"When a woman smiles, then her dress should smile too," revolutionary Parisian couturiere Madeleine Vionnet once noted, eschewing corsets, padding, stiffening, and anything that distorted or artificially molded a woman's natural curves - instead draping classic Greek-influenced designs that floated freely and flatteringly around the body. Dominating haute couture during the 1930s until her atelier was shuttered in 1939 with the onset of World War II, stars like Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo were frequently photographed in Vionnet's distinctive designs.
Unlike her contemporaries, she favored fabrics like crepe de chine, gabardine, silk chiffon, and satin - typically ordered a good two yards wider than was customary in order to accommodate her then-revolutionary draping on the bias. Famed for cowl necks, halter tops, and handkerchief hems, her timeless, architectural designs are as relevant today as when they first debuted; she was and is still worshipped by designers like Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Azzedine Alaia who once gushed, "Vionnet is the source of everything, the mother of us all," John Galliano ("Her tailoring has inspired generations of designers"), Karl Lagerfeld ("Everybody, whether he likes it or not, is under the influence of Vionnet"), Cristobal Balenciaga ("Madame Vionnet is my master"), and Christian Dior ("No one has ever carried the art of dressmaking further than Vionnet.").
Along with a major retrospective at the Musee Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris (through January 31, 2010), Rizzoli has published an equally fabulous new coffeetable tome edited by Pamela Golbin, the Curator in Chief as Les Arts Decoratifs. In addition to an illustrated chronology of Vionnet's life and career, it includes never-before-seen photos and sketches, an unpublished manuscript about the house authored by Andre Beucler, and stunning images shot by celebrated photographers including Patrick Gries, Horst, Hoynegen-Huene, and Steichen.
MADELEINE VIONNET Edited by Pamela Golbin (Rizzoli New York, 2009) is available for pre-order at Amazon.com.
- Lesley Scott