Madame Madeleine Vionnet was the first to cut a dress on the bias in 1927 in Paris, and in doing so, revolutionised clothes for women. She is often credited as inventing the technique, but in truth it was already in use for making skirts and trims: she simply had the vision to use it on an entire dress. Almost immediately, women were seduced by her new style of cutting, which was both flattering and elegant, and by the 1930s, it was the only style to be seen in. It earned Vionnet the nickname "Queen of the bias cut".
Technically demanding to handle, bias involves cutting fabric at a 45-degree angle. Fabric is made by weaving horizontal weft threads through vertical warp threads, creating a grid structure that dictates how the fabric moves. By cutting diagonally across that structure, the integrity changes, allowing fabric to hang and flow in a completely different way. However, it also makes the fabric very difficult to sew without puckering, and creating perfectly straight flat seams requires considerable skill.
Despite its tricky nature, bias creates beautiful silhouettes, seen on the stars of the 1930s silver screen, including Katherine Hepburn and Jean Harlow. The most spectacular examples, however, appeared in the musicals of the time, for example, when Ginger Rogers – the dancing partner of Fred Astaire – executed routines in metres of swirling silk. Rogers even designed her own gown for the film Top Hat (1935), a dress completely covered in white ostrich feathers for the number Cheek to Cheek that shed feathers with every twirl.
Fast-forward several decades, and John Galliano has long been a fan of the technique – using it in almost every collection during his years at Dior. More recently, the new designer at Roberto Cavalli, Paul Surridge, has updated bias into racerback dresses, while Alexander McQueen has used it to carve sports mesh into flouncy pieces.