Jeanne Lanvin: Biography, History & Designs

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

Jeanne Lanvin was a French designer in the late 1800s and early 1900s in France. While she rose from humble beginnings, she would become a savvy businesswomen and designer of haute couture for men, women, and children.

From Humble Beginnings

The eldest of a family of ten children, Jeanne Lanvin was born in 1867 to a father who was a journalist. It is hard to imagine today, but the end of the 19th century was not an easy period of history for any female, even an intelligent middle-class girl, to try and forge a career. At 13 she started out as a dressmaker's errand girl, then moved up to work for a milliner (hat maker) and eventually became a dressmaker's assistant. In 1885, when she was 18, Lanvin opened her own small millinery shop with her meager savings.

Portrait of Jeanne Lanvin
portrait Jeanne

Ten years after opening her shop, Lanvin married Henri Emilio Georges Di Pietro, an Italian nobleman, and they had a daughter two years later. They christened her Marguerite Marie-Blanche, but the marriage fell apart by the time Marguerite was six years old. Lanvin adored her daughter and was known to include mother-daughter looks in her collections. Her second husband, Xavier Melet, was a journalist like Lanvin's father. Melet eventually becomes French consul to Manchester, England. It was rumored that she didn't see him much after that, having rarely been sighted in Manchester herself.

The House of Lanvin

Jeanne Lanvin eventually made a name for herself with her House of Lanvin designs in Paris. While she had just started out with a millinery shop, making hats, she continued to make dresses for her daughter Marguerite. Mothers who came into the shop admired the dresses, and over time started requesting versions for their daughters. As a result, by the early 1900s Jeanne Lanvin had moved into making dresses for children and their mothers. Her designs were pretty and had a wide range of appeal, rather than being pared down like others, such as Chanel, had done, or making them over the top in style. Lanvin was also known to deliberately design collections that suited many different women's body types.

The use of color was another important characteristic of Lanvin's designs. She used colors ranging from the classic pastels, such as pinks, to her trademark 'Lanvin blue.' In her gowns and dresses, she preferred to use soft flowing fabrics, such as lace, organza, tulle, silk, chiffon, satin, and taffeta. For designs that were intended to be sturdy but elegant, such as suits, she would use luxurious fabrics like velvet or brocade, even bringing in gold or silver fabric. Her designs employed advanced techniques like multilayered cuts or parallel stitching, which was one reason she was well known for her superior craftsmanship.

Cyclone evening dress by Lanvin

Recognizing that women wanted to feel pretty, Lanvin's designs also typically incorporated intricate trimmings and even accessories to make the look complete. She might use ruffles, lace, quilt, flowers, beads, embroidery, furs, and even tiny mirrors to detail a look. For example, in 1912 she used Aztec embroidery in her Rivera collection. And in 1933, she used small metallic disks to embellish the yoke of a dress, as well as the waistband and matching handbag.

Lanvin was also a shrewd businesswoman. As she expanded her design lines, she would open new jobs specific to the type of clothing. Eventually, she would have shops not only for dresses, but for swimsuits, casual wear, fur, lingerie, men's wear, and even home décor. Her expansive lines also included perfumes like My Sin, launched in 1925, and Arperge, created in 1927 for her daughter's birthday. By the time Lanvin died in 1946, she had shops reaching far beyond Paris, with stores in Cannes, Nice, and Biarritz. The French government even presented her with a Legion of Honor for her contributions to haute couture, or high end, custom designs.

Well-Known Designs

In 1910, Lanvin introduced her version of the classical, Greek-style empire waist dress. Traditionally, in the 19th-century empire waist dresses were designed with short sleeves and high waistlines. However, Lanvin's version was considered much more youthful. It included a narrow waistline and long, trailing sleeves. The design created an illusion of length and was suited to most women's body types.

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