“I wanted to be a sculptor,” pioneering couturière Madame Grès once remarked. “For me, it’s the same thing to work in fabric or in stone.”
Luckily for us, she opted for the softer of the two, and over the course of her fifty year career, rewrote the rules of elegance, eschewing traditional corseting for her signature draping. The sensual simplicity that marked her designs hinged on her ability to manipulate fabrics—twisting, braiding, billowing and draping—into fluid shapes that enhanced the female form without obscuring it.
Her signature style was born when she designed Hellenic costumes for Jean Giradoux’s play La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (The Trojan War Will Not Take Place) in 1935, and she continued to reference the Greek aesthetic when she opened her design house, Grès, in 1942.
Madame Grès quickly made a name for herself as Paris’s most meticulous designer of haute couture, and over the years, her dedication to her craft attracted celebrity clients including Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Dolores del Rio and Jackie Kennedy.
A couturière through and through, she long resisted industry pressure to establish a ready-to-wear line (which she deemed a “prostitution”), preferring to work with individual clients on customized designs.
The facts of her life remain murky. From her multiple name changes to her hush-hush death in 1993 (concealed by her daughter for nearly a year), we will never fully know the woman beneath the signature turban. But while her personal life remains shrouded in mystery, her work stands as a testament to the art of haute couture and represents the pinnacle of twentieth century womenswear.
Given her sculptural background, it’s fitting that 84 of Madame Grès’s designs (culled from the Musée Galliera and various private collections) are currently on display at the Musée Bourdelle‘s “Madame Grès: La Couture à l’Oeuvre” exhibit in Paris, alongside works by sculptor Emile-Antoine Bourdelle.
A turn through the exhibit (which also includes 50 original editorial photographs and numerous original sketches) demonstrates both the breadth of Grès’s work and her adherence to a theme. From her early neoclassic gowns of the ’40s to her more experimental use of cut-outs in the ‘70s and ‘80s, she remained true to her purpose. Every stitch, every pleat, every twist of fabric sings with integrity, with purpose, with deep comprehension of the female form.
A craftswoman of the highest order, Madame Grès’s looks epitomized both feminine grace and supreme versatility. Any given dress could just as easily be worn by a contemporary starlet or an ancient Greek goddess, and therein lies the true value of her vision. Madame Grès didn’t merely dress women—she deified them.
– Tory Hoen, reporting from Paris
Custom Salon sketches, 1930-1969, courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology|SUNY, FIT Library Dept. of Special Collections and FIT Archives, New York, NY, USA.