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Madame Grès – Draper Extraordinaire

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Madame (Alix) Grès (1903 -1994) French  

Dress, cloque pique, 1954.

Born Germaine Emilie Krebs in Paris, she worked under the name Alix Barton for years, later changing to Madame Grès. She studied sculpture and this showed in her draping, which many times resembled the marble togas on classic Grecian and Roman sculptures. Her work skimmed and flowed around the female form, celebrating but never exploiting it for the sake of fashion. Her clothes were never vulgar and always dignified. 

Silk dress, 1974-75.

She opened her own house in 1934 under the name Alix and reopened in 1942 under the name Grès when she adopted the name of Madame Grès. During WWI, the house of Grès was allowed to remain open during the Nazi occupation of Paris. However, she then refused to dress the wives of the Nazi officers and also created controversial nationalistic collections featuring the three colors of the French flag. Not surprisingly, her salon was soon closed. 

Evening dress, 1969.

Madame Grès was known to have inspired Cristobal Balenciaga to open his own house in Paris. She had refused to hire him when approached as she thought him too talented to work for someone else.

Silk jersey dress, 1965.

She created her designs by draping them instead of sketching them beforehand and was a fan of chiffon and fine silk jersey for her luxurious and diaphanous gowns. Along with Chanel, Grès advocated the use of matte silk and wool jersey as suitable fabrics for garments and also brought back the use of old stand-by fabrics like faille, taffeta, and linen.

Wool coat, 1950.

Hollywood connection: She worked in Hollywood from 1934-1941.

Vogue 1211.

Home sewing connection: Created a series of elegant patterns for the McCall’s and Vogue sewing pattern companies.

Silk evening dress, 1937.

Her style, innovations, and influence on fashion:

  • She was known for her generous asymmetric draping atop a firm bodice structure.
  • Her goal was to use a minimum number of seams, despite sometimes using 20 yards of fabric to construct a gown.
  • Grès created gowns in her favorite colors of cream, lacquer red, and a particular honey-colored jersey. Grès had a daring eye for colors, especially when creating her evening gowns in two colors.
  • In 1970, she was elected president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, the highest rank in French fashion.

Images: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. For more images view the FIT Grès Exhibition of 2008 here.

Sources: Dressmakers of France (1956) Mary Brooks Pickens, Dora Loues Miller; Secrets of the Couturiers (1984) Frances Kennett; Fashion (2003) Christopher Breward; Icons of Fashion: The 20th Century, Gerda Buxbaum, editor; 100 Dresses (2010) Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Who’s Who in Fashion, (2008) Anne Stegemeyer; The World’s Most Influential Fashion Designers (2010) Noel Palomo-Lovinski; her obituary, (1994) The Independent UK.

Lisa Williams   —  

Comments 8

Mary Beth @ Yarn U iPhone app itunes.apple.com

There was a Madame Grès garment in the Chic Chicago exhibit last year at Chicago History Museum, an often overlooked fashion resource here in the U.S.

Mandy crazydaisytime.blogspot.com

Thanks for sharing this piece about Madame Gres. I must admit never to have heard of her. Yet, her dresses are amazing.
I am learning such a lot by reading these short articles about different designers.
Again, thanks.

Nina T quellebelle.com

“During WWI, the house of Grès was allowed to remain open during the Nazi occupation of Paris”

I think you have typo there. Should it be WWII?

Lovely dresses!

Lauren D ritual-bath.com

Her work is so timeless! I am so in love with the colors and draping of the gowns, thank you for this gem!

Becky beckyoh.com

I saw that amazing “sleeve dress”, the 1969 brown evening one, at the Brooklyn Museum last summer. Stunning doesn’t begin to describe it.
Thanks!

Carlotta

One of my friends had the chance to meet Madame Grès, and to see her at work (!) during her professional life. She said to me that at the venerable age of 80, she was able to make a wonder of a terrible pile of chiffon, without even draping it on a mannequin, truly like no one else…

Joanne

Did you ever see anything more gorgeous than the draping on the 1965 beige silk jersey dress by Madame Gres? I kept going back to it at least 10 times; I have never seen anything quite like it
Imagine the work ! So beautiful and graceful. How I would have loved to have owned such a garment in that year. Or even now — it is timeless. She is a new designer to me and I am grateful to this column. I’ll look her up further.

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