Fashion design has many facets, and depending on talent and inclination, different designers tend to focus on different aspects. You can be a draftstman, working in precise lines, like Coco Chanel; you can be a painter, balancing color harmonies, like Yves Saint Laurent; you can be a sculptor, creating volumes and textures, like Balenciaga. Madeleine Vionnet, for me the greatest dress designer in history, was an engineer.
She is always associated with the bias-cut (that is, hanging the fabric at a 45-degree angle to the grain), but that’s only the most obvious result of her methods. Rather than starting from traditional basic patterns, cut to the shape of the body, and then adding or altering, she got down to the radical starting point and designed, and designed with, the structure of the dress itself. She designed with seams, not embellishments, and to do so she reinvented how seams worked, where they would fall–if you look at the dress pattern (a kind of schematic or blueprint for a dress) of a Vionnet, it looks nothing like the patterns which had been used in Europe for centuries. Those patterns, drafted on paper to begin with, look essentially like the body part they’re supposed to cover. Vionnet’s, on the other hand, were created directly in fabric–she worked by cutting and pinning muslin on a half-scale mannequin–and can be completely abstract, squarish or triangular, because they’re not constrained by 2-dimensional thinking, or our cognitive perception of “front” and “back”. And yet these strange shapes, hung on the body, don’t look strange or particularly avant-garde, but sleek, elegant, and simple.
Everyone after Vionnet was influenced by her, and yet few ever approached her focus on the fundamentals of dressmaking. (Partly because fashion moved on–her method can’t easily accomodate 40s shoulder pads or 50s under-structure.) For me she has been one of my foundational influences–I tend to think of clothing design in Vionnesque terms, as a matter of pattern cutting first and foremost. I tend think of cut first, and things like color, texture, embellishments and decorations, are all subordinate to it.
Of course in costume design subtleties of cut are basically invisible on stage and therefore usually a waste of time, so designing costumes is a very different proposition. And it’s been a very helpful corrective to the rather austere “rigorous” version of Vionnism that I used to subscribe to–after all, Vionnet herself did plenty with color and texture and especially beautiful sewing, like embroidery and her exquisite pintucks. But I’ll always reserve my greatest admiration, and ambition, for perfect and unexpected pattern cutting.
A handful of great Vionnet works under the fold.