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.

Observer review

Vivien Kovaks comes from a family of 'mice-people', Jewish-Hungarian immigrants who arrived in 1938 and are simply grateful to England for giving them refuge. This is a novel about identity and belonging. There is nothing lightweight about its themes and yet it is so artfully constructed that you barely feel you're reading it at all, so fluid and addictive is the plot. But like all the best books, the serious ideas it raises stay with you for a long time afterwards.
. . .

This is a wonderful, tightly written novel that charts one woman's emotional life while weaving in politics, history and morality. It does not come to any easy conclusions: the murderous Sandor is no less of a monster than his silently raging but impotent brother Ervin, who is sleepwalking through life. Ultimately, though, Sandor's defence does not wash; by choosing a path of violence and revenge, he descends to the depths of the fascists he hates.

Grant does not hit you over the head with politics, though. She transports you to another era and into another woman's life so gently and effortlessly that it is not until the end of the book that you realise the points she is making are universal and timeless. This novel is above all a quiet masterclass in the perils of hypocrisy. No man is all good or all bad. And a decent suit can make you overlook a lot.

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