Blog post

The bias cut and Madeleine Vionnet

Femininity as encounter of technology and sensuality in the 1920s and 1930s

colour photograph of three long dresses against a black background, one dress is orange, one is silver, one is red
Marta Franceschini (opens in new window) (European Fashion Heritage Association)

In fashion, the end of the 1920s and above all the 1930s are regarded as years of body-hugging, unashamedly seductive silhouettes.

These are the years of femme fatales, in which divas such as Jean Harlow and Bette Davis become models of strong and fascinating femininity. Their fame also came from the kind of dresses they were immortalised in, either on and off the screen.

The curvaceous silhouettes they became known for came from a technical intuition: instead of being cut following the straight line of the weave, the flowing fabrics of their dresses were literally 'cut on the grain', with the pattern positioned at a 45° angle on the woven fabric, exploiting its elasticity.

This technique became known as 'bias cut'. It allowed the creation of dresses that could be draped - recalling the iconic peplums worn by goddesses in classical depictions - and sewn as to cling to the natural curves of women's bodies, without constricting it or using under-structures to redesign it.

The designer most associated with the bias cut - considered a sort of architectural approach to dress - is Madeleine Vionnet.

The daughter of an officer from the Jura region of France, always on the move, Madeleine Vionnet was abandoned by her mother when she was still a child. After some wanderings with her father, she settled in Aubervilliers, near Paris, she left school at the age of ten and started working for a maison de couture where the wife of a friend of her father worked. After marrying at eighteen, she moved to England, where she worked for Kate Reilly, a dressmaker to the English court. Then she moved back to Paris, where she came into contact with Madame Gerber, one of the three sisters of the maison Callot Soeurs, and actually began her career in the Parisian Haute Couture system.

In 1912, Madeleine Vionnet established her own Maison in Paris. The clothing she made attracted the attention of many for their apparently simple and natural design. The way she used fabrics caused dresses to cling to the body and gently fall caressing the feminine curves.

Some say she invented the bias-cut, applying a technique previously used for cutting collars to the construction of the whole dress.

Vionnet also started a campaign for the protection of couture designs, to prevent copyists from plagiarising her work.

In her quest against plagiarism, Madeleine Vionnet had previously founded the Association for the Defence of Fine and Applied Arts in 1921. However, she eventually started to document her creations by photographing them from the front, back and sides and then decided to stamp on each label her irreproducible and unique fingerprint.

As well as protecting her creativity, marking the clothes in this way put her own identity as a guarantee of their authenticity: an awareness that seemed to stem from the apparently simple but highly-skilled cut of her creations.

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