PRINT October 2011


Madame Grès at the Musée Bourdelle

View of “Madame Grès, la couture à l’œuvre,” 2011, Musée Bourdelle, Paris. Photo: Pierre Antoine.

EACH GARMENT IS AN EXACT FORMULATION. The inner logic of the clothes—made visible on their surfaces in asymmetrical puckers, bandaging, floral detail, lashings, exhalations, interpenetrations, knife pleats, bulbous involutions, starbursts of folds, slashes, rhythmic poufs, pleated rolls, and impossibilities—dissolves, or anticipates the dissolution of, inside and outside. The textile operations are themselves a poetic syntax: robes poèmes. A black viscose jersey dress from winter 1942 is ruched along a virtual line over the sternum, so that the millimetric pleating emits an irrational frequency—strictly concentrated at the center but slackening as it radiates out toward the shoulders, from which, in turn, other kinds of tucks create vertical folds that drop and lose themselves in their denouement down the sleeve. Over the abdomen, pleats alter direction dramatically at the invisible waistline, creating a decisive countertensile X of pleats at the pelvis, intercepted by a symmetrical alien medallion entirely engorged with semilunar, almost intestinal, folds. None of this interrupts the gravitational rush of the imbricated pleats that constitute the skirt. And somehow everything seems to be held together without seams and instead by internalized threads, ethical underpinnings, self-possession. No decoration, only structure, or a flickering between the two.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Madame Grès (aka Alix Barton, 1903–1993) was one of the most exceptional sculptors of the twentieth century, an age in which both couture and the concept of genius died. Though the depth of her influence is yet to be truly understood, curator Olivier Saillard’s decision to insert the exhibition “Madame Grès, la couture à l’œuvre” into the Musée Bourdelle in Paris this past summer broke the conventional frame through which Grès’s contribution has been previously regarded. The exhibition opened the door to understanding a practice of unmatched profundity and rigor, beyond the realm of fashion. Placed among sculptor Antoine Bourdelle’s heroic subjects, Grès’s dresses, capes, and coats read both as artifacts of history and as hard-edged, monochrome, volumetric certainties. In contrast to the rough bodies (often gargantuan, sometimes draped) housed in Bourdelle’s turn-of-the-century atelier-museum, the high precision of Grès’s gowns established a tension that caused visitors to whisper in the face of this solemn drama. The rooms of the museum teemed with gasping fashion students, amateurs, and elderly women, whose grave study and recognition of the clothes differed significantly from my own novice enthusiasm. In the gardens, modernist Byzantine equestrian statues coexisted with unkempt rosebushes, goth trannies, and young fathers with baby strollers, a presentation with all the pandemonium of a Paul Cadmus painting.

The dynamism of this show was in no small part contingent on this very cacophony. Here, Mme Grès’s empty dresses could be not just viewed but experienced, so that, even without bodies—as artifacts divested of ritual—they seemed to have so much to say, causing us to wonder: What is the origin of the pleat? Does it conjure a narrative, like the acanthus leaf, or a gesture, like that of the fist used to print the first paisley pattern? And jersey: What accounts for its particular gravity and supplication? Sportswear comes to mind, the summer whites in the final scene of Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (as imagined by Vittorio De Sica), in which Micòl and Alberto play slow-motion tennis with an invisible ball under a lamentation (sung in Hebrew) for the dead of Treblinka and Auschwitz. There is Halston, and the island of Jersey in the English Channel, where Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe were imprisoned for their active resistance to the Nazi occupation, and where they lie buried today. Jersey, originally a wool knit, comes from this same island and was first used in high-end fashion by Chanel. Madame Grès demanded so much silk jersey, even when fabric restrictions were imposed during World War II, that weavers joked she “used enough . . . to surround the world.” It’s difficult to fathom the massive yardage that goes into her dresses—fabric that comes close enough to the body that we might be able to describe its interior, the “folds of the soul.”

View of “Madame Grès, la couture à l’œuvre,” 2011, Musée Bourdelle, Paris. Photo: Pierre Antoine.

Having a body. The inspired overlay of Grès and Bourdelle is hard to characterize: The effect it produces trumps the value of any historical link between the two artists—it profits from a light touch, an irreverent choice. Placing dresses next to statues, among humans. It helps you to think about how long it takes to make something, about the afterlife of art objects, hard and soft. The exaggerated visual rhythms of flowing hair and moving fabric in Bourdelle’s work, a frenzy inspired by the dynamism of Nijinsky and Duncan, against the unshakable self-assurance emanating from Mme Grès’s creations. As I call to mind the first dress, I think of an anecdote once told to me by Benjamin Liu (aka Ming Vase) about how Tina Chow used to keep an Issey Miyake dress crumpled in her purse to slip on after work when she wanted to go dancing at Studio 54.

The argument that Grès’s output constitutes a total oeuvre, as opposed to a succession of collections, was sustained by a display of garments spanning a fifty-five- year arc that begins in 1933 and is unified by both perfectionist consistency and the absence of periodizing details (even the clothes from the ’60s and ’70s seem somehow higher than haute couture, above style). It has often been said that what set Grès apart from other couturiers was her “authorial” approach to a self-taught and self-invented métier. But the designer’s significance was not simply artistic. A communiqué issued by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in 1944 tries to account for the material necessity of high fashion to the French nation by weighing its evanescent products against the products of industry: “The figures show that before the war, export of a single dress made by a leading couturier enabled us [the French] to buy ten tons of coal; a liter of perfume was worth two tons of petrol; a bottle of champagne, three kilos of copper.” In this context, the famous Cecil Beaton photograph (titled Fashion Is Indestructible) of a model posed in front of a bombed-out London temple in 1941 is not just a Surrealist collision but earnest propaganda. The ideological and economic role that fashion would go on to play in postwar France has been something of a trade-off, as Serge Guilbaut has suggested—a forfeiting of art for fashion. Indeed, the immediate postwar years saw the great success of designers such as Christian Dior and Mme Grès, among others. The expansion of Grès’s atelier and the introduction of her wildly popular perfume Cabochard (meaning “stubborn,” and still in production after more than fifty years) made her internationally famous, her market success—and silhouette of material abundance—eclipsing that of any comparable Parisian painter struggling under the Marshall Plan. Though Grès’s life story is long, strange, and as ambiguous as her invented name—everyone seems to have a different projection—she herself tried to undercut frivolous speculation, for she cared only for her work, the process of draping fabric on living bodies. “I have nothing to say and everything to show. I don’t do anything but work, work, work. When I am not sleeping, I cut. That’s my life.”

The intricacies and pitfalls of licensing necessary to the maintenance of a fashion house led to the dissolution of Grès’s practice. Earlier this year, the Parfums Grès website still narrated the heartbreaking story of the house’s liquidation: “Three stories emptied in one day. A shattered life.” According to Anne Grès, Mme Grès’s daughter: “They broke the furniture and the wood dress forms with axes. The fabrics and dresses were taken away in garbage bags. The place was completely sacked.” On the same site, subsequent events were also rattled off: “The company ‘Parfums Grès’ was taken over by the distribution company Lamotte Taurelle and later sold to FMF (Financière des Manufacturers de France), a subsidiary of Altus Finance. The Escada Group bought the licenses later on and sold it to Silvio Denz in 2001. Parfums Grès SA is currently based in Cham/Switzerland. In 2003, the new fragrance ‘CABARET’ was first presented to the public and in 2004, the men’s line ‘CABARET HOMME’ and ‘CALINE’ were launched.” But that was several months ago. Now the website just says: “Coming Soon.”

Nick Mauss is an artist who lives in New York.