I feel like I've lagged so far behind in writing about this, that everything that needs to be said about the Madame Grès exhibition at the Musée 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 Mini Palais showed up left right and centre last season. However we may not notice these 'inspired' traces of Grès 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 Grès and celebratory exhibitions like this serve to shout her name out loud and clear even if it no longer exists in operating business.
Madame Grès 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 Grès 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 Grès 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 Grès 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 Grès 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. Grès 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, Grès 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 Grès 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 Grès' 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 Grès 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/Grès creations are ones that Madame Grès herself had a hand in and that her work lives on, hopefully in the credited influence over today's designers.
The accompanying photographs, magazine editorials and Grès' original sketches (donated by the Yves Saint Laurent Foundation) clue us into the way Madame Grès 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 Grès continued to be relevant which is an achievement on Madame Grès' 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 Grès 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.