“To show the knee is ordinaire…vulgaire…!” Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975)

Madeleine Vionnet is an alert and mischievous old lady of ninety-six with eighty-six years of practical experience in the art of dressmaking. Her couture house on the Avenue Montaigne shut its doors in 1939, but at the mention of her name her former clients will sigh as if recalling the Golden Age…

A Vionnet dress looks nothing in the hand. It contains no pads, no artificial stiffening, and flops limply on its hanger. There are two hundred of them at the Centre Documentation de la Couture, and they are something of a trial to the ladies who look after them. ‘What can one do with it?’ asks the curator with despairing eyes as she holds up a tube of flimsy white material — for she cannot work out how it was worn…

Not so Madame! She calls for the maid to take me upstairs, to the wardrobe where her favorite models are stored. We station a couturier’s dummy beside her chair, and on it put a black evening dress with a design of sea-horses, in the style of the Attic red-figure vase painting. Suddenly, the hands shoot forward and with a tug here, another tug there, the dress miraculously comes alive.

In an essay dated 1973 by Bruce Chatwin in “What Am I Doing Here” his last published book, click here to purchase.

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