The House of Tatterdemalion


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Vionnet Bias

January 14th, 2007 by tatterdemalion

Everybody loves Madeline Vionnet.

Most people will tell you this is because she created the bias.

Some people will be technical enough to say that she was the first to work with fabric cut on the bias, but even that I must confess I am too jaded to believe in it’s entirety. Certainly that is what Vionnet is famous for, though, and the word “Vionnet” and “bias” are sometimes almost interchangeable. If you wish to study clothing that has been made by being cut on the bias, you of course will be studying Vionnet.

In a large part, this is due to the fact that most people don’t do work on the bias. I’ve yet to try it myself, so I don’t know if there is a good reason for that, or just because there are too many rumors that it is scary and difficult, best left for experts, geniuses, and other people of human-surpassing ability. I’ve never been one to be put off by scary rumors, and from what I’ve seen of working on the bias, the hardest part is that it can unpredictable, and many people find unpredictablity scary. Since in this method the fabric hangs without either the support of the grain or the cross-grain, the fabric is very unstable, and much more susceptable to the whims of gravity.

Most of my study of bias hasn’t really been in conjunction with Vionnet, however. It’s actually been in conjunction with Charles Kleibacker. Since I find working on the bias to be intriguing, I also find Vionnet to be intriguing. I have sadly managed to see very little of Vionnet’s work so far, though everyone I’ve ever heard say anything about Vionnet pours out effusive praise until my eyes glaze over. Some day I will either dredge a copy of Madeline Vionnet by Betty Kirke out of the library by means of out-of-system inter-library-loan, or break down and spend the heart-skipping amount of money on buying the book.In the mean time, I did read the short (very short, even by the book’s standard) little piece in Secrets of the Couturiers by Frances Kennett. Sadly, it had very little to say, and certainly not even about the bias, or designing by draping (the other thing Vionnet is famous for). In fact, in reference to draping, it even goes so far as to hand out the stiff warning that “Modelling a toile [that is, draping a design right on a dressform or model] is a very complicated business. It takes many years of practice (besides a great measure of natural aptitude) to perfect, and is not something that can be learnt from a book, but only through experience.”

I suspect this is nothing but more scary rumors, which if nothing else certainly serves to heighten the fame and glory of Madeline Vionnet, who happened, then, to be twice brilliant: once at the terrifying bias, and secondly and the heart-freezing draping. Perhaps her chief trait was simply being brave, and not listening to nasty rumors. I believe that draping is simply a different way of thinking: those who like mathematical precision will always be scared by it, but those who are visual learners could quite possibly find it easier.

At any rate, Kennet spews the usual amount of superlatives, and assures that no matter how you cut the word “couturier” Vionnet made the cut: Supporting the Chambre Syndical de la Couture Parisienne, high class clientele, suitably innovative and original, shocking yet classic, a great technician in construction, and a right good old business woman.

On page 39, Vionnet is quoted as saying, “One must examine the anatomy of every customer. The dress must not hang on the body but follow it’s lines. It must accomapany its wearer and when a woman smiles the dress must smile with her. The direction of the material, the weave, and the cross lines on the one hand; precision, cut, proportion and balance on the other–that is what I oppose to the term fashion, which is an empty word and completely meaningless to a real dressmaker.

I am sorry to say I don’t think she held too fiercely to that sentiment. Later in that same page, it goes on to say “When stiffer, wider-skirted styles seemed to be returning in the autumn of 1934, she had the courage to scrap an entire collection in time to start again, producing clothes that captured the mood of the moment to perfection, including not soft-draped satins but wide-skirted taffetas.” I should like to think I would have designed what I wanted to and never mind what anyone elses mood might be, but then, I probably would have wound up eating out of dustbins. One cannot overly begrudge one for wanting to keep a bit of padding in the bank account. Nonetheless, the virtue of “being sensitive to the mood of the moment” is often and loudly brought up throughout the book, so I suppose it ought to be added to the list of couturier requirements (and yet another reason why I fail).

Posted in Books, Couture, Vionnet | 2 Comments »