pursuing the vionnet mysteries

In your book, you explain how you first became interested in Vionnet, writing, “I noticed that her dresses had structures I had never seen before. From their cut and types, and uses of fabrics, to their decorations and stitching techniques, each had a unique individuality—each dress had something new to be discovered. Vionnet’s dresses were thoroughly calculated, even in the subtlest of details, and all were beautiful. I wanted to know more about the designer.” You and Harumi Tokai, the book’s editor, also write about the enormity of the task of turning that interest into a book.
There were problems—after I finished the book and was looking for a publisher, the curator in Paris who allowed me to take the patterns died. We’d had a verbal agreement as to what I would pay for the use of the patterns. Luckily, after looking at the book, the woman who took her place said she would hold to the old agreement. With nothing in writing, we just had to trust each other.

I couldn’t find anyone to publish the book for three years. Either they loved it but wouldn’t do it because no one knew who Vionnet was, or they wanted the book but didn’t want to include the patterns. They didn’t get it.

The book was finally published in Japan in 1991, and it was expensive, but I had people ordering it in Japanese, sending money without having seen the book. Then one day I was giving a lecture demonstration to a marvelous group of dressmakers. They were so excited, I decided to model the toiles—or they weren’t going to let me leave. They were thrilled because they could handle them; you can’t do that in a museum. Now, I let students model the toiles, and they get it, they really get it.

The way Vionnet approached covering the body was so different than how we were taught—and how it’s still taught—with flat patterns. Everything is still made that way, it’s why we have a repeat of everything that’s been done in the past, but it isn’t done as well. Students have to have inspiration, and it has to start at the foundation, with how a pattern is made. Right now, I’m working on a DVD about how to drape patterns, because cloth is two-dimensional but becomes a three-dimensional object—a knot, a twist, or a dress—and animation is really the only way to understand that.

When I first started to give demonstrations, I was draping on a full-scale mannequin, as you’re taught to do, but I soon learned you couldn’t drape the way Vionnet did, there is too much fabric to handle. It has to be draped at half-scale—it’s so easy at half-scale, and it takes so little time to scale it up.

In your view, where did Vionnet’s genius come from?
She was of her time. After WWI, women were working, for one thing. And in the 1920s, everything changed—philosophy, art, furniture. Vionnet was one of the first to get into art deco—again, geometric shapes, and that’s what she was all about. She did her own house, with a lot of the furniture designed for her by people who weren’t well known at the time, but who became famous afterwards.

It isn’t in the book because I didn’t know it then, but I know now that Vionnet did take from ancient Greek dress she found depicted on vases. In Athens, in the summer of 2004, I gave a lecture during a week of lectures on clothing at Ptyshosis: from Ancient Greek Dress to the 21st-Century, an event held during Greece’s International Conference for the Cultural Olympiad. One morning we went up to the Parthenon and I saw one of the goddesses; a man nearby said, “It’s not the original, it would have been ruined being outside, but they show the originals once in awhile inside the museum.” Which was very small and not well lit. But I went in, turned around, and there I saw Vionnet’s pattern three.

The fabric hadn’t been cut; similarly, Vionnet had eliminated excess cutting. The dress was folded back at the shoulder and pinned with a long pin; Vionnet had twisted it, and got the same effect with cloth. She was totally into textiles, but she had textiles that we don’t have today, and that’s unfortunate. Although Issey Miyake did duplicate some of them in man-made fibers, in crepes, and they came out very nicely.

In the book you write, “Vionnet’s original techniques with fabric—wrapping, looping, twisting, tying, tucking the material, methods of diversifying themes—had come to a deadlock. As she said, ‘I created a system of cutting and have ended up by becoming the slave of my own system.’” What do you think her designs would have been like in the 1940s if she’d carried on? Or if she had come along ten years earlier?
She was around ten years earlier and it didn’t work.

Yes, the corsets. She’d said, “I have never been able to tolerate corsets myself, so why should I inflict them on other women.” But, you write, “With no one to sell her dresses to the clients so that they could be worn publicly, the reality of her suppression of the corset would have to pass unknown. Shortly after this collection was presented, Paul Poiret, the fashion designer, introduced his collection of uncorseted models. Poiret got the credit for the elimination of the corset, a fact that Vionnet would always resent.”
I have two drawings of two dresses that were done in her first business and there’s an inkling of where she was going to go, but it certainly wasn’t the Vionnet that we know. I found out much more about Thayaht, he had an enormous influence on her. In fact, Thayaht very much influenced Claire McCardle and Adrian. They both were at the Parsons school in Paris when he taught there, and you can see his influence on their work.

You’d said you set out to solve the mysteries found in Vionnet’s dresses. How did you do it?
She makes it simple. Before I left FIT, we had an exhibit with one room of Vionnet’s clothing made up of borrowed things, including a nightgown owned by a dealer. I decided to put that pattern in the book because there are just two pieces. When you see the dress, you think, two pieces? How did we get there? It’s so simple and it’s so pretty. When you get through, you look at it and think, this is so simple, why didn’t we think of this before? But you have to think about it differently.

That reminds me of what Jacques Griffe wrote in the preface: “During these visits, she would reveal her philosophy, such as, ‘Simplicity is what is most difficult in the world; it is the last stage of experience and the first effort of the genius.’” But to revisit her quote, “I created a system of cutting and have ended up by becoming the slave of my own system.” What do you think she meant?
I think she said that because at the end of the 1930s, we were going towards the war and clothing that was—just think of Balenciaga—totally tailored. Where she went to the natural body, we went away from the natural body. She didn’t fit in, her clothing wasn’t timely any more—although every time it came back to the natural body, in Women’s Wear Daily it would be Vionnet, Vionnet, Vionnet! Now, I think we’re moving more to the natural body than we ever were. I don’t think we’re going to go away from it.

You make an important observation in the book: “The structure and silhouette of clothes thus could be further interrelated. Vionnet created harmonies, and through these she reached the goal of all good design: unity. In this unity, the integration of dressmaking and design was so complete that no part of the design could be removed without destroying the dress.”
Because of mass production, sizes have to be made in such a way that they can be altered to fit individuals, so we end up with seams in certain places on the body. That’s not good. This isn’t in the book, I got it later from one of her employees, who told me Vionnet used to say, “I don’t know why they put seams where they do because the body doesn’t have seams.” She relied on the whole body, and everything she did was always to a minimum; you couldn’t interfere with that, or you would ruin the garment.

In the book, I write about how, when I was trying on Vionnet’s clothes, she was so concerned with the negative space—who even thinks of negative space these days? The idea of the whole was there. But if you wear her clothes, that’s the thrill.

I made pattern 13 to wear to parties. It’s in quadrants, and it was actually used for a wedding gown. I made it mid-calf so I could wear it to any kind of party. I had three friends, each with a different height and bulk, who wanted that dress. We copied the pattern, they made it, and we all said the same thing: You know you’ve got something on, but it’s like you’ve got nothing else on but your body. Its excess just floats with your body. I wore the dress out.

If you have a different experience of your body in three dimensions, doesn’t it change the way you think?

interview betty kirke

author of madeleine vionnet