Madeleine Vionnet was born in France in 1876. After leaving school, she began her seamstress apprenticeship at age 12. After a brief marriage at age 18 and the loss of a child, she left her husband to work in England. She eventually became a fitter for the noted dressmaker Kate Reily in London.
She returned to France in 1900 and worked as a toile maker at Callot-Soeurs. She later said of the sisters “without the example of the Callot-Soeurs, I would have continued to make Fords. It is because of them that I have been able to make Rolls Royces”. Her desire for simplicity put her at odds with the style of the house, which continued to be a problem when she then designed for Jacques Doucet between 1907 and 1911.
She founded her own house in 1912. It unfortunately had to close at the onset of WWI and did not reopen until 1919.
Between Vionnet, Chanel and Poiret, women were being liberated from their corsets and as such, active lifestyles became imperative to keep figures slim in the new fashions.
By 1923, she was employing 1,000 people. By 1925, she had a location on Fifth Avenue in New York.
Her bias-cut clothing dominated fashion throughout the 1930s. Influenced by the modern dances of Isadora Duncan, Vionnet created designs that showed off a woman’s natural shape. Like Duncan, Vionnet was inspired by Ancient Greek Art, in which garments appear to float freely around the body rather than distort or mold its shape.
Her gowns were worn by actresses such as Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn. Her vision of the female form revolutionized clothing. Vionnet used materials such as crêpe de chine, gabardine, and satin to make her clothes. Characteristic elements included handkerchief hems, cowl necklines and halter tops.
She instituted revolutionary labour practises such as paid holidays, maternity leave, day care, a subsidized dining hall and resident doctors and dentists.
Her campaign against the copyists began in 1921 with the creation of The Association for the Defence of Fine and Applied Arts. She photographed every creation from the front, back and sides, naming and numbering it, signing it and marking it with a fingerprint. Other couturiers followed her lead, but the battle for copyright laws in fashion were hard fought.
The onset of WWII forced her to close for the second time and she decided to retire, as business was already waning. As a result, she was somewhat forgotten for a time until, in 1977, Diana Vreeland created an exhibition of French fashion from between the wars under the title, “The 10s, 20s, 30s” which changed attitudes towards early 20th century fashion and towards Vionnet especially, who emerged as a true original of her time.
She is now considered one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century. She passed away in 1975 at the age of 99.