Madeleine Vionnet may not be as well known a name as Coco Chanel, but she nonetheless was a dominant force in Parisian haute couture in the 1930s. She founded her design house in 1912, and set about deconstructing women’s clothing so that they were liberated from the restrictive corsets worn at the time.
Influenced by the dancer Isadora Duncan, Madame Vionnet took women’s forms into account in her designs, making her dresses flowy and sensuous. Both women were influenced by ancient Greek art, where women’s forms could be discerned under flowing garments. It was Vionnet’s appreciation for this art that grew into her development of the bias (diagonal) cut.
The couturiere’s apparently simple designs involved a long preparation process, which included cutting, draping and pinning fabric on miniature dolls. The designs were then recreated in chiffon, silk or crepe on life-size models. The resulting styles were always simple, but also luxurious. Some of her often-used style touches were the handkerchief skirt, the cowl neck, and the halter top.
In 1925, she opened a store in New York, and grew to employ 1200 seamstresses. It was Madame Vionnet who created the first prêt-à-porter line for the American market. The “Queen of the bias cut” designed evening gowns for such Hollywood stars as Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. She was also a favorite of society ladies on both sides of the Atlantic. Her Grecian-style dresses have had a lasting influence on design.
Many consider Madeleine Vionnet the premier dressmaker of the 20th century. In 1939, at the advent of World War II, she closed her business. She died in 1975 at the age of 99.