- Jackie Mallon |
Although back in the headlines this week, the technique of bias cutting was referenced as far back as the Middle Ages. In the pre-knit era it was used in the creation of hose to improve fit, and bias strips of fabric had been regularly used to trim garments with ruffles and bind hems. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that it was elevated from a supporting role to star turn when French couturière Madeleine Vionnet applied the technique to floor-length satin eveningwear. Worn by the most glamorous stars of the day, such as Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, bias cut soon became synonymous with a 30’s languid sensuality and the epitome of femininity.
But what is bias cutting? Traditional cutting is known as “on the grain” and refers to the direction the fabric should lie, in adherence with the fabric’s vertical running fiber, known as the warp, and its horizontal running fiber, the weft. The bias technique is cutting diagonally against the grain with the fabric turned at a 45 degree angle. The result of going against the fabric’s inherent grid-like pattern creates all manner of interesting properties, most notably a natural elasticity and drape that would have been eliminated with straight grain cutting. The downside is that in a dilettante’s hands bias cutting can lead to puckering, uneven seams, unwelcome tugging, and finished garments that look stretched out. Vionnet, who rarely drew but draped ideas on a small-scale wooden mannequin, hung the bias cut fabric in her studio for a week to allow gravity to have its way before beginning to sew the pieces together. She became known as the Queen of the Bias Cut.
The source of all bias
Throughout the rest of the twentieth century, designers from Ossie Clark to Halston to Jean Paul Gaultier have drawn from Vionnet’s pioneering efforts. The late Azzedine Alaia once said in a 2006 New York Times interview, “She is the source of everything, the mother of us all,” and her nurturing influence on his work was on constant display. Alaia paid no attention to trends, did not advertise, and staged runway shows only when he felt like it, yet according to the Independent who described him as “the last of the craftsmen couturiers,” his clothes in Harrods outsold all other international designers. At the heart of Alaia’s craft was the bias cut. He employed it to engineer the most body-conscious goddess dresses, fabric sculptures, that appealed to a global army of devotees from rock stars to royals to first ladies. Think of Grace Jones in the ruby hooded gown that molded like the proverbial second skin around her fiercely flexing form before flaring to graze the floor.
Bias cutting’s most indelible impression on modern fashion has been left by the scissors of John Galliano. He stumbled across the technique while experimentally draping fabric for his 1986 “Fallen Angels” collection. Someone suggested he look to the “source” and his world opened up. Throughout the 90s and 00s, his eponymous collections and those he created for Christian Dior were filled with slinky satin-backed crepe slips, frilled chiffon fluted gowns, flawless diagonal seams snaking around the hips.
A very modern dialogue
In a podcast released in conjunction with his Maison Margiela Artisanal menswear collection this week entitled “The Memory Of…With John Galliano” the designer speaks of his work with bias almost like he’s evaluating a relationship, “There’s a dialogue that develops, an authenticity, a noblesse…it’s alive, it teaches you, and you can’t read about it in a book.”
And the dialogue has taken a decidedly contemporary turn towards the uncharted territory of couture menswear. Bias cutting has always implied luxury given that it requires more fabric and results in more wastage than regular cutting. Some examples of the technique have been showing up in men’s ready-to-wear in recent years from designers such as Raf Simons and Jonathan Anderson, but for Spring 2019 John Galliano for Maison Margiela rang in a bold new era for bias. With bespoke tailored capes and windowpane-checked tweed suiting, candy pink PVC leggings, animal print fur corsets and cowboy boots, his Artisanal vision was swashbuckling and provocative, youthful yet reminiscent, and gender bending. In fusing bias cutting––the technique praised for creating fluidity of line, what Galliano refers to as its “mercurial” nature––with bespoke menswear, he has found the perfect metaphor for how the fabric of society has shifted. Relationships, sexuality, and gender-identification no longer follow the old traditional weave but are custom-created and unique. What is femininity today? What is masculinity? Bias cuts through the traditional binary systems to offer a new simplicity: elastic, liberating, unifying.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Collages: Blanca Heise
Photos: SS19 Maison Margiela, Catwalkpictures; Madeleine Vionnet black/white Albin Guillot /Roger-Viollet /AFP; Madeleine Vionnet golden dress Francois Guillot /AFP; Wikimedia Commons: Man Cutting Cloth North Carolina, Lewis Hine, U.S. National Archives and Records, NARA 518485; Artwork for Madeleine Vionnet fashion design, Madeleine Vionnet, purists de la mode (lesartsdecoratifs)-Will;Ilustración. Figurín de un vestido de Madeleine Vionnet visto por el delantero y la espalda. Fábrica de bordados (Barcelona) Casa H. Estévez - Museo del Traje; model, posing in a Vionnet-inspired dress in the 1930s, State Library of Queensland, Australia, source flickr.com; Azzedine Alaia grey acetate dress from 1986-1987 ellenm1