Yesterday I posted about a vintage Grès scarf that was bestowed upon me
by a friend. I knew the first time that I saw it that it was special, but I
needed to do some research into the Grès name and Madame Grès herself to find out more about its heritage. It’s also been a while since my previous Icons
post, and they really are my favourite (must harken back to my highschool years as a history geek).
Grès was launched by Germaine Émilie Krebs, also known as Alix Barton and later as ‘Madame Grès’ in Paris in 1942. Madame Grès was a trained sculptress who often claimed that working with fabric was the same thing, for her, as working with stone. She wanted to be a sculptor, and she found her medium in haute couture. Under her creative stewardship, Grès became one of France’s most vaunted fashion houses, dressing, in its time, the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolores del Rio.
Grès’ signature style was characterised by intricate drapery, created using yards and yards of jersey. It wasn’t uncommon for Madame Grès to employ her inimitable techniques to compress as much as 3m of fabric into a 7cm swathe on a frock. Unbelievable. And yet these images demonstrate just that – a marked sculptural aesthetic and a density of fabric that can only come from painstaking construction. Besides her unusual methods, Madame Grès was also famous for cut-outs on gowns. Exposing parts of the female body in a way that still felt classy became a Grès trademark. I love that about every single one of these gowns – that the cut-outs have a sculptural, sensual feel that implies confidence and feminine mystique.
Madame Grès won the hearts of both the jetset and the press, and her fashion house enjoyed years of critical acclaim before it began to falter in the 1980’s. Grès was subsequently one of the last couture houses ever to establish a ready-to-wear line, something that the Madame herself dubbed ‘a prostitution’. It is sad to see a similar thing happening to other fashion greats that have weathered the decades – Valentino being a case in point.
Today all that survives is Parfums Grès, the associated perfume house located in Switzerland. Madame Grès’ final garment was commissioned in 1989 by Hubert de Givenchy himself. She died four years later at the age of 90.
In April this year, the Musée Galliera hosted the first Paris retrospective of Madame Grès’ work. Showcased, fittingly, amid marble sculptures at the Musée Bourdelle, the exhibition featured 80 key pieces, 100 sketches and 50 original pictures taken by photographers the likes of Richard Avedon and Guy Bourdin. I would have so loved to have seen it in person.
Madame Grès’ rigorous, artistic approach to the creation of women’s wear was truly haute couture. It’s not just because the pieces are displayed as art. They really are monumental, each and every one.
The canary yellow gown is my ultimate – it reminds me of a sea anemone, or a reef, or a shoal of fish. Too beauteous.