Monday, January 2, 2023

Making a Madeleine Vionnet

 I first learned of Madeleine Vionnet about 5 years ago. 

That was the year I discovered the Designin’ December challenged, hosted by Linda of “Nice Dress, Thanks, I Made It”. I immediately decided I wanted to take part in the challenge - it looked like a ton of fun (and it was!) - however, I’d never in my life paid any attention to “designer fashion”. Thus, I headed to Pinterest to find something “designer” I wanted to re-create. And that’s how I stumbled upon Madeleine Vionnet. A designer who was in her prime in the 1920’s and 30’s.

I found this dress of hers from the mid-20’s and fell in love. That was it, that’s what I wanted to re-create. I fell down the rabbit hole of reading everything about Vionette and her process that I could find online.

I learned she was one of the first designers to use the bias cut to make her clothes drape a certain way. I learned most of her clothes were draped, rather than flat patterned, and the patterns weren’t particularly easy to decipher. There was usually more to them than a “simple” finished garment might suggest. I learned silk crepe was one of her most used fabrics as it drapes beautifully. I learned there were several books about her designs and the book “Vionnet”, which is entirely in Japanese, was probably the best book of her dress patterns available. Online reviews suggested the patterns were quite usable, even for those of us who can only read English.

The book went on my Christmas list that year, and I decided to table the idea of making my own Vionnet dress until I’d had a chance to study some of her patterns. That year I made my “Gucci” coat instead. (A coat completely worth making by the way, I still wear it regularly!)

Year after year went by and I kept picking different projects for Designin’ December, even though I did eventually get that Vionnet book I wanted. 

Finally, this year I decided I was going to put that book to use and make myself a Vionnet re-creation. No, I didn’t make the dress that started this journey, instead I decided to start with the simplest dress in the book. Pattern #10. A 1922 dress. If it was successful I’d be on my way to making more impressive 1920’s and 30’s bias cut dresses in the future.

In my stash I had 2 yards of a “Silk Crepe Twill”, bought from Fabric Mart a couple years back during one of their silk sales. I ordered it because the description intrigued me. I like twill and I like crepe, so what would a fabric that was a combination of the two be like? The color was called “Shady Eggplant” so I expected something purple-y. I’m not entirely sure what color this is, but purple it is not. (Though maybe in the right light there are purple under tones?)

That said, the texture is pretty cool! Crepe on one side, a shiny twill-ish texture on the other side, and lots of drape.

I ordered it without a clear plan, but once I received it I pretty quickly decided it would be just the material for a Vionnet dress.

So, with this decided, my Vionnet dress became my first sewing project in my new sewing area in our new house. The weekend after Thanksgiving I set up my sewing area then pulled out the pattern book, some clear plastic to draft on, and got to work.

The patterns in the book are all gridded, which makes them easy to scale up. However, each square equals 10 cm, or about 4”, so that’s a bit trickier than a standard 1” grid. It required a considerable amount of concentration to make sure I was marking things correctly.

This dress pattern is basically 2 triangles, one for the front and one for the back, with the center front and back on the bias and the side seams on the straight of grain and cross grain. Since the side seams were safely not on the bias they were stable enough for me to add side seam pockets - a necessity in my opinion. All good dresses must have pockets.

I sewed on the pockets and sewed up the side seams with French seams. Then I pinned together the shoulder straps and tried on the dress. It was much too short. I really should have made a mock-up. Or atleast measured the length of the pattern pieces before cutting into my silk. There wasn't a whole lot I could do about the situation at that point in the project, but after some brainstorming I decided to lengthen the shoulder straps a bit. It wouldn't make the dress as long as I wanted, but it would atleast make the dress long enough to be decent.

I made my shoulder strap extensions out of scrap silk, finished the neckline and armholes with a hand sewn rolled hem, then hand sewed the extensions in place.  I made the extensions like tubes and made sure to only sew the bottom edge of the ends of the tubes in place, so something could be sent through the tubes later.

The original dress had a matching scarf thing that was worn with it. I'm not a huge fan of scarfs, so I decided to do something else instead. Using some silk chiffon left over from this dress, I made two long triangular streamers.

Based off other 1920's and 30's dresses I've seen online I used the narrow end of the streamers to make a collar on the front of the dress.

Then fed them through the shoulder strap tubes I'd left open and let them free fall down the back of the dress.

The chiffon was hand sewn in place.

The dress was finished with a hand sewn rolled hem.

And then I had my Vionnet dress!

Flowy, and drapey, and beautiful!

And not only is it my Designin' December entry, it's also my final Historical Sew Monthly submission for this year. (I haven't blogged everything yet, but amazingly, for the first time ever, I completed all 12 challenges!) It fits the theme New Era: Make something from a decade or century you’ve never made from before, or make something that represented a new era in fashion in its time.

What the item is: 1920’s Evening Gown
The Challenge: New Era - this is my first time properly venturing into the 1920’s, and I made a bias-cut Madeleine Vionnet dress. The bias cut was quite a new technique at this time, plus the 20’s were just a totally new era of fashion compared to previous decades.
Material: silk crepe, silk chiffon, and cotton scraps for the pockets.
Pattern: Dress #10 from the Japanese book “Vionnet”. I can’t read a thing in the book, but the patterns are easy enough to decipher!
Year: 1922, according to the book.
Notions: Thread
How historically accurate is it? Well it’s definitely a bit too short on me for the era. I failed to measure the length before cutting into my fabric. Silk crepe and silk chiffon are both accurate materials for the era and this designer. The side seam pockets I added are probably not accurate. It’s made with a mixture of hand and machine sewing, which is fine for the era, but I didn’t research the stitches and French seams I used, so can’t say they’re perfect. Let’s say 70%.
Hours to complete: Only about 2 to draft the pattern, cut it out, and sew up the seams, but several more for hand finishing the hem, neckline, and armholes. I did not keep track of my hand sewing time.
First worn: 12/28/22 for picture

Total cost: I spent $10 a yard on the fabric, and used 2 yards. The book was a gift and the thread was stash. So $20.

I'm very pleased with how well this dress turned out and certainly hope to re-create more Vionnet designs in the future! 

Thank you Linda for continuing to host Designin' December - it has been so fun to participate every year!

If anyone's interested all the Designin' December 2022 entries are up on Linda's blog now!

You can vote on your favorites there, and, of course, I would appreciate your vote!

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!


  1. Beautiful success! Your fix for the dress length allowed the addition of a wonderful design element, the floating streamers, in a perfect contrast color and fabric. Lesson for all sewists: turn a fix for a problem into a design feature!