I’ve been working on my pattern for the vintage pattern contest (links to series entries at close). Here you’ll see my first draft. If you look closely, you’ll see a “stay”. That’s a hint, you’re going to need one too.
The block I’m using is modified from a style I pulled out of _Madeleine Vionnet_ by Betty Kirke. Specifically I used pattern #19 on pg 142 -here’s the front and here’s the back. And yes, I certainly did stomp all over Ms Kirke’s copyright but I’m hoping that increased demand -which I’m attempting to stimulate- will nudge the book back into publication as it’s out of print. A quarter-scale pattern of my modified version of Vionnet’s style is shown here. Here’s a photo of the completed dress on my “dress form”. You can barely see the navy silk waist insets.
(I so detest standard dress forms because they’re not shaped like people). If you’d like to see the bias-cut dress block on me, go here. Whenever I work with this pattern, it reminds me of things I rarely get the chance to discuss because it doesn’t fit in neatly anywhere and that’s really what this post is about.
Vionnet is considered to be the historical master of draping. That said, draping is inefficient. It takes a lot longer to achieve a quality result as compared to drafting. For example, first you have to drape it -which is no big deal- and once you’ve achieved the look you want, you have to sew up the drape. Then you try on the drape. If the fit and style lines work then you have to take the drape apart and reproduce the shapes to make a hard copy pattern. Once you cut the pattern, you have to cut out a test sample to make sure the drape was rendered accurately onto paper. Continue to make intermittent corrections as necessary. With drafting, you start with paper and then cut a sample to fit. Your iteration begins there. The drafting process is much faster, cleaner, efficient and accurate.
My intention in writing the latter paragraph was not to belittle the design process preferences of others. It’s important that people understand the difference between drafting and draping. Vionnet only draped because she couldn’t draft; and if she was that good with draping, I cannot conceive how brilliant she would have been with drafting. It’s incalculable. You can get the same results with drafting and draping. It’s just that draping takes longer as it is prone to greater error. I’m trying to explain the difference not to criticize draping but so that people understand she was producing unrivaled design and doing it with one arm tied behind her back. That’s why she was a genius. So maybe you already knew she was a genius but I felt the need to prove it from a technical standpoint.
That’s why my gut says that Vionnet never had any formal drafting training. She was unschooled making her genius all the more remarkable. That’s why she draped everything. Over time, she saw patterns emerge from her drapes off an x-y coordinate (grain is the ultimate x-y coordinate) – yet her drapes were necessarily cartographic. Unable to resolve the difference between the minutia of these engineering details, she began to hang out with mathematicians. I don’t know that she ever saw the larger pattern -the one we’re all looking for- and I think it may have been one of the greatest mysteries of her intellectual life. I know it is of mine. I also think that one of the greatest tragedies is that Vionnet was not trained in pattern drafting. Vionnet learned the long way via draping, if she’d had some drafting instruction, I just can’t imagine the impact of her talent on the history of fashion.
I’ve seen the drafts in Vionnet’s book and I’ve tested several of them literally and most of them mentally many, many times. To get inside someone’s head, you have to regenerate their work enough times to get a feel of their style and their eye, and I have some idea of what she might have been thinking and how she thought to do things. Like me, she hated being called a designer -she insisted she was a technician but even that was modest. She was an engineer but that wasn’t a term affiliated with the industry at the time.
I have reworked enough of the drafts enough times to know that the patterns in the book contain 2 types of errors. One type of error was made by Vionnet and the others were made by the author, Betty Kirke. “Error” sounds like a critical, ugly thing but I don’t mean it that way. Errors are like a signature. Every artist is known for their unique fingerprint, it’s that very thin line separating them from god-like perfection. There is a degree of quality to errors and the ones in this book are very fine errors indeed. And each of these women -in their respective ways- are worthy of our deepest admiration, respect and emulation. I can only aspire to be at such a level that I could make such beautiful mistakes. Anyway, my favorite reinvented Vionnet bias-cut dress has a BK error -the quality of which defies description here- and once I made the correction, I could see how Vionnet also played with things as she was teaching herself drafting according to the mathematical patterns she observed. While she may have draped most everything, I can only think that once she saw this one on paper, she made extensive drafting corrections. The corrected skirt line is almost a pun, she was playing with geometry and there was a subtle sense of humor about it, almost an insistence to incorporating the feature into the design.
There aren’t a lot of this copies of this book available (Amazon lists 2 used copies at around $850 each) so if you do not intend to use this book, please don’t buy it. It’s bad karma to be a vanity collector. Leave it for the next person who will actually use it, learn from it and hopefully pass their insights along. If you buy this book I’d urge you to use it and go to the bother of acquiring the needed materials (dotted marker paper at SouthStar Supply) and reproduce the drafts because until you do the work, you can’t crawl inside Vionnet’s head. Until you manage to crawl into her head, you’ll never understand just how brilliant she truly was.
Beyond career and intellect, her personal life was always in the shitter. Such pattern emerges that one could almost think she was autistic. And Balenciaga too but that’s another story.