Would You Like to Vionnet?

Hey!  Thanks for all your lovely messages and support this past week!


Madeleine Vionnet is kind of hot lately, have you noticed that?  The Vionnet label is putting out new designs, Vionnet was in the Great British Sewing Bee, and some amazing articles on her work are popping up like this one from The Culture Concept.  I think it’s about time!

click to view on the Kyoto Costume Institute digital archives- amazing resource!

As many writers have noted, Vionnet is one of the least appreciated designers of the 20th century.  She began dressmaking as an 11-year-old apprentice in Paris at the beginning of the century and was a contemporary to Chanel.  They shared a passion for designing clothes that allowed for freedom of movement and freed women from fussy, restrictive fashions.  Each forged her own route to that goal.  Much of Chanel’s work centered on uniformity (hello, inventor of the LBD), manly tailoring, and sportswear.  Her influence transformed women’s fashion and ushered in the modern age of dressing.

Vionnet handkerchief dress 1920

By contrast, Vionnet took inspiration from the flowing, sensual garments found in Classical Art.  Her gowns were soft, and her influence on modern dressing was subtler than Chanel’s but no less pervasive.  Vionnet believed that the fabric and the cut should be a beautiful enhancement of the wearer’s expression and movements:

“When a woman smiles, her dress must smile with her.”-wiki

Her designs are often described as “cut on the straight, hung on the bias.”  Vionnet achieved her vision through combining bias cut and simple geometric shapes, though she was quick to dismiss anyone who accused her of inventing the bias cut.  She was more of a doting Aunt, who also popularized the cowl neck and halter tops.  Vionnet’s dresses were also expertly finished and detailed, and she signed each dress with her own thumbprint as the label.

Months ago, I re-discovered this Threads article on Vionnet and Betty Kirke.  Betty had the chance to meet Vionnet before her death, and to rummage through her wardrobe to take patterns.  Imagine!  Betty’s book is on my reference-book-wishlist.  Reading Betty’s account of the magic of pulling on a Vionnet dress, I found myself wanting to make up a Vionnet design.  I was particularly fixated on this one:

click for source

click for source

I started out just printing the pieces from the .jpg and gluing them together- I couldn’t understand how it worked and I needed to.  The intriguing paper puzzle progressed to scale models.  I had to wonder if the twisting squares would translate well to a tunic length.  I really, really wanted to wear a design from Vionnet’s mind, if not from her fingertips.  A full-length dress from this would use a lot of fabric and be hard to handle, so I decided to try a tunic.

StephC Cake Sewing Room 1

Several muslins later, I’d balanced the hem points to my liking, made a multi-size pattern, and cut one from striped jersey.

Picture 3

I didn’t take it off (practically) for weeks, months.  I don’t know why I liked it. I don’t generally wear sheathy-sacks-with-fluttery-bits. But I loved it.  When the weather turned chilly, I wore it with leggings and a chunky sweater.  Now it’s warmer, I can leave those off if I stay out of a stiff breeze…
Sea Star Tunic 2

I really like the pintucked, cowl neckline at front and back.

Sea Star Tunic 7

It’s much prettier than the diagram, the pintucks are my own little flourish.  On the pattern, I also added in a hidden pocket.  I want to make another one just a touch smaller through the body, I think it’s just a little too wide through the front shoulders.

Sea Star Tunic 1

The pattern has sat on my computer since then, gathering digital dust.  It’s a large pattern, with two big pieces cut twice.  The cutting and the instructions are very particular, but not difficult.

They are unconventional insructions, very strange.  I told myself the pattern was too large, too weird to pursue as a pattern for release, and got to work on some other things.

Yet I found myself reaching for this tunic so often, I had to admit it had become cake to me.

I’d love to release this tunic as a pattern, but I wonder if you would like that?  I wonder if the construction is too other-worldy.  I wonder if I should make six sizes or three… I wonder if you’d feel what I do when I wear it?  I want to make another one or two for summer, and I thought it’d be a good time to try some pattern testing on the Sea Star Tunic.

Sea Star Tunic 11

If you like her or she piques your fashion-historian curiosity, if you have the time to sew her, and you’re not afraid of something a bit weird (but delicious!), let me know!  I created a secret group testing pool for the upcoming Cake Tidepool Collection, and I’d like to try this one out first. I can add you to the group via the Cake Facebook Page.

We’ll send you either a printed or .pdf printshop copy, the instructions, and I’ll be posting the construction of my next Sea Star Tunic next week for your reference.  You’ll need 1.5-2.2 m of a soft, drapey woven or knit fabric.  I made sizes 35, 45, and 55.  In theory, the bias should expand and drape to suit sizes between, but I haven’t tested this.  Would you like to help?

I was leaping around to get away from a stinging fly, and husband caught this photo, shows the motion well... and heheh!

I was leaping around to get away from a stinging fly, and husband caught this photo, shows the motion well… and heheh!

ETA: Thank you so much for the massive response for testers! We have a good solid group of varying body types and experience levels, and based on the response already I think this will definitely be a future release!  I have several other patterns that are in need of wider testing, keep an eye out here for the next few…!

If you’d like to see some other blogger riffs on Vionnet, check out Leimomi’s Chiton Dress (I soooo want one!) and Cathy’s excellent exploration of the Handkerchief Dress.  Have look at Lizzy’s charming Saiph Dress too if you haven’t already- reading her post encouraged me to go ahead and embrace my fluttery sack tunic.

eta: Fehrtrade quickly tweeted me that I’d left out her VNA top– a really wearable take on Vionnet’s cutting style!

Do you ever play with Vionnet?  Leave me a link if you’ve blogged it or want to share a particular Vionnet dress you love!

What do you think?  Want to play?





  1. I would love, love, love to help. My birthday present (to myself!) this year was a version of the Kirke book. I’ve just been gazing at the pictures.
    The funniest part was a the husband of a client of Vionnet, who didn’t like the dresses – it took his wife too long to get out of them!!

    • Oooooh, birthday present! Great idea, I have one of those coming up… ;) Took her too long to get out of them? Must have been one of those complicated but oooh sooo sophisticated wrap dresses Vionnet used to make out of fine jerseys…. :)

  2. Oh, would I ever? It’s gorgeous. I’ve not tried any drapey sewing and it was on my list to take a crack at. If you’ll have new, I would love to test!

    • Oh yay, I’d love to have you working on Sea Star, Kate. I added you via email, if you don’t see the invite in the next couple of hours lmk. I started several threads in the Testing Pool, have a look and let me know your preferences… And check out the downloadable .pdfs of the instructions I posted!

  3. this is really cool! so so interesting! I want to know how the pattern pieces go together too! the first time I ever HEARD of Vionnet was when Fehr Trade released the VNA top! :) I have a few books on hold at the library about Ms. Vionnet. I hope I get them soon! now I’m even more curious!

  4. Love to play! Not sure my cauliflower thighs could carry off the tunic but I can’t stop thinking about your urchin (?) skirt. Hoping you are going to sell the pattern with that fabric as a pack?

    • Ah, well, there’s always some Espresso leggings to pop underneath, it’s pretty cute worn that way. I would think it’d work nicely over skinny jeans, too, but I don’t wear them so I don’t know. :) Oh- and the border print fabric… I might do, or I might talk to Kylie Voodoo Rabbit and see if she would like to do that… She has the fabric and will have the patterns so why not? :)

    • Ah, yes, arms can be a bit tricky. Thanks so much, I’m pleased you like it on me…! Will be really fun to see how it plays out on a range of figures, and with a release we’d for sure show how that looks… :D

  5. This is just beautiful. So flowy and floaty, perfect for the weather we are experiencing right now. I would love to create a version and if you are interested, so far I have used a 45 in all your patterns. Although I think I would probably make it slightly longer for summer wear as my legs are a little older than yours ;).

    • Thanks, Pauline! A lot of the “fit” and the way it works on the body has to do with the interaction of the bias cut and gravity, which leaves a lot of wiggle room for sizing… I’m fairly certain I calibrated the sizes well from the neck (the most important point, really) and I’m keen to check the work… Lengthening is possible, maybe not for a first tester one but after that, definitely. I’ll add you in. :)

  6. I wish I had time to help out with testing, but this semester will not allow it. I would love to make this pattern and any variations of it, though! I would need to get a little bit closer fit in the shoulders, bust and ribcage to not feel like I’m wearing a giant sack, but the way you design your patterns and sizing makes that so much easier! Can’t wait to see the collection.

    • Ah, that’s alright, I hope you have a very good and productive semester! It’ll be a much quicker sew once everyone tells me where the sewing ambiguities are located and we’re sure the sizing is nailed down tight. :) This tunic really swims on me, and the original vionnet dress had a curious belt sewn through it, I figure I’ll work out whether or not to add that in during testing… That said, I’ve never loved a sack dress the way I love this one, I usually need quite a lot of bust and waist shaping so I don’t look frumpy, but not so much on this one… Probably because she’s so shorty and I seldom layer her except when it’s cold.. ;) I can’t *wait* to get the rest of the collection moving along, been playing with them most of the year. heee!

  7. Beautiful! I’m not usually a flutter-bits kinda gal but I do love this. And the history too. Not sure why but it kinda reminds me of Erte’s work. Maybe its the long flowing lines? Would love to help if you still need it. I’m sure you’ve gotten tons of helpers so no sweat if the queue is full. :)

    • Ooooh, I hadnt heard of Erte before, thank you for the introduction! I’m going to go disappear down a rabbit hole for a few hours, now. ;) Will send along the invite…

  8. If you’re still looking for testers, I’m in! I’ve been looking for tunic patterns that are a little more interesting than just a lengthened t-shirt and this fits the bill.

    • That’s what I was kind of going for, earlier this year. I just wanted to wear sacks, but pretty sacks. lol! Adding you in…

  9. I would LOVE to pattern test this! I live for drapey, sack-like tunics to pair with leggings and cozy cardis, but patterns like this are often not made in larger sizes (like the drape drape books). I think you will really be filling a niche with this pattern! I can’t remember what size I cut in the Tira, but I am on the larger end of your size range and would be happy to send along measurements. Plus, Susan (@moonthirty) can vouch that I love knits as much as she does ;)

  10. Oh wow, this is new to me, but very fabulous! And I’m glad to see you back, happy, and healthy. :)

    • Thanks, Mary! :D A couple of months in the country and I’m just full of vivre again, it’s been excellent to feel like myself.

  11. Oh, you bet! (of course I’m going to go try this out from what you’ve put up here). Lucked into the book when they reprinted it, bought a quarter scale manikin to practice her designs out on, made a wedding dress from one of them, and just dote on the Bunka Vionnet book (they solved some of the scale issues in their recreations). I love your patterns (pockets forever!); I am so your gal for this!

    • Ooooohhhh you mean you’re going to print out the paper pieces and twiddle with them like I did? Lol, prepare yourself for a project spiral… Once I “got it,” I could. not. resist. putting it on my body… I’m really tempted to make/buy a scale mannequin for playing, too… When I was little, I used my American Girl doll… lol…

  12. Oh, this is lovely! I’d love to help out. I’m a sucker for anything drapey, and things that look complicated but are actually make from pretty simple shapes are the best.

    • Thanks, Alice! I really appreciate the offer, I think I have a good set of testers for Sea Star just now, but I have some pants and other goodies to try out… I’ll get to work on my samples, keep an eye out next Friday… And I agree, I looooooove pretty things from simple shapes… So much…

  13. i want to play!!! That’s exactly what I always want- something sexy and drapey and soft but interesting and edgy at the same time. YES PLEASE! also when is the pool party ;)

    • I was thinking we’d have a pool party when Susan and her husby are visiting in December, get some of my designer pals and peeps to come hang out, launch us some Tidepool Patterns… Eeeee! Thank you so much for the offer, I think the group is at capacity now but I have soo so many patterns to test out in the next couple of weeks, hope another one speaks to you. :)

  14. My first thought was ‘hmm, pretty but probably won’t work with my body type’. And then I gave myself a smack because I’m trying to train that stupid thought out of my head! Then I looked closer, especially the pics where you’re pulling some of the layers apart. I’m…intrigued. I’m honestly not sure if it’s my style, but I’d love to try it out and see – I think it’s one of those garments where you just don’t know until you try.

    If you haven’t been innondated with enough pattern testers, I’d love to try it out. I’m headed home from camp next week, and am itching to sew this time out, and I’d be glad to put this on the top of my list. I know, if nothing else, my boyfriend will enjoy that length! lol


    • Lol! Good smacking, I’d be gentler on you but definitely agree… On the contrary, my spidey sense tells me this would look really good on a larger figure, it has a nice layered, uneven hem and the flutters draw the eye up and around the body.. And the pintucked cowl neckline feels so so gorgeous to wear… :) Check yer inbox, friend.. And it should probably be worn over leggings or skinny pants, I just wanted to *really* show off Sea Star… ;) Agreed, it’s one of those “don’t know til you try” type cuts…

      • I think you’re right, that it could work with a lot of different body types. I didn’t realize, at first, that the fabric bits on the side weren’t one big billowy dress, but extra “fluff” (haha I’m so good at describing stuff).

        I’m already thinking about colours and how I could wear this – we’ve already got snow on the ground, so something I can easily layer. I’m thinking keep it simple for now, and go with a navy or black. I do like your stripy version though… guess I’ll have to see what my stash/local fabric shop has on-hand.

        Also, I’ll probably have to “join” when I get home next Thursday – we have very crummy internet access in the evenings (so no gmail), and no facebook access during the day. It’s just as well though, I’d just be chomping at the bit to start if I had a look at the actual pattern before hometime.

  15. I bypassed this post when it was first published, to be honest I didn’t even realise it was you!
    Now I’ve looked at it, I think I could see myself wearing it as part of a 3 piece ensemble, with long sleeved and long legged items underneath. Definitely a change of direction from you, but yes, I do like it!

  16. Pingback: Quest for the Unfinished Medallion « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World

  17. Boo, I missed it! This looks very interesting and can’t wait to see how it turns out. I love tunics and fluttery bits! You are looking good and your backdrop is gorgeous!

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