Madeleine Vionnet’s couture creations, the story of a model restoration

A generous gift

Madeleine Vionnet is known to have been one of the great couturières of the 20th century. What is less known is that she was one of the first to understand that fashion is an authentic element of national heritage. She played a key role in the birth of the Musée de la Mode, unhealthy Paris’s Fashion Museum. When François Boucher created the embryo, here the Union Française des Arts du Costume (French Union of Costume Arts) in 1948, Madeleine Vionnet was the first to contribute her collections. She was 76 years old and had been retired since 1939. She selected 126 models from her collections and from her best clients, to which she added 730 patterns (the muslin used to create the designs), and 13,000 photos. Madeleine was, in fact, one of the pioneers for the defence of intellectual property. She had pictures taken of all of her designs in order to register each creation. In the 1920’s three photos were taken of each dress (front, back and profile), then in the 1930’s, one shot was taken of each model surrounded by mirrors at 45 degree angles showing all of the facets simultaneously.


Madeleine Vionnet

Fragile garments

Madeleine Vionnet also donated her accessories (handbags, shoes, perfume bottles), as well as the sign that had hung above her shop at 50 Avenue Montaigne. More than a half century after this enormous gift, the Musée des arts Décoratifs, where the collection now resides, was faced with a colossal dilemma: how to protect this treasure and to prevent it from deteriorating? “the biggest problems concern the fabrics and techniques,” explains Maximilien Durand, charged with the protection and logistics of the operation. “Madeleine Vionnet once said to her goddaughter, Madeleine Chapsal,
that her dresses were eternal. But if their beauty was in fact eternal, the same could not be said for their technical aspects. Voinnet used very fragile materials such as silk, which is extremely sensitive to dust and to variations in humidity. Humidity modifi es a fabric’s molecular chains, which break and disintegrate into a powder. Dust is abrasive and dulls the dresses.” For garments that had become fragile due to intensive wear (tried on or worn up to six times a day for the fashion shows), it was urgent to take action.


500,000 euros to be closely monitored

The important Madeleine Vionnet exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 2009 provided the opportunity to undertake this indispensible action, thanks to funds provided by a patron/sponsor, Natixis. The bank donated a million euros, half of which was to be used for restoring the collection. This significant sum was to be managed in a very controlled manner, in light of the importance of the investment. For ten percent of the collection, the restoration was extremely complicated, requiring up to six months of work per garment. Madeleine Vionnet loved light materials like chiffons and tulles that she would ornament with embroidery or velvet pieces, too heavy for the fragile fabrics! Having been improperly stored up until now, these dresses were in danger of tearing at the folds when they were unpacked. Even cleaning them presented serious problems. Using water was impossible, so the only alternative was solvents: about 100 liters per skirt! In all, 8000 liters were necessary. Needless to say, it was impossible to stock these solvents in a public place such as the Musée des Arts Décoratifs…


Avant-garde solutions

A true “operation commando” was organized with the help of the famous luxury dry cleaner, Pouyanne, located on Boulevard Haussmann, that Madeleine Vionnet had used in the past. The firm’s specialized staff underwent specific training at the Institute National du Patrimoine (National Institute of Heritage). About 20 restorers were hired part-time by the museum. “We had to respect the three basic principles of restoration: guarantee the stability of the materials, permit the reversibility of the actions taken, as well as their traceability (in order to be able to distinguish the elements of the restoration actions from the original).” The team had to use very fine silk thread, curved needles (used for eye surgery) to reinforce fragile zones by attaching them to a support fabric. For the tulle, so important in the 1930’s, a substitute had to be found. After a great deal of in-depth research, the team opted for a nylon tulle which had never been used in this context and which was available from just one supplier in Europe. One can only imagine the meticulous and detailed work required to save these dresses, some of which had up
to ten meters of lining.

Dressed for eternity

If just one full-time employee had taken on this project single-handedly, it would have taken her 13,000 hours, or nine years of work! Organized as it was, the mission lasted
exactly one year, from June 2008 to June 2009 and was finished, as planned, for the opening of this grand exhibition. Even the setting would provide food for thought: it was
essential that the fabrics avoid excess exposure to light. Very sophisticated lighting techniques, featuring a range of intensity that varies on five minute cycles, made it possible to protect the fabrics, while at the same time giving the garments the lighting they deserved. And each dress was displayed on a mannequin that was custom-made for that specific garment. Today Madeleine Vionnet’s creations have found a resting place that guarantees their preservation. They are stored in neutral-colored cardboard boxes, nestled with comfortable cushions and protected from humidity by an alkaline reserve. After this unique saga, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs is ready for new challenges.







Homage embedded
in the sidewalk on
Avenue Montaigne.





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