Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975)
Progressive business owner, textile innovator, liberator of the body
“I tried, just like for the woman, to free the fabric from the constraints that were imposed on them. Both seemed to me to be slandered victims. I proved that fabric falling freely on a body, without any armour, was the most harmonious sight.” claimed Madeleine Vionnet. (1)
Crepe pajamas by Madeleine Vionnet, 1931 (5)
Madeleine Vionnet was born near Paris in 1876. Despite being a gifted student, she was forced to quit school at the age of 12 to become the apprentice of a dressmaker. After working in London and Paris at Callot Soeurs and at Jacques Doucet, she founded her own fashion house in 1912. She spent her career revolutionizing the use of fabric in fashion, the life of women, and the workers' rights standards.
While Poiret is usually credited for removing the corset, fashion historians such as Georges Vigarello (specialist of the body and of the dress), agree that Vionnet was in fact at the origin of this innovation. The corset had been perceived for centuries as an elegance requirement. Like a number of her contemporaries from the beginning of the 20th century, she saw it as a source of pain, limiting the woman’s ability to move and work. Freeing the body down to the toes, she even had models present her creations barefoot.
Madeleine Vionnet's logo, designed by Ernesto Thayaht in 1919 (6)
Her epurated designs were inspired by her fascination for Greco-Roman construction techniques, in which a rectangle of fabric is draped and tied with fibules, but never sewn. She saw it as a matter of geometry: a flat piece of fabric is turned into a piece of architecture on the body. She aimed at doing the same in her practice and developed very peculiar design techniques. Among them was the use of the bias cut, that had until then exclusively been reserved to linings. She removed the lining from most of her creations, and made cutting in the bias the basis of her technique. Thus, the fabric would fall fluidly, close to the body. The dress would adapt to the body rather than shape it in an artificial way — like the dance costumes of her model, Isadora Duncan.
Evening gown by Madeleine Vionnet, photographed by Man Ray in 1937
But her innovations went beyond fashion creativity. She established a copyright system — still in use to this day — in a field in which infringing was the rule. (3) She gave a series number and took pictures of each of her models, signing them and going as far as applying her finger print.
Finally, she took action in favor of her thousand employees’ rights. She raised their salaries and gave them paid vacation leaves, sick leaves and pregnancy leaves long before the French law made it mandatory. In 1936, when the country was mobilized in order to get the rights Vionnet already gave her workers, she encouraged them to demonstrate along with the rest of the population by solidarity. (4) She made space for a cafeteria and a kindergarten within the couture house and hired a dentist and a doctor for her employees and their families. Last but not least, she organized classes for her young apprentices, making sure that beyond sewing techniques, they learn grammar and mathematics.
Madeleine Vionnet working on her small wooden manikin (7)
Her legacy is largely recognized among fashion historians, and many designers pay her tribute. "Vionnet was a laboratory of the cut. I am searching for her shadow," said Yohji Yamamoto ; while Karl Lagerfeld stating "Everyone, whether they want it or not, is influenced by Vionnet." However, her social rights pioneering is rarely discussed and she has been forgotten by the general public. If such a successful person didn’t make it through history, one may wonder what happened to the memory of her fellow women fashion designers. So here are a few names to remember: Muriel King, Callot Sœurs, Jessie Franklin Turner, Claire McCardell, Pauline Trigère, Elsa Schiaparelli, Madame Grès, Foale & Tuffin (Marion Foale & Sally Tuffin)...
Dress by Madeleine Vionnet, date unknown
To go further :
Colin McDowell, “Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975)”, Business of Fashion, August 23, 2015 Grace Gordon, “10 Influential Fashion Designers That Time Forgot”, Savoir Flair, June 14, 2016 “Sleeping in the Archives : The Met’s Forgotten Fashion Brands”, Messy Nessy Chic, October 11, 2019
1. Madeleine Vionnet in “Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975), Sculpter les apparences”, Podcast Toute une Vie, France Culture , February 22, 2020 The English translation of the quote is mine.
4.In 1936 took place massive workers strikes throughout France, which brought to significant social advances decided by the Front Populaire, the socialist and communist coalition leading the country at the time.
5. Crepe pajamas by Madeleine Vionnet, 1931 6. Madeleine Vionnet's logo, designed by Ernesto Thayaht in 1919, "File:Madeleine Vionnet, puriste de la mode (lesartsdecoratifs).jpg" by Will is licensed under CC BY 2.0
7.Madeleine Vionnet working on a small model form, picture from “Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975)”, Business of Fashion, August 23, 2015
Iris Favand is a fashion designer based in Paris. Before pursuing a fashion degree at Parsons, New York, she studied humanities and art history. Her practice is driven by her love of fashion history and by her convictions on gender equality.