Gres Matter

Gres Matter

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I feel like I've lagged so far behind in writing about this, that everything that needs to be said about the Madame Gr√®s exhibition at the Mus√©e Bourdelle in Paris, has already been said.  I'd like to first and foremost refer people to Suzy Menkes' indepth review of the exhibition  (if we all footnoted, linked back and sourced everything, nobody would be in the pickle that Johan Hari is in at the moment, no?) as it spurred me on to take a random trip to Paris to see the exhibition (despite the heatwave) and really summed up the impact of the exhibition.  She is entirely right to predict that traits of the designer who invented the draped dress will show up in future collections just as Yves Saint Laurent's exhibition at the Petit Palais showed up left right and centre last season.  However we may not notice these 'inspired' traces of Gr√®s quite so much, as it was made abundantly clear after seeing the exhibition, that the modernity and true timelessness of her creations have become the language for many designers today to play around with in their own ways.  Yet, the originating source of that language needs to be attributed to Madame Gr√®s and celebratory exhibitions like this serve to shout her name out loud and clear even if it no longer exists in operating business. 

Madame Gr√®s herself was an invention.  Born Germaine Krebs and later renamed Alix Barton (whilst her couture house from 1934-42 was known as 'Alix') and finally adopting Gr√®s as a moniker – these name changes affirm the apt description 'Sphinx of Fashion', attributed to her in the FIT exhibition from two years ago.  Her identity in fashion though wasn't as ungraspable.  From the very beginning, her training as a sculptor set her on a path that meant she created the first draped dress ever in 1934.  That link between sculpture and the work of Madame Gr√®s of course is impressed upon us as the dresses are interspersed throughout the exhibition with sculptor Antoine Bourdelle's own works and collection of art at the museum, and it is genius curation and arrangement on the part of Olivier Saillard.  This is vastly impressive in terms of scale in the Great Hall of plasters, the impressive beginning of the exhibition….




The comparison between Grecian sculptures and Madame Gr√®s dresses isn't of course anythin new, as seen in early images where the dresses are photographed to mimic static and stony sculptures.  I love this 1954 Willy Maywald image of a model being fitted into a dress, with one bosom exposed and looking perfect in this state of undress. 



Then in more intimate settings such as Bourdelle's apartment and work studio, the dresses encased amongst statues and paintings are presented as works of art themselves, sculpted and pleated to perfection.  In a video documentary from 1980 about Gr√®s shown at the exhibition, her atelier reveals custom-built mannequin torsos of all the haute couture clients, on which the fabric is draped on to create the dresses.  This on-body method of forming dresses draws even more similarity to the hands-on approach of a sculptor. 




What's even more astounding is that the dresses didn't run in chronology order in the exhibition and yet a piece from a 1946 collection could just as easily have been from later collections in the sixties or seventies.  Gr√®s established her signature early on and rarely veered too far away from those recongisable traits.  Intricate pleating, elongated draped silhouettes, asymmetrical necklines, jersey and silks manipulated, twisted, tucked and pinned in place to go with the natural flow of the fabric – all of this were things that were made concrete in her early career and she carried them on – why fix something that's not broken? 






Throughout the exhibition, it is those signature pleated and draped pieces that specifically drew me in and were most evocative to me, be it a dress from the thirties or the seventies.  Ballooning volume was also later incorporated into her work as well as simpler sixties shifts and two piece suits that were cut with precision, which adds some sort of variety to the body of work on exhibit.  When ensembles began experiment with Dior's New Look silhouette, Gr√®s never used corsets, in keeping with her desire to have women free to move about, but to me, they felt like half-hearted attempts to 'keep up with the times' as opposed to being true to her style.  I actually love the way her own signature modes of pleating and draping triumphs above all the rest of it, and it is in this instance where being a one trick pony is no bad thing, especially when that trick is so damn good and most importantly, stands up and looks strikingly modern today. 




When Gr√®s employs cut-outs and places emphasis on erogeneous areas such as the back, the triangle that is somewhere above the navel and under the breasts or slits at the shoulder and down the decolletage, shows her work to have affinity as well as predecessing to other body forming designers such as Azzedine Alaia. 




Ultimately, whether a dress was arranged in a plain boxed in room, or in amongst Musee Bourdelle's original artefacts, the beauty of Madame Gr√®s' work can't be denied.  It's not the sort of beauty you can argue with or have differing opinions over.  Like I said, what's even more incredible is that I didn't wander around looking at the dresses as though they were dusty museum pieces but instead, felt that they still had so much life in them.  You could see the gathers of fabric in the dresses moving on women today.  The vibrancy of some colours (I refer to a particularly striking quad-coloured design from the 80s as seen below) or the subtle paler tones in shades of lilac or grey are still very much relevant today.  There is perhaps a sad niggle because the house of Gr√®s was liquidated in the 80s and ceases to exist today with the exception of a few sad perfumes.  In a way, it makes sense that all Alix/Gr√®s creations are ones that Madame Gr√®s herself had a hand in and that her work lives on, hopefully in the credited influence over today's designers. 





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The accompanying photographs, magazine editorials and Gr√®s' original sketches (donated by the Yves Saint Laurent Foundation) clue us into the way Madame Gr√®s operated her business, the changing (and the way some things never changed) silhouettes and fabrics as well as the way the dresses came alive on the body.  I particularly love the seventies and eighties editorials which proves that Gr√®s continued to be relevant which is an achievement on Madame Gr√®s' part for sustaining a level of interest for five decades.  People from Jean Moral of the thirties to Guy Bourdin in the seventies to Katerina Jebb today (she photographed a dress for the poster of the exhibition) all contributed their own take on Gr√®s with very different results. 







I suppose I did end up having quite a bit to say on an exhibition that has been universally lauded.  Worryingly, I've spoken to a few fashion loving Parisians who have still YET to go.  Please PLEASE try and make it.  I'm dying to go back again and might even seek out another Eurostar just to squeeze in another visit before it ends on the 24th July.  Parisians and visitors before that date have no excuse.  Anyone with a fairly easy connection to Paris (Eurostar, Thalys…err… National Express…?) should perhaps consider a trip.  I'm not enforcing it by any means but it's most definitely a pressing nudge.  

**EDIT** Massive apologies.  The exhibition ends on 28th August.  I think they may have extended the date as the original mini-site stated 24th July.  I believe they have now changed it to extend it until the 28th August.  Even a bigger window of opportunity to make your way over there…!



Leave a comment
  1. Igne Pikalaviciute

    2011-06-30 at 8:05 PM

    this is the temple of femininity.

  2. Swan

    2011-06-30 at 8:07 PM

    Sigh. That’s all I got, one word.

  3. Closet Cravings

    2011-06-30 at 8:10 PM

    Beautiful photos. The dresses are absolutely beautiful. Love the comparison between the Grecian sculptures and dresses. =)
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  4. mlmag

    2011-06-30 at 8:15 PM

    wonderful post ;))

  5. Fashion Celebration

    2011-06-30 at 8:20 PM
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    Beautiful dresses, love all the designs! It’s a masterpiece!

  7. kim

    2011-06-30 at 8:45 PM

    Gorgeous, you’re right, it’s a beauty that cannot be denied. I already have my trip to Paris booked but it’s after the 24th of July, sigh.
    English isn’t my native language, but I thought a bosom was two breasts? (weirdest thing I ever typed in a comment field)

  8. Taylor Lewis

    2011-06-30 at 9:05 PM

    I love that orange dress its gorgeous!

  9. Kate

    2011-06-30 at 9:08 PM

    Wow, I would LOVE to see that in person.

  10. Els

    2011-06-30 at 9:54 PM

    absolute masterpieces. gorgeous draping, colours, fabrics and style.

  11. Umbrellamom

    2011-06-30 at 9:55 PM

    Very creative, feminine, and beautiful.
    Makes me want to stay on my diet.


    2011-06-30 at 10:00 PM

    this is amazing!

  13. amy

    2011-06-30 at 10:48 PM

    this exhibition looks beautiful.
    i wish i was in paris to go.
    im a skint student and cant afford to. hah.
    i can only dream to have a similar dress on my wedding day. most of them tick all the right boxes.

  14. Cristina Suspiria

    2011-06-30 at 10:52 PM

    what a beautiful exhibition!!

  15. Sarah

    2011-06-30 at 11:23 PM

    What a lovely exhibition, the pieces are so elegant.

  16. Berta

    2011-06-30 at 11:54 PM

    I would like to visit it! =)

  17. Mariel

    2011-07-01 at 1:33 AM

    The detail level is bewildering. The chest action on the green short sleeved dress reminds me a bit of the Dior gown worn by Charlize Theron…maybe Galliano had a picture of it around while designing that collection.

  18. oh my dior

    2011-07-01 at 2:18 AM

    amazing exhibit and beautiful dresses love them all!

  19. steppluk

    2011-07-01 at 7:20 AM

    like gowns of goddesses!

  20. Jess

    2011-07-01 at 10:59 AM
  21. agnes szucs

    2011-07-01 at 3:55 PM

    love her works so much! she was such a genius!

  22. Heather

    2011-07-01 at 7:11 PM

    I’m speechless looking at the designs..they were awesome!! I really love the one in the black!! Babelicious!!

  23. S.

    2011-07-01 at 7:49 PM

    wauw this looks great, i love the comparision with the greec statues

  24. Helena

    2011-07-01 at 8:18 PM

    Thanks for posting this wonderfully detailed post, much appreciated from someone from Canada! 🙂 Gorgeous gowns as art work themselves!

  25. Erika

    2011-07-02 at 2:05 PM

    SeeIng this iis giving me the strongest urge to sew,drape and pleat something, now!
    If I could I would run to see this exhibit. Amazing. I am in SF and am finally going to see the Balenciaga exhibit on Sunday. Excited .
    Thanks so much for sharing your pictures and experience. Great perspective.

  26. Rosalind Louise

    2011-07-03 at 3:18 AM

    I went to this exhibition too! Thank you so much for putting all the pictures up, I was so upset when I discovered my camera (admittedly a piece of bric-a-brac) didn’t take any of the dresses very well. I love Madame Gres, Rodarte’s new haute couture collection contains slight hints of her influence I find – beautiful!

  27. HarbourMaster

    2011-07-03 at 2:38 PM

    This looks spectacular. She really was a pioneer, it’s incredible to see how her designs are still so relevant. Wishing Australia wasn’t so far, this looks like something not to be missed.

  28. Lizzie

    2011-07-03 at 8:44 PM

    Lovely review. Thank you, thank you so much for all the close-up photos.

  29. X Alex

    2011-07-04 at 4:29 AM

    Her works are gorgeous and timeless, totally wearble even in today’s context. I imagine the pleated ones have the ability to turn anyone who wears them into a headturning Grecian beauty.Thanks for sharing!

  30. Paulina Plizga

    2011-07-04 at 7:42 PM

    hey Susie, thanx for nice reminder about this event.
    I’ve just checked on the Mus√©e Bourdelle website and possibly it is viewable until 28th of August…here
    I haven’t seen it yet 🙁 but I’ve discovered beautiful catalogue from this exhibition at my library.
    all the best from Paris

  31. susie_bubble

    2011-07-04 at 7:51 PM

    Paulina: I’ve changed the post! How weird because I’m pretty sure the date last week read 24th July – it still says that here…
    They may have extended the exhibition which is fab!

  32. Pauulina Plizga

    2011-07-05 at 8:15 AM

    Susie, I hope it’s extended and more people will have the chance to see it, specially during this summer vacations.

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  34. Caroline

    2011-07-06 at 10:38 AM

    Thank you so much for this post. I am not able myself to go to the exhibition (working in Norway all summer, until the 28th)so it was a delight to see all these images. I enjoy when they put fashion together with (in this case very relevant) sculptures, it brings some heaviness to it all and make it so much beautiful.It striked me how clever all the dresses were and it is losses of fashion houses like these that makes me sad. Anyway, great post (again)!

  35. Pilates

    2011-07-14 at 8:57 AM

    What a BEAUTIFUL pair of dresses…Damn I want them all.

  36. aline C

    2011-07-20 at 5:47 PM

    beau reportage sur cette magnifique exposition

  37. Will

    2012-02-01 at 6:35 AM

    If I could just learn the techniques!
    She’s a genius! <3

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    I’m without words looking at the styles..they were awesome!! I really really like the one in the black!! Babelicious!!

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    so inspiring! love it , most the orange dress.

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