by Robert J. Hughes
The couturier Madame Grès said throughout her long life (1903-1993) that she had wanted to be a sculptor. It's fitting, then, that an absorbing and lovely show of her creations "Madame Grès – La Couture à L'Oeuvre," the first retrospective of her work, is on display (through July 24) at the Musée Bourdelle. This small gem near the Gare Montparnasse is made up of sculptor Antoine Bourdelle's house, studio and garden where he worked from 1884 to his death in 1929.
On display here are many of Bourdelle's sculptures – often inspired by Greek and Roman myth – including a dynamic one of Hercules the Archer. Madame Grès herself was famously influenced by the draping of dress from antiquity, and so her beautiful and even timeless clothes nestle neatly among the sometimes-kitsch mythological renderings of Bourdelle. Madame Grès had a style that was decidedly not oversized, unlike Bourdelle's – but her nevertheless glamorous dresses and gowns look great in the rooms of this museum. Sometimes an atelier of Bourdelle will have one Grès dress amid a roomful of busts and torsos and statues and maquettes. The Grès looks like a refreshing pause amid the busy products of Bourdelle's fervid sculptural imagination.
(Image: Cecil Beaton- circa 1965. Portrait de Madame Grès. Photo Osenat)
Germaine Émilie Krebs took the name Madame Grès as a partial anagram of her husband's first name and her own. She dressed many fashionable women, including Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Jacqueline Kennedy, and her style was a mix of the austere – a draping that clung to the body – and opulent – silk and rich artificial fabrics that had a luxurious and elegant feel. Her clothes looked like money – as couture should – but also looked eminently wearable and comfortable and practical – as couture often doesn't.
You can see Madame Grès' sculptural background in her almost-classical deification, so to speak, of the female body. The clothes have a purity of line that must have taken great concentration to achieve. How do you create a dress that's wearable, that follows and accentuates the graceful curves of a woman's body yet makes a statement in itself, of well-being, self-possession and elegance? The clothes evoke Diana the Huntress and the Winged Victory of Samothrace while seeming at the same time eminently modern.
Madame Grès' clothes – she worked from the 1930s until the end of the 1980s – reflect their eras, but many of them could be worn today. That's no small accomplishment. Coco Chanel managed this, as did Yves Saint Laurent, Dior and Givenchy at their best. Madame Grès isn't as known as these designers, perhaps because she worked in a similar vein through her lengthy career, always refining, always creating simplicity out of quite complicated underlying designs, often asymmetrical. The draping that went into creating these Grecian or Roman-style bodices and skirts was nevertheless a noteworthy achievement; they could easily have looked puffy or mannered or out-of-control, but instead they seem like the distillation of a classical ideal.
Grès designed dresses for day and evening mainly in sober colors – black, ivory, ecru, gray – evoking the alabaster and faded colors of classical statuary. Sometimes she showed a gown or dress in yellows or oranges or greens, but these bursts of autumn or summer or spring were rare. Grès trusted the long line of her clothes to highlight the woman, rather than using colors to do so.
It's remarkable how much variety she was able to achieve within a rather narrow arsenal of shapes that interested her and a concentration on the folds and tucks derived from designs of millennia ago. Yet you didn't get the impression that she was repeating herself. Like the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi whose still-lifes explored different shapes with an ever-growing clarity and soberness, Madame Grès kept stripping away, refining, getting to the essence of what she wanted, which was to show off women's bodies in the most flattering and intelligent way.
The show hasn't attracted the long lines and fashion-industry buzz that the Yves Saint-Laurent show did last year at the Petit Palais here. But the people who were peering intently at the clothes, at Madame Grès' lovely drawings for her works, or at the fifty or so fashion photographs of her dresses from the decades of her career, seemed to be serious fashion insiders rather than aflitting fashionista crowd. We can probably expect collections inspired by Madame Grès in the next few years. Which isn't a bad thing. Madame Grès worked. She didn't move in society, she didn't publicize herself, she didn't live a public life. She lived for her designs, and that devotion to her art – for it is an art – showed in dresses and gowns that sought to elevate the human form while paying attention to its humanity.
--Robert J. Hughes, writer living in Paris
(Images: courtesy of rightful owners amd Musee Bourdelle, Paris)