Today I went to the Madame Grès exhibit at the Musée Bourdelle in Paris. The permanent collection at the museum is the sculptures of Antoine Bourdelle. Mme. Grès said, “Je voulais être sculpteur. Pour moi, c’est la même chose de travailler le tissu ou la pierre.” (“I wanted to be a sculptor. For me, it’s the same thing to work in fabric or in stone.”) Her draped dresses do indeed have a sculptural quality, so a museum located in a sculptor’s atelier is the perfect setting. Mme. Grès (1903 – 1993) started her design house under her first name “Alix” in the 1930s and continued to be active until the late 1980s. She was the artistic successor to Madeleine Vionnet and a contemporary of Coco Chanel. Her dresses relied on micro pleats of light jersey fabric for their form, rather than corsets. The nipped waists and full skirts of those early collections predate Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior by a decade. The more research I do, the older I find that the “New Look” actually was!
Mme. Grès stated that her goal was, quite simply, perfection. Her skilled seamstresses could pleat fabric that was 270 cm wide down to just 7 cm. The bodices tended to be tight and then the pleats released into full, fluid skirts. The two photos here are from an early collection and one near the end of her career, but in both cases, the dramatic draping of fabric was key. Her dresses often appeared demure from the front, but then I’d walk around the mannequin and see that they were backless. This element of surprise was a Mme. Grès trademark. I noticed that many of the magazine layouts of her clothes showed women moving rather than standing in static postures because her clothes were meant to be worn by real women. Well, real women who were super-wealthy. A documentary that looked like it dated from the 70s included an interview with an American who came over twice a year for the collections and stayed for six weeks each time for the fittings of her day wear and evening gowns!
Today’s expression, Bonne renommée vaut mieux que ceinture dorée (bun ruhnohmay voh mjuh kuh santoor doray) means “a good reputation is worth more than a gold belt.” Mme Grès had a great reputation, and although I didn’t see any gold belts in her collection, she did win the “Dé d’or” or “Golden thimble” in 1976 for excellence as a couturière. The exhibit continues until July 24, 2011, but her influence will go on much longer.