The jazz age of the 1920’s was a fabulous time. A time of new found freedom after the restraints of World War One. It was a time to enjoy yourself, to let your hair down and dance the night away to some hot jazz in an underground speakeasy. And it was a time when women’s fashion also became less restrained. For many years women had been forced into the confines of a corset, or many layers of petticoats and folds of fabric. But with new designers like Vionnet on the scene in Paris, women began to know what freedom really felt like! With a much more sleek and flowing style, the 1920’s became an era of progression, with many fringes, beading and tassels ornamenting the much loved flapper style. It was a new modern influence that was oh so fun, and is still seen in fashion today.
One of the largest contributors in twenties fashion fantasies was Madeleine Vionnet. Born in Chilleurs-aux Bois, France on June 22nd 1876, Vionnet found her feet early in the fashion stakes, and continued to refine her skills until they triumphed in the 1920’s. Not being born into privilege, Vionnet worked hard to earn her place. At only twelve years old, Vionnet was forced into work like many young girls of the era, and began an apprenticeship as a seamstress. She was confident in her work, with natural abilities. By the age of eighteen, Vionnet had been married, and suffered the loss of an infant. After such tragedy, she chose to up and leave her current life, and moved to London in search of a better storyline. Whilst in London, she continued to work as a seamstress, and was fortunate to be employed as an assistant to Court dressmaker Kate Reilly. Reilly was contracted to dress the Royal family, and Vionnet must have learnt tremendously under her guidance. After a few years abroad, Vionnet decided to head back to Paris, which was already becoming the centre of haute couture. She began working for the Callot Soeurs, a famous couture house in Paris, and for the next six years made toiles for all of their innovative designs. Following this success, Vionnet changed scenes and took a position with Jacques Doucet, from 1907 – 1911. By this time, Vionnet was starting to discover her own unique style and way of dressmaking, which didn’t always coincide with that of her employer.
The following year, amongst the onset of World War One, Vionnet took the brave step of opening her own House. Finally she could design what she wanted. The House was only attainable for two years however, and in 1914, Vionnet had to close the doors. The war had proved too much of an obstacle for many in Paris couture to overcome, with other great designers like Chanel also succumbing to the German advances. Like many, Vionnet fled Paris to safer grounds, and returned after the war was over. In 1920, the House of Vionnet returned to the couture scene, and by 1923, it was so successful that it moved to a larger premises on the famed Avenue Montaigne. Vionnet once again started producing her innovate designs that freed women from their corsets. By 1925, Vionnet had crossed the Atlantic, and opened her first boutique in New York, selling ‘off the peg’ designs to the fashion forward American. Many Hollywood starlets of the time became supporters of this new found luxury brand, including Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. By 1930, Vionnet was still going strong, with her ingénue techniques of draping and bias cutting largely contributing.
The bias cut was not something new when Vionnet started showcasing it, but the designer is largely credited with making it so well known. Cut on a forty five degree angle to both the warp and weft of the fabric, the bias techniques allows the fabric to drape and wrap around the models body. Coup en Bias as the French refer to it, is a free flowing style that displays the natural curves of the female form. With such a linear silhouette, the wearer has no need for a corset or petticoat. There is also no stiffeners used to structure the fabric, and no padding is required either. Many of Vionnet’s gowns that encompassed this style also had no requirements for buttons or other fasteners. One could easily slip the ensemble on over your head. Previously the bias technique had only been used on hemlines, but Vionnet started using it to create entire gowns, which is why she had to order her fabrics two yards wider than usual. These fabrics were purchased by the bolt, and consisted of crepe, crepe de chine, gabardine and silk satin.
Vionnet continued to be an innovator over the 1920’s and 1930’s. Other design concepts that can be attributed to Vionnet, and that still appear in fashion today, are the handkerchief hem, the cowl neckline and the halter top. Vionnet was a perfectionist like many of us designers are. She used to create her samples on miniature dolls to ensure the right look before it went onto larger scale production. At the top of her empire, Vionnet employed one thousand staff in over twenty six ateliers. She remained for her entire life, very much a private person. Choosing to complete her work away from her ateliers, Vionnet spent most of her time in her private study. Here she would have her head seamstresses visit her to go over design ideas and options. It was very rare that Madame Vionnet was ever seen in her atelier! Due to the huge success of her new style, it was inevitable that Vionnet had her designs copied. It was a well know trade in the 1920’s that many leading designers had their styles ripped off and sold overseas for a much lower price. Vionnet tried her hardest to stop this from occurring, and would even personally fingerprint all of her garment labels to prove their originality. Vionnet also fought for her workers rights during her reign in fashion. She fought hard to introduce better labor practices and fairer conditions. Health care for her employees was one of her achievements, as too was maternity leave. Dining halls and canteens were first scene in Vionnet’s ateliers before other designs adopted the same benefits for their employees.
Known in the industry as the “architect among dressmakers”, Vionnet crafted a career full of success. In 1939, once again due to the threat of war, Madame Vionnet closed her House for good. She officially retired in 1940. Having popularised many styles still evident today, Vionnet was a designer of immense talent and charge. The influence of the 1920’s would have been a completely different scene had it not been for Vionnet striving to give women independence and freedom in their fashion choices. The grand couturier passed away at almost one hundred years old, in March 1975. What a legacy she left behind!
Love Always, Anastacia Rose xx