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Bringing Haute Couture to America
Madeleine Vionnet the French “dressmaker” (as she preferred to be called) is widely believed to be the most influential, innovative and revered haute couture designer in history.
The Arts Arena | Kristina Kovacheva

A genius of technique with a deep knowledge of material and appreciation of the female form, this “quiet revolutionary” devoted her talent to the creation of garments which transcend trends and seek classical purity, the return to the natural body and freedom of movement, combined with the sensual richness of fabric and intelligent glamour. Along with Paul Poiret, Vionnet was the first designer to discard the corset and free the dress of bilious sleeves, petticoats and heavy decoration.

The invention of the bias cut, a technique which allows free-movement of the fabric around the body, allowed her fully to express her desire for clothes of perfect “proportion, movement, balance & truth” and to make her, by 1937, the most famous couturière in the world. Madeleine Vionnet’s unique taste for practicality, sensuality and quiet glamour became immensely popular in the US, where her house was very active from 1923 onwards. In February 1924, Vionnet et Cie became the first French haute couture house to open a subsidiary in New York, where her creations continued to enjoy success until the house presented its last collection in 1939.


Madeleine Vionnet was born on June 22nd, 1876, in the humble family of a toll collector in Chillieurs-aux-Bois, outside of Paris. At the age of eleven, Vionnet left school to become a seamstress’s apprentice in Aubervilliers, and at the age of seventeen she moved into Paris to work at the small House of Vincent where she became première (first seamstress) at the age of nineteen. Determined to learn English, Vionnet moved to London in 1900 where she headed the atelier of a boutique which specialised in providing copies of the work of top French designers to a selected clientele. Upon return to Paris five years later, she was hired by the famous La Maison des Soeurs Caillot, and subsequently worked as a modeliste at the House of Doucet until their aesthetic differences led Vionnet to open, in 1912, her own dressmaking house on 222, rue de Rivoli


Post-World War I innovation in the textile industry and the introduction of new, flexible fabrics, such as crêpe, paved the way for Vionnet to pursue her inspirations. One of the earliest influences on Vionnet’s vision was the American dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan, whom Vionnet saw perform for the first time in 1906. Duncan’s costumes inspired by classical Greece and her stress on improvisation, emotion, and the human form reflected closely Vionnet’s interests. Classical Greek costumes and costume making would remain, throughout her career, the strongest artistic influence and inspiration. Another strong influence during this period were the ideas of the American artist Jay Hambidge, his theory of Dynamic Symmetry and examination of proportions in Greek architecture, sculpture, and ceramics.


Between 1912 and 1922, Madeleine Vionnet’s business grew steadily, and although the viewing, order and fittings for a season were by invitation only, new clients started appearing at the door of Vionnet’s rue de Rivoli studio. After the fashion house enlisted the names of clients such as Queen of Spain and Marlene Dietrich, Vionnet’s designs became increasingly popular overseas; American clients would rush to obtain appointments before each season. One enthusiastic American client, Madame Morgan Argos, would order up to thirty dresses each season, and she would often request a favourite model to be made in six different colours.
 

During this period, the notoriously private Madeleine Vionnet became a close friend of the famous American photographer and journalist, Thérèse Bonney, who had settled in Paris in 1918 and who would subsequently document many of Vionnet’s creations and would remain a close confidante of the dressmaker until her death.


By early 1922, Vionnet moved to much larger and more glamorous premises on avenue Montaigne the better to accommodate the ever-expanding client list of the fashion house. After one American manufacturer bought the model of a particular evening dress and sold a thousand copies of it, it was decided that the house would open a subsidiary in New York.  Madeleine Vionnet herself decided to travel to New York and for the first time to present models specifically designed for the American market. Devoted clients included the Vanderbilt family, Mrs. Harrison Williams, and Hollywood names such as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich. It was in the US that for the first time an haute couture house offered a prêt-à-porter line of basic models at affordable prices suitable for multiple occasions and figures.


By the beginning of the 1930s, Madeleine Vionnet’s fashion house had reached the apogee of its success. The arrival of the Great Depression and in-house disagreements with financial partners eventually returned the Vionnet fashion house to its original proportions, until in 1939, on the eve of war between France and Germany, Vionnet presented her last collection.


Although her fashion house never reopened after the end of the World War II, Madeleine Vionnet remained one of the most influential figures in fashion until her death in 1974. She spent her retirement years advising and encouraging young designers in France and the United States.

In 1973, Madeleine Vionnet’s genius was celebrated in the first important exhibition devoted her design – The Tens, Twenties, Thirties - Inventive Clothes: 1909-1939 – organised by the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Subsequently, Vionnet’s creations have been seen in other major exhibitions such as Three women: Madeleine Vionnet, Claire McCardell, and Rei Kawakubo in the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York (1987), and Cubism and Fashion, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1999).

The popularity of Madeleine Vionnet in America, as well as the devotion of her American clients and the public, are reflected in the presence of her creations in museums across the US. Currently, there are 80 Madeleine Vionnet pieces in the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, most of them donations from clients or their families. 22 pieces are in the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, 18 are in the Chicago Historical Society. Examples of her work could be found in other museums in New York as well as in museums in Los Angeles, Washington and Philadelphia.

 

Selected Biography
Kirke, Betty. Madeleine Vionnet. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1998
Golbin, Pamela. Madeleine Vionnet, Puriste de la mode. Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 2009
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
http://www.metmuseum.org/works_of_art/the_costume_institute

 

  THE ARTS ARENA


 
Madeleine Vionnet's designed dress 

 


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