Recently, I’ve been looking through the copies of Gazette du Bon Ton in our collection, trying to find some cold-weather fashions for our upcoming display for Somerset House’s Winter Festival. In the process, I have come across several plates drawn by Futurist artist Thayaht for couturier Madeleine Vionnet. As those of you who have met me will know, Vionnet is a long-term obsession of mine. I find her work endlessly fascinating, and seeing the ways that Thayaht sought to represent her quintessentially three-dimensional designs is itself an absorbing topic.
Vionnet created her clothes in the round – working on a miniature mannequin to wrap specially woven textiles around the figure – and this makes her designs particularly difficult to capture in two-dimensional form. Unlike many designers, she never sketched her ideas first. And she didn’t divide up the body into back and front, sleeves and bodice etc. This means her garments enveloped the wearer – and curved around the body. She looked carefully at the anatomy and worked with the fabric’s bias to construct garments that floated just above the skin. This brought focus to, for example, the small of the back or the hipbones – areas that other designers tended to skim over. This sensual approach to body and fabric worked well in photographs, where live models could show the garments in movement, and the viewer could see how Vionnet’s work fitted to the body. But it was harder to translate into flat drawings.
This is where her close collaboration with Thayaht comes in. Working with a Futurist – who was himself interested in the relationship between dress and body, and who wanted to convey the moment – motion, modernity and flux – meant a close connection in themes and approach. These preoccupations made them a very good match for each other, since representation – whether in fabric or fashion drawing – was for them a means to explore what it was to be modern, and how this could be conveyed through contemporary art and design.
The images above show how this was achieved. Thayaht used a simple colour palette – as did Vionnet – so as not to distract from the overall form. He used force lines that reached out from the body into the surrounding space – to connect body to place and show how movement and form were linked through Vionnet’s designs. Whether at the theatre, swathed in furs, or on the links, playing golf, women inhabited space in new ways during the early 20th century. His drawings conveyed environment and emotion, too: dark clouds, that mirrored a dress’ smoky greys or a model’s flushed cheeks and anticipatory glance, that connected the blacks and reds of a dress to lush curtains and contrasted with electric lighting’s acid yellow at the theatre. Vionnet’s designs constructed new femininities and Thayaht’s drawings combined avant-garde art and design to demonstrate the effect this had on women, fashion and the spaces they inhabited.