By Philippa Campsie

Avenue Montaigne, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Barbara Redmond

Three women dominated fashion in the 1920s and 1930s–Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Madeleine Vionnet. Yves St Laurent named all three as the biggest influences on his own career and sense of style. Chanel’s name is as famous as ever, Schiaparelli is remembered for her surrealistic designs and for “shocking pink,” but Vionnet…? Who was she?

If you’d asked us that question a year ago, we’d have been mystified, but in August 2009 we went to an exhibit of her fashions at the Musée de la Mode in Paris (housed in part of the Louvre complex), and saw dozens of her elegant bias-cut dresses. We wanted to know more.

Couturières: Chanel, Schiaparelli and Vionnet

It turns out that Vionnet was every bit as important as Chanel in the years before the Second World War. The two couturières were celebrated for their innovations and their instinctive sense of chic. Both designers closed their studios in 1939. But Vionnet never re-opened, so Chanel (who returned to fashion in 1954) had the last word and is remembered where Vionnet is too often forgotten.

Chanel also had the more colourful personal life of the two, and history tends to celebrate personalities while overlooking hard-working, self-effacing artists. Coco Chanel had aristocratic lovers and tragic affairs, while Madeleine Vionnet had what one observer called “intelligent obstinacy and patient audacity.” Moreover, unlike Chanel, who was her own muse, she was not a clotheshorse herself. She once said, “Myself, I didn’t have a neck, and I like necks. I was stocky, and I need tall women [for my models]. I never made dresses for myself.”

Madeleine Vionnet

Vionnet’s designs are simple and classic. Many of them were made of geometric shapes (squares, circles, triangles) of fabric draped over the body. Those that hung on the diagonal gave rise to the bias cut that characterized fashion in the 1930s. Vionnet dispensed with buttons and hooks and zip fasteners and interfacing; not only did she consider them constricting, but they also interfered with the way fabric moved.

She once said: “The designer at work has a woman and some fabric, and with these two elements must create something harmonious. Until recently, we abused these two. We seemed to view women’s bodies as shameful objects whose shapes had to be concealed as much as possible. As for the fabrics, we treated them like young children, incapable of managing on their own, for which all sorts of supports were essential: stays, interfacing, stiffeners. I wanted to rehabilitate these two innocents and to demonstrate that a piece of fabric falling freely over an unfettered body can still form a harmonious ensemble. I was looking for the dress that would automatically find its original shape when at rest, like a soldier stepping back into the ranks. The formula for the well-cut dress.”

Vionnet’s fashion: soft fabrics and delicate shapes

Vionnet also eliminated constrictive underclothing with its boning and stays (Chanel was by no means the first to toss out the corset and let women’s bodies breathe). At the same time, she brought the soft fabrics and delicate shapes of lingerie to the surface. She pioneered handkerchief dresses, halter tops, and cowl necks—innovations based on her love of draped fabric. She worked with fabrics that flowed, such as chiffon, tulle, and crepe de chine. To some extent, she invented prêt-à-porter, since these dresses did not require careful fitting and many were one-size-fits-all styles. (To see a video showing the construction of her Robe Quatre Mouchoirs—Four Handkerchief Dress—click here.)

Like Chanel, she did not draw her designs in advance, but unlike Chanel, she developed her ideas using a two-foot-high mannequin doll rather than a living model. Also, unlike the self-taught Chanel, she had learned her craft by apprenticing with other designers before branching out on her own. One of her first shows was too daring for her employers, as she sent out the models in bare feet, draped in Greek-inspired robes. In this, she may have been inspired by Isadora Duncan, who was a close contemporary.

Vionnet’s customers: Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Katharine Hepburn

Over the years, her fame grew, bringing customers such as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Katharine Hepburn. She set up her own atelier first on the rue de Rivoli and later moved to 50, avenue Montaigne (shown above), in the heart of one of Paris’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. She employed 1,200 assistants to develop her ideas and her fashions. (One could hardly call them all seamstresses, since Vionnet worked to reduce the number of seams in her dresses.) Unlike Chanel, she was a model employer who offered her employees full benefits, including health care. By 1925, she had a subsidiary in New York.

Haute Couture: copying and knock-offs

Vionnet was concerned about copying, a practice that was common in the 1920s and 1930s. In those days, within a few weeks of a fashion show, knock-offs would appear in cities around the world, as clothing manufacturers sent employees to sketch or photograph the works of the haute couture designers, and then develop the same designs in other fabrics. Vionnet considered copying the same as theft and was known for her saying, “Death to copyists!” She also left an important legacy—when she closed her studio, she donated huge quantities of her materials (designs, photographs, books, prototypes, and finished garments) to the Union française des arts du costume, the forerunner of the Musée de la mode.

House of Vionnet

Madeleine Vionnet showed her last collection in 1939, and she died in 1975, but as befits the woman who fought for intellectual property, the name “House of Vionnet” lives on, and may yet rise again. The name was bought by in 1988 by Arnaud Lummen, and was used to sell perfume and accessories from a shop at 21, Place Vendome that once sold the creations of Elsa Schiaparelli (the Schiaparelli website has a rather evocative depiction of the location).

The label is now owned by Matteo Marzotto (former president of Valentino) and Gianni Castiglioni of the fashion house Marni is also said to be involved (could he be a descendant of the mysterious countess we profiled last week…?). This past March, Rodolfo Paglialunga, formerly of Prada, unveiled a collection for Vionnet, which was quite well received. He seems to have drawn inspiration from the original, with some draped garments.

Yet nothing so far is visible on the Vionnet website except the wonderful trademark developed by Madeleine Vionnet that once adorned the front of her store on the Avenue Montaigne. It’s a beautiful symbol that evokes the inspiration she drew from Greece and deserves to remain in the world of fashion.

VOCABULARY: French to English translations

Chiffon: Plain woven lightweight, extremely sheer soft silk fabric.
Couturièr/couturière: Person in the fashion industry who makes original garments for private clients (male/female).
Crêpe de chine: Very thin crêpe of silk or similar fabric used for dresses and blouses.
Haute Couture: Made to order clothing for a specific customer, usually made from high-quality, expensive fabric sewn with extreme attention to detail.
La coupe en biais: (Bias cut) Cross-grain direction of a piece of woven fabric that gives clothing a flowing feeling.
La griffe: Trademark or signature of a designer. (Vionnet was the first to ensure that not only her name, but a ribbon with her fingerprint on it, was sewn into every one of her creations.
Prêt-à-porter: Ready-to-wear clothing.
Un capuchon: (Cowl neck) Neckline in which fabric is attached and drapes in soft folds.
Un dos-nu: (Halterneck dress) Bareback dress.
Tulle: Fine, often, starched net of silk, rayon, or nylon, used especially for veils, tutus, or gowns.

Philippa Campsie

Philippa Campsie teaches part-time in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto and runs her own writing and research business, Hammersmith Communications. Before starting her own business, she was editor-in-chief at Macmillan Canada. Philippa lived in Paris as a student and regularly travels to Paris and Normandy.

She is interested in stories of famous Parisian women throughout the ages and how they influenced the Parisian style we have come to love and know.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Diving into Paris Fashion: From famous to fresh, by Parisian Abby Rodgers, who asks the question, “…with veterans such as Lagerfeld making the move to the street-wear market, where is fashion headed in Paris and what influence does the newest generation have?” Included are fashion brands and stores that are favorites of Abby and her friends. 

Ballet Flats in Paris: And God made Repetto, by Barbara Redmond who shares what she got from a pair of flats purchased in a ballet store in Paris; a feline, natural style from the toes up, a simple pair of shoes that transformed her whole look. Including the vimeos “Pas de Deux Coda,” by Opening Ceremony and “Repetto,” by Repetto, Paris. (French)

Imperfect Perfection: The new French woman, by writer Kristin Wood who reminds us of the words attributed to Henry David Thoreau, the famous American author and philosopher who eschewed material excess and extravagance… “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Kristin writes about the predicted trends of the “undone” makeup look, and the “de-blinging” of luxury items. What better place to introduce these two trends on a grand scale than in Paris? 

French Silhouette, a New Look, by Barbara Redmond who admires the Frenchwoman’s attention to the tiniest detail of her appearance, good taste and natural style – brushing fashion aside with her blend of reasonably priced purchases and small number of luxury pieces. Effortless chic. Simple style. Self-confidence. Including a link to Barbara’s treasured book, Parisian Chic: A Style Guide by Ines de la Fressange with Sophie Gachet. 

Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie. All rights reserved
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.