Germaine Krebs, once named the “Star of Elegance” and formally known as Madame Grés (1903-1993), is honoured in an immaculate and inspiring exhibition at the Musée Bourdelle in Paris. Put on by the Galleria Museum, the exhibition shows eighty pieces created by Grés, around one hundred sketches of her innovative fashion designs and more than fifty photographs by Richard Avedon and Guy Bourdin — many of which were taken for magazines and fashion houses such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Grés’ elegant and meticulous designs are exhibited according to shape, style and colour and fill each room within the museum, providing us with an insight into the fashion world and its history.
Madame Grés, who actually trained as a sculptor, created these fantastic designs by manipulating the fabric in the same style as a sculpture. The pleats and folds in the fabric echo the antique style of the ancient world, making her dresses similar to fluted classical columns. Grés once said, “I wanted to be a sculptor. For me, working with fabric or stone is the same thing” , explaining where the inspiration for the purity, simplicity and yet the extreme complexity comes from in each of her designs.
As you walk around the dimmed rooms of the Musée Bourdelle, the feminine silouhettes are dramatically spotlit, revealing the beautiful fabrics and the delicacy of these dresses. The intensity and precision with which the drapery was manipulated conveys a sense of how glamorous they are, even without some fashion icon or model in them. Grés achieved this by draping the fabric directly onto the model, moulding it around the body. Each pleat, fold or twist of the fabric would be vigorously pinned into place in order to avoid cutting the fabric. However, when she did cut the fabric, Grés founded herself to be one of the first designers to cut the fabric on the bias (diagonal), allowing everything to be fitted to perfection. Her revolutionary method allowed her to create structured bodices, incorporating pleating from the waist to the hem, while still being made out of one piece of cloth, usually fine matte silk jersey. Her dresses, normally of pearl grey, and exquisite suits of rustic colours all encompass the sophistication she aimed to create. But the colourful pieces she produced, those being of greens, pinks, yellows and oranges, were what made her antique style so fresh and unique.
(Two of Madame Grés’ signature couture pieces being displayed at the musuem)
Throughout her career, her perfectionist style caught the eye of many celebrities and fashion icons that wanted her to design for them, some of which were Greta Garbo and Jackie Kennedy. Through these public figures, fashion became a way of power. Jackie Kennedy’s impeccable taste for chic ensembles allowed the 1950’s conservative style to be forgotten, and for it to be replaced by the far more classy and elegant world that she wanted to embrace. Being the First Lady of the USA, she was constantly in the media’s spotlight, and thus held a certain power over the nation and the fashion world. She loved everything French, and as well as Grés, she worked closely with Oleg Cassini, a French fashion designer who created ornate and spectacular designs for her. Cassini referred to her as “wanting to dress as if she was the President of France”, expressing how she wanted to use fashion as a form of communication. Therefore, it is no surprise that her sleeveless A-line dresses and her pillbox hats became her iconic look and what she is remembered for. She believed publicity and the media was all a strong guide to how a woman should look and behave. This can even be seen today.
For instance, with Sarah Burton now designing for Alexander McQueen, it is clear that her exquisite tailoring and emotional drive, hasn’t gone without being noticed by political women on a global scale. Lady Michelle Obama was even photographed wearing a red and black dress designed by Burton. But of course, Kate Middleton’s wedding dress is what first springs to mind. As Kate embraces the Royal scene, she is quickly becoming the new fashion icon of the decade, highlighting the use of fashion as power. By combining Kate Middleton’s ideas and Burton’s quirky innovations, her theatrical, yet sophisticated wedding dress was created. It is because of designers such as Madame Grés that fashion can play such a huge role in life, and with a world audience examining your every attire it is clear why Grés’ innovative techniques have influenced the fashion world. In fact, Vogue’s history of twentieth century fashion e(dited in 1988), named Grés as “the greatest living couturier” and the exhibition at the Musée Bourdelle really gives meaning to this elegant collection and Parisian haute couture on the whole.