur, and no one will ever feel comfortable doing things differently, if there aren’t people who go outside the norm. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like, things that we’re not comfortable with, so the people coming after us will feel comfortable doing it.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the way my eyebrows are now. I don’t know if anything that I’m doing will make my sister happy with hers. I don’t really know if this matters in the grand scheme of things. But for now, I’m keeping my wild eyebrows. Just in case.
People to Follow:
Stephanie Yeboah – Amazing UK based influencer and absolute twitter fiend. All her takes are the right ones and you should probably be reading her work right now because it’s god tier knowledge about the body and fat politics movements.
Your Fat Friend – If you need to unlearn your fatphobic opinions (and you probably do) then this is your beginning, middle, and end of learning. The work being done by YrFatFriend is tough, touching, and necessary to read for anyone who is not fat.
Keah Brown – Keah is an amazing writer who has a book coming out next year. She created the hashtag #disabledandcute and the knowledge she imparts about disability is essential body politics learning.