Women’s History Month – The Sculptural Designs of Madame Grḕs

Women’s History Month has provided a wonderful opportunity to introduce my community to some of the more forgotten women that nevertheless have rightfully earned their place in history.

Madame Grḕs is just such a figure. A style visionary virtually unknown outside the fashion industry, Madame Grḕs perfected the art of draping and pleating on the body, creating breathtakingly beautiful, yet eminently wearable gowns.

C. 1954, silk

C. 1954, silk

Having seen several Madame Grḕs gowns at the Manus x Machina exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art this past year, I recall being struck at how timeless they were. A woman appreciating understatedly stunning beauty and craftsmanship could wear a Madame Grḕs today, more than 60 years after its creation. More images in this wonderful post by Ruby Mayhelms and this Fashion Historian post too. (Really, I highly recommend clicking through!)

Always working to her own exacting specifications and preferring to dress diplomats' wives rather than flashy public celebrities, it is perhaps not surprising that her name and couture house simply vanished when she retired.

Her history is unsure; most accounts I’ve found contradict each other on her early years in fashion and how she managed to weather WWII (there seems to be some doubt as whether her family was Catholic or Jewish, although given Paris’ history during the war it seems more likely she was Catholic).

What is known is that she began her career as a sculptor and indeed her clothes have a sculptural quality about them, worked in fabric rather than stone. She herself said, “I wanted to be a sculptor. For me, it’s the same thing to work the fabric or the stone”. (From The Fashion Historian) Working with silk jersey she pleated yards and yards of fabric to craft flowing gowns that skimmed and draped the contours of the body, yet were easy to wear. In later years, structure and corseting provided security without sacrificing the beautiful flow of the outer garment.

While Madame Grḕs is most associated with the Grecian inspired draped and pleated evening gowns I’ve featured here, she did move with the flow of fashion, designing women’s suiting in the 1950’s, working with fabulous colors in the 1960’s and 70’s, but always using fabric in a sculptural manner. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an enormous collection of her work.

C. 1968, silk

C. 1968, silk

Madame Grḕs was born Germaine Emilie Krebs in 1903. She initially worked under the name Alix Barton, with sources disputing whether Barton was a business partner or a former employer, changing the name to Alix in 1934. She adopted the name Grḕs in 1942, an anagram of her artist husband’s (Serge Czerefkov) first name. Her couture house was shuttered during the war, most likely due to war-time restrictions not fitting with Madame Grḕs’ uncompromising design approach. She may also have had a run-in with the Nazis, after apparently refusing to design dresses for their wives. Unfortunately I have been unable to find any images of the red, white and blue collection she designed in 1944 just before the liberation of Paris, but I can imagine the fierce pride and spirit behind it.

 

Madame Grḕs is always pictured wearing a turban; a style that apparently evolved during war periods when it was difficult to have her hair done. Another lesson in establishing a personal brand – this certainly gives her an element of high style not seen on the street and lends credence to her reputation for tenacity.