Costumier Claire Christie’s research interest is around the use of bias cut in costume. On her first visit to the archive, she was able to view original stage costumes, photographs and newspaper cuttings from the period between the 1920s and 1930s. This was a time when the use of bias cut, as elaborated in the complex construction techniques developed by couturier Madeleine Villonet in Paris, was reflected and disseminated by stylish female performers on the London stage.

Christie’s own approach as a costumier draws inspiration from Vionnet who, in Rebecca Arnold’s words, began to define her thinking around patterncutting “by eliminating the heavy sanitised black cotton dresses which all house models wore under the couture designs”1. Vionnet “was gradually peeling away the layers of stifling 19th century morality that had deemed no woman respectable who was not closed off from the world in corset and petticoat, her body a mysterious object encased in whalebone”2. This chimes with Christie, who collects original Victorian and 1930s dress and who has developed an approach to making costumes around minimising bulk, weight and restriction whenever possible. Of the costumes she was able to view, the one she returned to most often was worn by Cecily Byrne as the Countess von Baltin in Siegfried Geyer’s play By Candle Light performed at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London, in September 1928.

This early embodiment of bias cut mixes straight cut panels with bias cut ones in a complex composition that looks deceptively simple. It involves the use of fabric in a sculptural way, emphasising movement and the expressiveness of the female form. Original bias cut garments are often too fragile to be brought out of their acid-free boxes. Claire Christie’s analysis of this surviving bias cut costume, initially captured in the archive through her sketches, notes, photographs and careful measurements was then reproduced on a half-size mannequin, recreating the radical and innovative nature of this 1928 design, in the flat pattern she developed.

1 Arnold, R. Vionnet and Classicism, in Judith Clark, ed., Vionnet, ExhibitionCatalogue for Madeleine Vionnet Fifteen Dresses from the Collection of MartinKamer (London: Judith Clark Costume Gallery, 2001).
2 Ibid.

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1. Costume worn by Cecily Byrne in By Candle Light, 1928, photographed in the archive.
2. Draping on the stand in studio, by Claire Christie
3. Pattern development sketches, by Claire Christie.
4. Final pattern, by Claire Chirstie.