Tag Archives: halter dress 1930s thirties

Biased in Favor of Vionnet and Ericson, Part 2

Vionnet , 1936. Metropolitan Museum photos

Vionnet , 1936. Metropolitan Museum photos

In Part 1, I shared bits of a marvelous lecture about Vionnet, given by Sandra Ericson in 2010.  I recently looked at Sandra Ericson’s site online, The Center for Pattern Design, (click here)  and found that there have been many changes — she has relocated from northern California to Oregon, she now sells patterns and specialized books online, and she offers lectures and seminars all over the country. (Back in 2010, she was getting ready for a seminar/workshop on Balenciaga. See her two-day seminars.  Vionnet is not her only specialty, but is the topic for a five day seminar/workshop.)

Her site says, “Each seminar and the instructor, Sandra Ericson, meet the qualifications for university level instruction for degree or non-credit fashion programs.  If inclusion in an accredited program curriculum is desired, please contact us for further compliance information.”

You can also watch her free online class in patternmaking “from sketch to pattern.” ) On my computer it took a very long time to load, but a long-ago class — in grad school — when I first learned about “pattern manipulation” was one of those life-changing moments.

The Most Expensive Gown in the World: by Madeleine Vionnet, in a Pebco toothpase ad. Delineator, Sept. 1931.

“The Most Expensive Gown in the World:” by Madeleine Vionnet, in a Pebco toothpaste ad. Delineator, Sept. 1931. “Though apparently simple, its classic loveliness is founded on the most intricate cutting and  molding to the body lines. By courtesy of Bergdorf-Goodman.”

When Ericson lectured at the de Young museum, she said the only way she publicizes her draping workshops is via her newsletter, so please visit her website if you want to subscribe to her mailing list. (click here, then scroll down to bottom of page.)

The lecture included plenty of visual material, with slides and half-scale versions of Vionnet designs from the early 20’s through the end of the 1930’s. Obviously, it’s hard to to do her lecture justice without her slides, but Ericson also recommended some books on the life and work of Madeleine Vionnet, especially Madeleine Vionnet by Betty Kirke (available from Amazon for as little as $76). Another, Madeleine Vionnet by Pamela Golbin, is also available for $75 or so, used.

Betty Kirke also wrote a “must read” article about Vionnet for Threads Magazine, which you can read online (illustrated).  It has some amazing pattern layouts!

Velvet gown by Vionnet, photographed by Edward Steichen. Advertisement in Delineator, 1925.

Velvet gown by Vionnet, photographed by Edward Steichen. Advertisement in Delineator, 1925.

Also just a click away is an article in Threads Magazine which shows half-scale reproductions of Vionnet designs. To read read “Vionnet in Miniature” (click here).

Vionnet draped on half-scale mannequins so that she could see the whole design at once. (Click here to see her at work.)

(Where can you get an affordable half-scale mannequin? Ericson ingeniously makes them from My Size Barbie dolls — and sells a pattern for turning a Barbie figure into a human figure for about $13. (See it here.) The doll is not included — they cost about $60 online.

These are notes I took at Sandra Ericson’s 2010 lecture on Vionnet — any errors are mine. The patterns used for illustration are not by Vionnet, but show her influence. My drawings are pure conjecture.

What I Learned in Two Hours

Ericson divided her lecture into “6 Principles of Elegant Cutting” – “epiphanies” she had while studying Vionnet.

Vionnet as Architect:  Vionnet thought of herself as an architect or geometrician. Her design goal was simplicity and integration. Integration: nothing is added that isn’t part of the whole (no trims, etc., that don’t have a function) and Simplicity: achieve the most design excellence with the least amount of “work” – that is , the fewest seams/cuts possible.

Vionnet gown photographed by Irving Penn.

Vionnet gown photographed by Irving Penn. This dress is four rectangles, worn on the bias. Collection of Metropolitan Museum

Vionnet’s Fabrics:  Ericson also gave a list of fabrics that work best for Vionnet’s approach:  those that have a balanced thread count, a loose weave (not synthetic, usually), twisted yarns, less friction (so they flow over the body), less dimensional stability (seek fabrics that do NOT keep a square well) and weight:  Rayon, silk, wool, crepe chiffon, georgette, twills, nets.

Anatomy and Style Lines: Vionnet stressed the importance of the geometry of the human body: Style Lines – places where the seams go – should coincide with the direction of the muscles.

Vionnet thought seams should follow the lines of our musculature. Anatomical drawing by Hugh Laidman, Vionnet gown photo: Metropolitan Museum.

Vionnet thought seams should follow the lines of our musculature. Anatomical drawing by Hugh Laidman in his book Figures/Faces; Vionnet gown photo from Metropolitan Museum.

Ericson’s Analysis of Vionnet’s Six Principles of Elegant Cutting

Principle 1:  Cut geometrically. Vionnet based her cutting on circles, squares, triangles, rectangles, and especially on the quadrant (quarter) of a circle.

Vionnet often began draping with a quadrant, sometimes with the tip cut off.

Vionnet often began draping with a quadrant, sometimes with the tip cut off.

Some of her early dresses were cut on the straight, seamed on the straight grain, and worn on the bias. Other gowns were formed from four identical pattern pieces, often cut as rectangles, worn on the bias. (See one by clicking here.) Sandra Ericson reproduced one and wore it:  a timeless design.

This 1920’s dress is tucked on the straight grain and worn on the bias:

Vionnet dress, 1926-1927. Metropolitan Museum photo.

Vionnet dress, 1926-1927. Metropolitan Museum photo. Click image to enlarge.

Some of her most influential gowns were based on a quarter circle, slashed to create a V neckline or an armhole, shaped by triangular inserts at waist or hip. . . .

Vionnet Nightgown with triangular inserts, 1930. Photos: Metropolitan Museum.

Vionnet nightgown with triangular inserts, 1930. Photos: Metropolitan Museum.

An astonishing number of 1930’s dresses are shaped by geometrical inserts which use bias stretch to achieve their fit — even these dresses from Sears.

Dresses from the Sears, Roebuck catalog, 1932.

Dresses from the Sears, Roebuck catalog, 1932.

It’s tempting to think this dress is simply a quadrant with a halter, but that was just the beginning.

Vionnet evening gown, 1936. Collection of Metropolitan Museum.

Vionnet evening gown, 1936. Collection of Metropolitan Museum.

A quadrant wrapped around the body. Vionnet added a side front seam.

Drawing:  A quadrant wrapped around the body and seamed below the waist at center back. However, Vionnet shaped her gown with a side front seam, just visible in the photo.

Principle 2:  Weight creates fit and form. (Rayon double crepe and 4-ply silk crepe are recommended.) Vionnet’s dresses won’t hang properly unless there is enough weight to pull the bias fabric down over the body. The weight of the fabric will usually do this on a full-length gown, but a knee-length dress will skim and stand away from the body, unless you find a way to add weight. However, Vionnet did this by integrating the added weight into the design, not by weighting it with chain.

Chiffon gown by Vionnet, 1926. Metropolitan Museum photo.

Chiffon gown by Vionnet, 1926. Metropolitan Museum photo. The trim weights the light chiffon.

She might use many tucks or applique to add weight on a light fabric, or fur at the hem, or a pattern of fringe.

Fringd evening gown by Vionnet. 1936. Photos: Met Museum.

Fringed evening gown by Vionnet. 1936. Photos: Met Museum.

Principle 3:  Any part can extend – into twists, ties, folds, loops. Think of a halter dress which is one long strip of fabric, covering the bust, twisting into a ‘knot’ below the breasts, continuing around the back and returning to the front to form the sash…. The folds and twists of fabric become the ‘ornamentation.’

Vionnet evening dress and jacket, wrapped and tied. 1935. Photos: Metropolitan museum.

Vionnet evening dress and jacket, wrapped and tied. 1935. Photos: Metropolitan Museum.

Butterick patterns 4199 (1931,) 4222 (1931,) and 4587 (1932) shown the twisted fabrics pioneered by Vionnet.

Butterick patterns 4199 (1931,) 4222 (1931,) and 4587 (1932) show the twisted fabrics pioneered by Vionnet.

Butterick 4546: "...the cape shoulders, the twisting that Vionnet has made famous, and the wrapping and tying that is very 'last-wordish' here now." Delineator, June 1932.

Butterick 4546: “…the cape shoulders, the twisting that Vionnet has made famous, and the wrapping and tying that is very ‘last-wordish’ here now.” Delineator, June 1932.

Twisted effects in a Kotex ad and a Butterick pattern, 1932.

Twisted effects: gown in a Kotex ad and a Butterick pattern, 1932.

Butterick pattern 4271, "Crossed and tied." January 1932.

Butterick pattern 4271, “Crossed and closely tied.” January 1932. “A frock with its decolletage made by crossing the bodice at the back and tying the ends round in front.”

Note how many of these thirties gowns use panels based on quadrants in their skirts.

Principle 4:  The design should integrate the closure. Vionnet liked closures to be part of the design, not added later. Often a pattern piece extends to become a draped collar, wrap behind the neck, and fall as a scarf or cape over the opening, so that there is no need for a closure.

Vionnet, 1920. The collar extends into a long scarf, whose weight helps keep the wrap bodice in place. Met Museum, NY

Vionnet, 1920. The collar extends into a long scarf, whose weight helps keep the wrap bodice in place. Met Museum, NY

Betty Kirke’s pattern taken from this dress can be seen here. Another view of the dress, showing a rectangular insert in the left side, can be seen here.  One Vionnet ‘suit’ which appeared to be a dress and cape was actually a single piece.

Principle 5:  Decorative details create silhouette, fit, and finish. Work them on the straight grain. Examples: several rows of pintucks on a crepe day dress appear to form an X from shoulders to hips. They are stitched on the straight, but worn on the bias, and contribute to the structure of the dress.

Detail of Vionnet dresses from the 1920's. The fabric was tucked on the straight grain, but used on the bias. Mertopolitan Museum Photos.

Detail of two Vionnet dresses from the 1920’s. The fabric was tucked on the straight grain, but used on the bias. Metropolitan Museum Photos.

She also used fagoting (connecting pieces of fabric with openwork stitching ) – a square worked on the straight – which formed diamond shaped neckline and sleeve details in the (bias) finished garment. (This black silk dress from a private collection is not attributed to Vionnet, but it uses this technique.)

Black silk vintage dress with squares set on the bias and connected by fagoting.

Black silk vintage dress with squares set on the bias and connected by fagoting.

Principle 6:  Use inserts for specific shaping.

Suit, Butterick pattern 4316, Feb. 1932. The inserts at the hips are attributed to Vionnet.

Suit, Butterick pattern 4316, Feb. 1932. The inserts at the hips, and the skirt beginning above the waist,  show the influence of  Vionnet.

4316 skirt cut like vionnet text 1932 feb del

Can you visualize the skirt of No. 4316 beginning as a straight-grain section of a circle, with straight-grain squares inserted on the bias? (The squares seem to be incorporated into the bodice.) This dress fits closely over the hips without any visible darts to shape it, although there is a bust dart in the bodice.

Think of a satin 1930’s evening gown, very full at the hem, with triangular or rectangular inserts, with the points toward the center of the body. With the sides of the rectangle on the straight grain, the panel stretches horizontally. (Click here for illustration.)

Butterick evening patterns , from 1931 and 1932.

Butterick evening patterns , from 1931-32.

The dress on the right has inserts over the hips; the dress in the center seems to have a triangular insert in the bodice. Like the dress on the left, it follows Vionnet’s rule about seams following the muscles of the body.  Pure genius!

Butterick 3949. Delineator, August 1931.

Butterick 3949. Delineator, August 1931. The skirt is based on quadrants and inserted squares used on the bias.

This Butterick pattern is clearly influenced by Vionnet.  Here are some others: Butterick 3559 from 1931, Syndicate 201 from 1932, McCall 6316 from 1931, Vogue S-3453  from 1931.

Vionnet’s fabric was custom made, in widths up to 100 inches! However, you can create your own fabric by piecing straight to straight – just remember that Vionnet would want the new seams to be integral to your design!
Madeleine Vionnet never re-opened her couture house after World War II, because she knew that her body-conscious clothes were not suited to the military-influenced, shoulder-padded, boxy styles of the 40s, nor to the “New Look” with its elaborate understructures, which depended on reshaping the body rather than working with the body. However, she lived and continued teaching into her nineties, and it’s amazing to realize how much the “look” of the twenties and thirties owes to her – and how much later designers continued to incorporate her genius into the couture.

This lecture by Sandra Ericson was truly inspirational. Check out her classes, etc., at  The Center for Pattern Design

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Filed under 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Dresses, Resources for Costumers, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade, Vintage Couture Designs, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing, Vintage patterns

Biased in Favor of Vionnet and Sandra Ericson, Part 1

 

Back of a gown by Vionnet, 1932. Photos: Metropolitan Museum

Back of a gown by Vionnet, 1932. Photos: Metropolitan Museum

I can’t look at 1930’s fashions without being constantly reminded of the genius of Madeleine Vionnet. She was a successful couturier in the 1920’s, when fashions were mostly tubular, falling with the straight of the grain, but it was Vionnet’s exploration of fabrics used on the bias — which allows woven fabric to stretch — that is, for me, the “look” of the thirties.

Dresses that cling to every curve and pour over the body like water . . . .

Vionnet bias silk and metallic lame gown, 1936. Photos: Metropolitan Museum.

Vionnet bias silk and metallic lame gown, 1936. Photos: Metropolitan Museum.

Diamond-shaped bias panels caressing the hips . . . .

Butterick suit pattern 4176. Delineator, Dec. 1931.

Butterick suit pattern 4176. Delineator, Dec. 1931.

“Mermaid gowns” that glide over the hips and flare near the hem . . . .

Butterick patterns 4093 and 4097; Delineator, Oct. 1931.

Butterick patterns 4093 and 4097; Delineator, Oct. 1931.

Jean Harlow in a slinky halter dress . . . .  All show the influence of Madame Vionnet.

In November, 2010, I attended a lecture on the techniques of Madeleine Vionnet given by Sandra Ericson, who runs the Center for Pattern Design. It was one of the best organized presentations I have ever heard — packed with information, and illustrated with slides and with half-scale and full scale Vionnet reproductions that Ericson had made. (Yes, we were allowed to touch them and examine them.)

As a member of an organization of costumers who work in professional, educational and community theatres, I took plenty of  notes and shared them with members who couldn’t attend. I will post them in Part 2 of this series.

One of the things Ericson said about Vionnet’s draping technique (there is more about it in Betty Kirke’s book,  Madeleine Vionnet) was a real  “light bulb goes on over my head” moment for me.  Actually, since I had been draping and drafting patterns for 30 years at that point, I should probably call it a “Well, Duh!” moment.

Butterick evening gown 3696, with square bias panels over the hips. Delineator, February 1931.

Butterick evening gown 3696, with square bias panels over the hips. Delineator, February 1931.

Ericson (and Betty Kirke before her) pointed out that Madeleine Vionnet cut geometrically. Vionnet based her cutting on circles, squares, triangles, rectangles, and especially on the quadrant (quarter) of a circle. Her early 30’s dresses were cut on the straight, seamed on the straight grain, and worn on the bias. [More about that later.] Some of her loveliest bias gowns were based on a quarter circle, slashed to create a V neckline or an armhole, with triangular inserts, or were formed from four identical pattern pieces, often cut as rectangles, stitched on the straight, worn on the bias.

Nightgown by Vionnet, 1930. The quadrant has been slit at the top and sides, and triangles inserted at the sides. Photo: Metropolitan Museum.

Nightgown by Vionnet, 1930. The quadrant has been slit at the top and sides, and triangles inserted at the sides. Photo: Metropolitan Museum.

I think these concepts are worth writing about here.

Forgive me if I seem to be stating the obvious to some readers; I never took a sewing class until I started my MFA program. My Girl Scout leader taught us how to operate a sewing a machine and use a commercial pattern; after that, I learned mostly from making commercial patterns and following the instructions. So I knew enough to pay attention to “straight of grain” and “bias grain” when cutting out a pattern; I knew what the words meant, but not how they affected the outcome. It wasn’t until grad school, when I started draping fabric on a professional dressmaker’s mannequin (the kind that costs hundreds of dollars) that I had a clue.

The Basics of Fabric Grain (we’ll get to Vionnet in a minute…)

Everything that follows applies to simple, woven fabrics, not to knits or stretch fabrics.

Fabric is woven with vertical threads and horizontal threads, which wrap around the vertical threads at the sides — this is called the selvage (selvedge in the UK). The straight grain of the fabric runs parallel to the selvage and at a right angle to the selvage ( the cross grain.) If you draw a line from the top left corner of a square of fabric to the bottom right corner of a square of fabric, that line follows the bias grain.

The important thing about the bias is that it stretches. If you pull on a square of fabric with a hand at each side, or a hand at top and bottom, it doesn’t stretch much. But if you take hold of two opposite corners and pull, the fabric will stretch. That is why “bias tape” stretches, and bias cut skirts mold to the body.

bias x str grain

The Magic of Draping

Suppose that you have cut a simple skirt out of muslin. It has just a back and a front, and each is a quarter of a circle, with a slightly curved line at the waist.

skirt front

skirt front (quarter section — “quadrant” — of a circle)

If you pin the skirt front to a mannequin and pull the center of the waistline up just a half inch or so, an amazing thing happens:

Raising the center of the waist just a small amount will change the way the skirt hangs.

Raising the center of the waist just a small amount will change the way the skirt hangs.

The sides will move closer together, and the fullness of the skirt, which was evenly distributed, falls toward the center, directly under the place where you raised the waist.  Keep this in mind when looking at 1930’s dresses. The tiniest “tweak” at the waist will determine where the folds congregate — to the center, to one side, etc.

Front of skirt raised quarter circle088

 

A godet (a wedge of fabric usually shaped like a pie slice) is typically a section of a circle.  Often a godet  is inserted between two straight-of-grain panels, where it falls into evenly distributed folds like these:

Godets in 1930's dresses: Butterick 4222 (1931,) 4456 (1932,) and 5447 (1934)

Godets in 1930’s dresses: Butterick 4222 (1931,) 4456 (1932,) and 5447 (1934)

But, in the godet at the left, below, and the skirt at the right, the fullness has been “tweaked” to force the folds away from the center front. The fabric has been lifted a bit at the points of the yoke.

The godet of Butterick 4341 (left) and the entire skirt front of Butterick 4333 (right) have their folds falling from a point of suspension. February 1932.

The godet of Butterick 4341 (left) and the entire skirt front of Butterick 4333 (right) have their folds falling from their points of suspension. February 1932.

Playing with fabric’s behavior and making discoveries like this is one of the joys of draping.

Vionnet Influence, Butterick Pattern

In this evening ensemble from 1932, Butterick mentions the influence of Vionnet. Because the fabric has a vertical stripe, we can see the grain very clearly. The dress is cut on the lengthwise grain, following the selvage. The godets are cut on the cross grain. And the jacket hangs on the bias.

Butterick evening pattern 4546, Delineator, June 1932.

Butterick evening pattern 4546, “Floating Power,” Delineator, June 1932.

1932 june p 66 4546 vionnet jacket

Here is a later wrapped jacket by Vionnet in the Metropolitan Museum collection.

Cut Cut and Sew on the Straight Grain; Wear on the Bias

Another of those “Well, Duh!” moments for me.

BUtterick pattern for 1931. Vionnet Gown dated 1932. Gown photo: Metropolitan Museum.

Butterick pattern for 1931. Vionnet Gown dated 1932. Gown photo: Metropolitan Museum.

To illustrate “cut and sew on the straight, wear on the bias,” I’m rotating that Butterick evening gown 45 degrees.

The panels of the gown are sewn on the straight grain and worn on the bias.

The panels of the bodice are cut and sewn on the straight grain and used on the bias in the finished dress.

This beautifully made early 1930’s dress was butchered by having one sleeve torn off.  Luckily a collector recognized its quality (the squares were hand-stitched together!)

Vintage bias silk dress. ON the right, I removed the confusing shadow.

Vintage bias silk dress made with squares of fabric stitched together with fagoting. On the right, I removed the confusing shadow.

It is a bias-cut dress, and flows over the figure, clinging to every curve. But it was made of squares cut on the straight grain:

Squares with the seam allowances folded under and connected with fagoting.

Squares with the seam allowances folded under and connected with fagoting.

Before being made into a dress, the stitched-together squares were tilted 45 degrees:

black squares in position on dress

Now the dress has bias stretch in two directions.

Detail of black silk bias dress.

Detail of vintage black silk bias dress.

Detail of fagoting, which allows the undergarment to show through. Vintage black silk dress in private collection.

Detail of cross-stitch fagoting, which allows the undergarment to show through. These loose seams allow even more stretch. Vintage black silk dress in private collection.

In the words of the old gravestones: “Go thou, and do likewise.” Play with fabric. Experiment with bias. ( It’s O.K. to use a sewing machine!)

More about Sandra Ericson’s brilliant lecture on Vionnet  in Part 2.

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When Pantsuits Were “Slacks Suits:” 1938, 1940, 1948

Play dresses and a pants suit, Butterick Fashion News flyer, March 1938.

Beach wear and a pants suit, Butterick Fashion News flyer, March 1938.

All the “pant suits” for women —  actually trousers with matching jackets (called slacks suits) —  in this post are from Butterick Fashion News flyers, given away for free in pattern stores. Trousers with matching jackets for women are always shown with other resort wear or beach wear, as in the illustration above.

Butterick 7756

Butterick 7736, March 1938.

Butterick 7756, March 1938. Pattern for slacks, jacket and shirt, sizes 12 to 20 and 30 to 40 inches bust.

This trim jacket would also look at home with a skirt; sharkskin fabric was recommended. The cuffed trousers have full, straight legs.

Butterick 7796

Butterick pants suit 8796, February 1940.

Butterick (pantsuit) slacks suit 8796, February 1940.

To be worn “where it’s fair and warmer,” this mannish chalk-striped trouser suit is shown with very broad shoulders and casual sandals — and painted toenails. The evening gown on the right, Butterick 8798, is shown with a snood on the model’s hair — possibly the influence of 1939’s blockbuster movie, Gone with the Wind.

“With the increasing approval given to slacks by fashionable women everywhere, you can wear the pants in the family.  These have a band with suspenders attached (optional) and a fitted, classic tailored jacket. Sizes 12 to 20 and bust 30 to 42 inches.” Flannel (i.e., wool flannel) was the recommended fabric.

Butterick 4458

Butterick slack suit with optional long shorts. March 1948.

Butterick “slacks suit” # 4458 with optional long shorts. March 1948.

The waist is nipped in with eight darts, and the slacks are narrower in this post-war, New Look-era suit. The model on the right has a bicycle, but these are called “long shorts,” not “pedalpushers.”

This ensemble was the centerfold in a two page spread of “sun fashions for resort wear.”

Butterick Fashion Newsflyer, March 1948.

Butterick Fashion News flyer, March 1948.

The “sea sprite” bare-midriff bathing suit (top left) has shorts that draw up on the sides, probably inspired by Claire McCardell’s Pantung Loincloth swimsuit of 1946.

Again, it’s clear that these trouser suits are not to be worn in the city, nor to restaurants except in resorts. (There’s a story that Marlene Dietrich, refused admission to a city restaurant because she was wearing a suit with trousers, simply stepped out of them and was escorted to a table wearing only her jacket. Well, she had famously great legs. . . .)

Butterick 8454 trousers

Butterick trouser pattern , July 1939.

Butterick trouser pattern #8454 , July 1939. The playsuit to the left is a different pattern, #8475, as is dress #8494, on the lower right.

These long, full-legged and high-waisted trousers evoke Katharine Hepburn, and come back into fashion every once in a while. When they do, I always buy a pair!

“The pattern includes long and short-sleeved shirt, and slacks, and a culotte, to scramble as you choose. Junior Miss sizes 12 to 20, 30 to 38.”

Sadly, the culottes are not illustrated.

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