Paris’ Musée Bourdelle hosts the exhibit Madame Grès: Couture at Work and nothing could be a finer fit nor more flawless art/fashion alliance. Emile-Antoine Bourdelle was a late 19th-century/early 20th-century sculptor, whose gorgeous courtyard-and-garden-filled estate is located on an unassuming street in the 15th arrondissement. His works fit seamlessly, so to speak, with those of the couturière Madame Grès, whose own early training as a sculptor was lucidly translated into her principal technique for shaping a garment, without seaming or fabric cutting and without a pattern. She simply replaced a sculptor’s traditional stone or clay with fabric.
An exquisite mise en scène harmoniously juxtaposes the oeuvres of the two talents. Curators Olivier Saillard, Laurent Cotta and Sylvie Lécallier harnessed the spirit of the Musée Bourdelle’s monumental sculptures so that the experience of seeing the dresses within the museum feels just right. Bourdelle’s huge plaster busts, bronze figurines and colossal sculptures—visual odes referencing mythical and literary figures like Heracles and Penelope—are not only impressive, they heighten the neoclassicism of Madame Grès’ singular dresses.
Where Madame Grès differs from sculpture is through the liberty of movement, which radiates from her dresses, even when statically displayed. Madame Grès never used corsets. Instead, she creates lines and volume through the art of twisting, braiding and billowing. The “pli Grès” is her own, a kind of millefeuille for fashion, an intricate treat of millions of carefully composed folds.
A Grès dress manages to, bafflingly, be lavish even as it’s spartan. The adornments are few—though when implemented, the use of buttons, collars, belts, pockets is restrained, minimalist. While charcoals, blacks and angelic white dresses abound, pops of color (coral columns, stalks of forest green) make Grecian feel joyful instead of austere. A more contemporary Grès creation from the ’80s threads bright colors like ribbon streamers whipping artfully across the body.
There are puffed-sleeve evening coats, columnar robes du soir, undulating wave-like taffeta dresses and short black cocktail dresses. Some of the dresses recall expensively draped sheets fit for Athena and Artemis; others have so little extra fabric as to almost be maillots tailored to slinky skirts, with such incredible detailing in the bustier that modern designer updates (e.g., Jean Paul Gaultier or Proenza Schouler) seem like updates of an already mastered art.
Throughout the exhibition, the designer’s signature details are revealed: cut-outs, asymmetrical necklines, body-skimming tucks cascading into loose skirts, glamorous Grecian drapery, complex pleating, sculptural design and silk jersey underpinned with structured girdling.
Alix Grès created her namesake maison de couture, Grès, in 1942 on Rue de la Paix in Paris. Namesake is a funny thing, though. Born Germaine Krebs in Paris’s 17th arrondissement, Madame changed her name to Alix Barton before snapping up the moniker Grès from her then-husband, whose own name was his artistic alias. (He was really Serge Czerefkov, a Russian painter). When the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute held a Madame Grès retrospective in 1994, the catalogue stated: “Madame Grès is a creation.” Indeed she is. Madame Grès was the last totem of the couturiers of her ilk (Madeleine Vionnet, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Gabrielle Chanel). She dressed iconic society women, high-profile glitzy actresses and wives of powerful political figures. She herself had a signature: a wool jersey angora turban. She was honorary president for life of France’s Chambre Syndicale, the governing organization of the French fashion industry.
Her début was as a costume designer for a Jean Giraudoux play about the Trojan War, which called upon (and beautifully showcased) her ability to evoke Grecian guise. She did costume designs for French films in the 1940s, and managed to keep her business open during World War II. Her golden years were the 1950s through the 1970s. Her first prêt-à-porter collection—which she long held out against producing—was in 1980, only a few years before she was to sell her floundering name and brand to a French industrialist. Allegedly, she told Pierre Cardin that the sale of the company was the worst decision she ever made. In 1988, the house name and brand were purchased by the Japanese group Yagi Tsusho.
The couturière’s death was revealed over a year after it occurred and only after an article appeared in Le Monde; her daughter hid the sad news from the fashion industry and the world. Peers like Pierre Cardin or Hubert de Givenchy—even Mr. Yagi, the owner of the rights to her name—were unaware of her passing. Such an elusive but incredible talent deserves the kind of recognition that her mythologically tinged garments warranted. This exhibit is a fine tribute to her artistry, and hopefully it will bring renewed recognition to her self-created name as well as inspire a revival of the neoclassical elegance she so excelled at creating.