Chanel/Vionnet Smackdown!

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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:

http://thevintagetraveler.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/currently-reading-sleeping-with-the-enemy-coco-chanels-secret-war/

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:

http://www.amazon.com/Madeleine-Vionnet-Betty-Kirke/dp/1452110697/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1386857010&sr=1-1&keywords=vionnet

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:

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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 patternreview.com, 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:

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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.

Jacket interior–hidden luxury

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Here’s a closer look at the interior of the jacket, before it was fully lined with silk crepe de chine. The blue/gray fabric is the exterior “fashion” fabric, and the colorful fabric is the silk lining front facing. The beige fabric is the hidden luxury of this method. Rather than using modern fusible interfacing, the jacket is underlined and quilted with silk organza, a soft, sturdy secret weapon that gives the jacket shape without stiffness. The white crescents on the top of the sleeves are a soft wool “sleevehead” that give the sleevecap that “couture pop” without shoulder pads. (Although in this 60s version, the sleeve fits pretty tightly in the armhole, without the modern “poof” I’m not that into.)

To avoid having any topstitching visible on the exterior, which to me looks mass-market, I catch-stitched all of the hems and seam allowances down by hand. This highly-tedious process is tempting to skip, and yet I believe it’s the most important thing you can do to give it that haute couture je ne sais quoi. It’s hard to describe, but this secure and highly elastic stitch gives the jacket a soft movement, making it look like it’s held together without thread. Yet it controls the interior, so the seams never roll or unravel.

Traditionally, haute couture Chanel jackets have the colorful silk lining quilted directly onto the fashion fabric, without an underlining, but not all of them were made that way over the years. Personally I prefer this method because the organza underlining gives you a stronger jacket that’s still soft and light. And your last step, which is to tightly fell-stitch the colorful lining all around the interior edge of the jacket, completely covers the organza, the quilting, the seam finishes, and a multitude of sins.