Chanel/Vionnet Smackdown!

The book "Madeleine Vionnet" by Betty Kirke

The book “Madeleine Vionnet” by Betty Kirke

Are you ready to rrrrrumble?!? This post looks at who’s cooler, Coco Chanel or Madeleine Vionnet. Chanel is still in the public eye due to intense marketing by the modern company that bears her name, as well as the numerous books about her highly dramatic life.

But I’d argue that one of Chanel’s design contemporaries in the 20s and 30s, Madeleine Vionnet, was every bit of a maverick. She perfected the bias cut, inspired countless designers (including my current girl-crush, Claire McCardell), and yet was a much more decent and mature human being.

As  Chanel references for the smackdown, I’m using my faulty memory of a number of books either glorifying or trashing “Mademoiselle” Coco, the chain-smoking party girl who basically made it possible for women to wear comfortable clothes, become enlightened, go to work, and then stress out about having it all. Thanks, hon.

I’ll admit that I’m cribbing a number of points from a review (by The Vintage Traveler blog) of a book about Chanel positing that not only did Chanel have a Nazi lover during WWII, but she was also a spy. Here’s a link to that review, and Lizzie, thank you again for reading a book so I don’t have to:

As my reference for Vionnet, I’m using one of the sewing/vintage fashion world’s most fabulous books, “Madeleine Vionnet” by Betty Kirke. This book should either be put on your coffee table or Christmas list immediately. Here’s the link on Amazon:

Originally published in 1991, this cult classic is filled with pictures of Vionnet’s groundbreaking bias-cut gowns, and it includes drawings of the pattern pieces, meticulously researched by the author. The text is a complete history of Vionnet, her philosophy, her methods of construction, her inspirations, her company. All I have to say to Betty Kirke, author of this excellent tome, is “you rock”. Here’s a peek inside:


Smackdown point #1:

Who was better to her workers?

Coco Chanel had a bitter labor dispute with her workers in the 30s that she lost. Rumor has it that she shut down her atelier during World War II to get back at them, putting 3,000 people out of work.

Madeleine Vionnet, on the other hand, remembering her exploitive treatment at couture houses as a girl, was the first to offer her workers coffee breaks, paid vacation, maternity leave, and the opportunity to advance in the company. During vacations her employees were welcome to come hang out with her at her villa in the south of France. Score 1 Vionnet.

Smackdown point #2:

Who was riding out WWII shacking up with a Nazi in the Paris Ritz? And sleeping with just about everybody else the rest of the time? I have to admit I’ve given that a lot of thought while hand-stitching the Chanel jackets I’ve made.

Meanwhile, Vionnet was caring for her father in a little garden apartment until his death in 1922. After that, she married a man 18 years younger and their relationship was a happy one in the early years at least. You go girl.

Smackdown point #3:

Whose clothing from the 30s would I been seen in walking down the street in now?

Well, unless I’m going to a toga party, I’d be more comfortable wearing a 30s Chanel suit than a floaty bias-cut gown. I’ll give you that one, Coco. However, I have made a bias-cut scarf from a pattern in the Vionnet book that’s very jaunty, and I have been wearing it to death.

Smackdown point #4:

Whose clothing from the 30s would I wear to the Oscars? Though Chanel did create a number of lovely gowns in that era, the hands-down winner is Vionnet, whose bias-cut confections were architectural works of art. Also, because they’re cut on the bias, they have more give, so you can gain a few pounds and still get in them.

And the winner is…

I’ll admit, it’s splitting hairs. They both got women out of corsets and into the modern world. They both were innovators in manipulating fabric for soft structure. They both were geniuses who inspired generations of designers. And they represent the “yin and yang” of modern woman–the unconscionable control freak vs. the mature mentor.

Here’s a photo of Deepika, founder and fearless leader of, modeling a Vionnet scarf that I made:

Deepika in Vionnet Scarf

She looked so cute, I just had to hand it over to her. In my next post, I’ll be writing about how I made this scarf using drawings from the Vionnet book and instructions from this Japanese pattern book:


It’s an easy and fun project.

Who do you think wins the smackdown? Chanel or Vionnet? Leave a comment and let me know. And I’m always interested in hearing about your projects! Thanks for stopping by.

14 thoughts on “Chanel/Vionnet Smackdown!

  1. Since the question is a matter of “cool” and not strictly a question of design, I will begin and end with this quote from a NY Times review of one of her biographies: “Gabrielle Chanel — better known as Coco — was a wretched human being. Anti-Semitic, homophobic, social climbing, opportunistic, ridiculously snobbish and given to sins of phrase-making like “If blonde, use blue perfume,” she was addicted to morphine and actively collaborated with the Germans during the Nazi occupation of Paris.” Not cool. (

    • I have to say the longer I stitched and the more I read about her, I came to the same conclusion. Unfortunately I can’t find a link to the NY Times Style article talking about how the Chanel company, and the French in general, have backpedaled from her dark history because the Chanel brand is such an important part of their economy.
      Fortunately my blog will be moving very soon to the “American Look” designers, like Claire McCardell, who were supporting the WWII effort by innovating with non-rationed fabrics like wool and cotton, and using things like shoe hooks as closures since there was no medal for zippers. These designs really have that “je ne sais quoi” and they transformed post-war fashion.
      In the meantime, get out your sewing machine, James, to make the Vionnet scarf in my next post!

  2. Hey, you can copy my notes anytime. Chanel vs. Vionnet? It’s sort of like apples and oranges!

    Yes, Chanel was a pretty sorry person, but she really did influence fashion in so many ways that she is impossible to ignore.

    • I know, Lizzie, it reminds me of the old quote “how do you separate the dancer from the dance?” Throughout time, many of the great artists and innovators have been horrible people. It’s all part of what makes human history so interesting.

  3. Funny how often it is hard for us to accept or get a grasp on the fact that someone can be brilliant, talented, personable, and evil incarnated, all at the same time. I guess that explains some of the voting patterns in certain areas of the country. . . take your pick. Fortunately, as a guy, I don’t have to be traumatized over whether or not to wear a Chanel jacket.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Ben. Having been around the block more than a few times (make that several blocks) I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of talented and successful people, and it’s amazing how many are motivated by anger and insecurity. I guess hostility makes the world go ’round!
      About the jacket…in the recent “Little Black Jacket” book released by Chanel, there were some men modeling Chanel jackets, so go ahead and whip one up!

  4. You know I think of Coco as a sad victim of her very dysfunctional family .She was abandoned by her father who was a peddler after her mother died of consumption in the presence of Coco and her sad little sibling . They were holed up in some sad little hotel . Her father was nowhere to be found . Luckily she did have a deep attachment to her sister and a very young aunt . She made her way in the world by being a courtesan at least initially and then made up elaborate stories to explain herself in a very judgmental and class conscious society . I think that given the abandonment by so many of the people she loved she did remarkably well in life but she did pay a very big price as her addictions and loneliness would attest .She would HATE what have written and if she was around deny it all which is sad . Vionnet on the other hand had the personal strength and integrity to accept herself and others so I suspect I would have liked her a lot more .

    • Thanks for giving us some background on Chanel’s life, Marianne. As I read what you wrote, I realized that I have a lot of the details of her life mixed up with the life of Edith Piaf, another sad tale of brilliance out of poverty from that era in France. Too many bio-pix to keep straight! (Note to self, next time my husband and son leave the house, I’m going to make some popcorn and watch them all in a row, during which I will belt out “Je Regrette Rien” at the top of my lungs…)
      Of course it’s hard to judge people when you’re living in a completely different historical context, but I have to say that the part about her living in the Ritz, with a Nazi, during WWII, in occupied France, is unforgivable in my book. The other thing that bugs me is that that part of her history is being swept under the rug, and her life is being romanticized to support a brand. (That the brand “Chanel” in its current incarnation is more status than style is fuel for another post.)
      The Chanel jacket design, however, is an important part of fashion history, and it’s well worth the effort to re-create one.

  5. Hello again, yes I agree with you about living at the ritz with a Nazi . I wonder though how many of us would act very differently . I hope I would have been heroic and joined the resistance . So many boatloads of refugees were turned away by the USA, Australia and others before the war . there is still so much bad feeling and lack of empathy toward refugees amongst the people I talk to that Coco’s bad judgement and questionable morals are probably entirely possible amongst those we would consider to be ordinary folk today .tThe other thing worth remembering is that Her brother was a prisoner of war and quite sick when she made the choices she made .I am not an apologist for Ms Chanel but things are rarely simple . Love your blog

    • Marianne, thank you for sharing those thoughts. I had no idea when I wrote this post on a whim it would inspire so many deep comments. My blog is only a few weeks old, so I’m enjoying “meeting” all of you.

  6. Pingback: French Property Words & Phrases: What’s is an Espace de Vie? | France Property Magazine

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