Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Madame Gres - the couturier time forgot

My piece in today's Telegraph about Madame Gres

For many years I had heard the name Madame Grès and thought I knew who she was, for it conjured an image of one of the indefatigable Mayfair dressmakers who, from the 1930s to the 1950s, ran up copies of French fashions for well-dressed Englishwomen without the budget for the originals. But Madame Grès was the original, a Paris couturière to rival Lanvin and Chanel, once as famous as both of them. In her time she dressed Marlene Dietrich, the socialite Nan Kempner, Jacqueline Onassis and Barbra Streisand. That she is now forgotten, and her house merely a name in license held by a Swiss company, is a lesson in the difficulties of charting a course into the fashion history books.
Alix Gres
Madame Grès photographed by Diane Arbus for 'Harper’s Bazaar'

All clothes at some point take on the appearance of fancy dress before they are reincorporated into fashion again, but not hers. Looking at the dresses she made in the 1930s, one is struck not by their modernity but also by their timelessness. Influenced by the ideals of classicism, she made evening gowns that sculpted the human form, using techniques practised only by herself, a specialist skill known as draping, quite distinct from tailoring.

Why is she not better known? As a new book, Madame Grès: Sphinx of Fashion, reveals there were several reasons: because she made some disastrous business choices; because for the first part of her career she designed under another name and had to rebuild her reputation during the difficult circumstances of the German occupation; and because she never courted publicity. Working in complete solitude, she was 'more Garbo than Garbo', according to the fashion journalist Cathryn Horn. Only in the aftermath of her death and the bizarre revelations about her fate - she died penniless, forgotten, the announcement of her death suppressed by her daughter - did she come again to public attention.


Els said...

Right now there is an exhibition in NY at the museum of FIT

Madame Grès: Sphinx of Fashion
February 1 to April 19, 2008

Madame Grès: Sphinx of Fashion presents the work of the great Parisian couturiere, Madame Alix Grès. She created gowns of exquisite beauty and dressed many of the most stylish women of the twentieth century. One of the most brilliant dressmakers of the twentieth century, her work is noted for its sculptural quality and innovative construction techniques.

This exhibition, with over seventy garments from both museum and private collections, features the three most important stylistic elements of Madame Grès’s work: her classically-inspired pleated gowns usually made of matte silk jersey; her simple and geometric designs based on ethnic costume; and the three-dimensional, sculptural quality that was a hallmark of much of her work.

Madame Grès: Sphinx of Fashion has been organized by Patricia Mears, deputy director of The Museum at FIT. The exhibition is accompanied by a beautifully designed book of 25,000 words, published by the prestigious Yale University Press, and illustrated with over 100 photographs

( source the newsletter from FIT)

Carolyn (cmarie12) said...

thanks for the wonderful post! I plan on seeing the FIT exhibit but its not just her creative genius that went unnoticed...I think quite a few designers that weren't publicity hounds have been forgotten also!

ExpatJane said...

I'm such a scatter brain, but there were a few Madame Gres dresses on display in a store in the Apkujeong district of Seoul. I saw them and they were great.

In fact, I'll be heading that way soon. I'll write the store's name down. I know it's a new Italian store, but I forget the name...yikes!

ExpatJane said...

Months later and the Madame Gres display is now LONG gone, but the store was the new location of the Italian store 10 Corso Como, which opened here in Seoul a few months ago.