The Sphinx of Fashion

The Sphinx of Fashion

The thirties in Paris seems to have been a good time for female designers as Lanvin, Chanel, Schiaparelli, Vionnet and Madame Gr√®s all were in their glory years, doing different things and cornering different markets.  Of this five, Chanel has flourished, Lanvin has been successfully revitalised, Vionnet has been through a rough topsy turvy revitalisation process and Schiaparelli is rumoured to be relaunched.  What of Madame Gr√®s though which is still limping on as a Swiss-owned perfume brand?  Gr√®s was known as the ‚ÄòSphinx‚Äô of fashion because of the secrecy shrouding her life and her work, and it is this secrecy, coupled with the numerous poor business decisions that rendered Alix Gr√®s penniless by the time of her death, which has resulted in a lot of people now who might be unfamiliar with the name Madame Gr√®s (a good summary article can be found on the Telegraph).   

Madg1 Madg2

Whilst in New York, I was advised to forgo the blog.mode exhibition at the Met and go to the Madame Gr√®s exhibition at the FIT instead.  Amidst silly worries over not being able to function without a laptop, I went to see neither so shame on me because judging from a selection of the images of the exhibition online, I have missed a real eye-opening treat of fabric technical feat.

The expert treatment of volume and sculpting of fabrics and a desire for fluidity, even during a time when crinolines and corsets were back in Vogue as exemplified by Dior‚Äôs New Look, means that today, these pieces by Gr√®s all stand the test of time and rather than us looking bemused at the ‚Äòtorture garments‚Äô of yesteryear, we‚Äôre wondering why the house of Gr√®s doesn‚Äôt exist anymore. 

Madg3 Madg4

Along with Vionnet, Alix Gr√®s was famous for the ‚ÄòGrecian-inspired gown‚Äô but it seems she took it to another level and developed a ‚Äòfluting‚Äô technique that makes the pleats highly intricate as seen in the following examples.  The pleat obsessed of today like Sophia Kokosalaki or Mattijs Van Bergen surely took a trick or two out of Madame Gr√®s‚Äô dresses.  It is these gowns  that again have me wondering whether Madame Gr√®s should be residing in fashion history book obscurity…

Madg5 Madg6

Madg7 Madg8

Madg9 Madg10


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  1. meg

    2008-03-31 at 6:01 PM

    love love love gres, thanks for the lovely pics. I’m sort of on the fence. On the one hand, it’s a shame that such amazing designs aren’t still being worn (though the looks are so heavily borrowed, in a way they still are) on the other, I’m tired of ‘revitalizing’ houses which is essentially just taking pieces from the archive and slapping a modern day price tag on it. I wouldn’t want that same fate for Madame Gres.

  2. Danielle

    2008-03-31 at 6:40 PM

    This was a marvelous exhibition. Words can not express. I did go to see it and lingered a long time. Lovely.
    The only thing I missed when I went to NYC was knowing you were in the city at the same time! I always kept an eye open for you but no Susie sightings for me…

  3. Cate

    2008-03-31 at 6:59 PM

    i must admit i had never heard of madame grès before. her clothes look awesome though.
    and if i had a time machine, i would definitely like to spend a day in 30s paris!

  4. Allison

    2008-03-31 at 8:20 PM

    I’m so excited to find that someone else has discovered the magic of the intricate work of Madame Gres. I was lucky enough to have seen a draping demonstration by Madame Pico while in Paris last spring. It was really amazing to see her true art exemplified even today. I wish I could have seen this exhibit in NYC. Thank you for bringing Paris back to me!

  5. Laura

    2008-03-31 at 8:30 PM

    I’m not a fan of the big poofy sleeves, on that model they look like they weigh alot! You can see that style being reflected in todays fashion with the flair/elastic sleeves on shirts today, but I agree it’s not the same.

  6. mgw

    2008-03-31 at 9:42 PM

    Thanks for the reminder – I’ve just added myself to their mailing list finally so that I’m not completely dependent on a certain sharp-eyed Londoner for my local tips! Being fortunate enough to be able to walk to FIT, this is one I musn’t miss.

  7. Suzanna

    2008-03-31 at 9:57 PM

    I love an Avedon photo of Sunny Harnett wearing a one-shouldered white Gres.
    Here’s a quote from the book Goddess: “…even Gres, whose signature medium was a supple silk jersey, embraced the fashion for a structured underbodice introduced by Dior’s hour-glass style. In doing so, she was able to create pieces of increasingly complex drapery and pleating by tacking her difficult medium onto the rigid form of the shaping underbodice.”
    I find that fascinating, how the one provided a mechanism for executing the other more intricately.

  8. fashionwhore

    2008-03-31 at 11:31 PM

    The Madame Gres exhibit is one of the best fashion exhibits i’ve been to ever. I graduated from FIT and frequent their exhibits but this is by far the best! Susie- i’m sorry you missed it you would have really enjoyed it. As far as a revelation- season after season designers borrow from Gres. I don’t believe any designer can do her justice therefore I have to say I think shes better off obscure- left for the fashion connoisseurs that really appreciate her work. I have been desperately looking for someone who has her pieces as I am starting to collect. Can anyone here direct me to the right sources?

  9. Globalglamour

    2008-03-31 at 11:36 PM

    OOOOHHH! I love love that pastel-y yellow dress so dainty and romantic!!!

  10. dezmond

    2008-04-01 at 12:53 AM

    Madame Gres is amazing, really good at feminine shape and volume too. She went bankrupt in the early 80s and the liquidators threw out all her archive, patterns, sketches. She died in obscurity, forgetton by the Paris Fashion community. The company still exists, its now owned by a Japanese trading co and still puts out a collection every year.

  11. The Clothes Horse

    2008-04-01 at 1:13 AM

    Ah, what I wouldn’t give for a grecian dress like these!

  12. AR

    2008-04-01 at 4:52 AM

    The first two dresses remind me of something Tilda Swinton would wear; like the dress she wore to the Oscars.
    I do like them better than the dress she wore though (it was interesting but not something most people would attempt).

  13. Anouk

    2008-04-01 at 5:05 AM

    Exhibits at FIT are always good, it’s a very small space but it’s (obviously) extremely well-curated and they have access to such a wide variety of pieces.
    The blog:mode wasn’t bad per se, just not life-changing if you go with high expectations or anything. It really is a shame how much clothing the Met has in its collection which is never shown!

  14. diana

    2008-04-01 at 9:02 AM

    a m a z i n g! thanks for highlighting it!

  15. olive

    2008-04-01 at 10:21 AM

    I LOVE Madama Gres, nice to see her work mentioned. They’ve got a few of her peices at the V&A as well, though not sure if they’re currently on display as it’s been a few years (shamefully) since I’ve visited the costume section. I don’t want to see the house brought back though, there are just too many revivals lately, none of which have worked for me.

  16. Rachel

    2008-04-01 at 10:38 AM

    Wow all of these designs look so intricate, feminine, beautifully designed and just clothes that dreams are made of 🙂 Very inspiring
    I’m going to go and look up Madame Gres now 🙂

  17. Imelda Matt

    2008-04-01 at 12:39 PM

    I was thinking about this all day (thanks) and it truly is such a shame that her work doesn’t have the wider acclaim it deserves.

  18. mica

    2008-04-01 at 1:37 PM

    ooh such pretty dresses! It is a shame there isn’t more of her work around – it would be so successful now!

  19. Rhiannon

    2008-04-01 at 7:20 PM

    Thank you for writing about this . . . I saw blog.mode at the Met but now I wish I saw the other exhibit because I know next to nothing about Madame Gres . . . I always get her confused with Vionnet.

  20. alana

    2008-04-01 at 9:07 PM

    that pleating is divine

  21. lady coveted

    2008-04-02 at 6:33 PM

    ohh yeah, the blog mode exhibit didn’t get good reviews… but i did see a madame gres gown in real life at the nan kempner exhibit, and i have to say that they are stunning pieces of art work.

  22. Top Bird

    2008-04-02 at 11:10 PM

    I’m a big Madame Gres fan, so lovely to see her work on your blog. Her pleating technique was truly incredibly. What a talent. I’ve been watching Gres stuff on Ebay for years now – was hoping something would come up in time for my wedding. You can still find some amazing pieces out there. xx

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