Sculpting Fashion: Madame Grès – A Biography

Germaine Émilie Krebs was born in 1903. As a young French woman, who aspired to become a sculptor, Krebs was unaware that her career was destined to be within the world of fashion, later becoming the master couturier Madame Grès. An extreme hard-worker, who kept her private life secret and away from the cameras, Grès left her mark on the world of couture, dazzling her rivals and inspiring the next generation of designers with her Grecian flowing gowns.

C.I.56.60.6a, b. Madame Grès dress. c1954. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (both images).

At first, Grès opened her first couture house under the name of Alix. This was the start of a successful and prestigious career, with notable clients such as The Duchess of Windsor, Grace Kelly, and Marlene Dietrich.

By 1942 Grès had married, her title, ‘Grès,’ an anagram of her husband’s name. By now, she was developing her signature Grecian gowns, using draping techniques that worked with the fabric first rather than from sketches.

By draping silks and cloths, tying and knotting the material in place, the gowns took on a classical form that resembled ancient dress from Grecian times. These dresses could take hours to create using hundreds of yards of material, showing both Grès’ dedicated and meticulous approach to her couture garments.

madame gres 1944

AC5664 87-34-2. Madame Grès dress. c1944. White silk jersey one-piece dress; finely pleated; eleven bones inside bodice. KCI Digital Archives.

1973.104.2a, b. Madame Grès gown. c1958. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

madame gres 1942

Madame Grès, Evening Dress (detail), Fall/Summer 1942, Palais Galliera.

The ornamentation of Grès’ designs was incredibly pared-down. Instead of using intricate embroidery and sequin techniques which exemplify the heritage of couture, Grès added cut-out detailing to her dresses, exposing small snippets of flesh. When selecting the colours of her streamlined silhouettes, she preferred using single shades, occasionally using stripes or blocks of colour, underlining the simplicity of her designs. Grès preferred to let her fabric do all of the talking.

Grès’ dresses seem timeless; uninfluenced by the world and ever-evolving fashion trends around her. She never seemed to run out of steam; forever committed to her own philosophies and approaches towards fashion design. First and foremost in her mind was the female form – how to compliment it with materials – and how to utilise the fabric to move with the body. Her clients have historically praised Grès’ work, stating that the fit was always secure and impeccably accurate.

madame gress draping

Madame Grès draping a dress, c. 1945 (credit unknown).

Even whilst working through the turbulent times of WW2, which threatened to move the entire couture industry to Germany, destroying both French tradition and national identity, Grès refused to allow Nazi forces to dictate her fabric allowances. After instructing her that she either designed paired down garments, the complete opposite to her beautiful couture gowns, or close her house, she defiantly released a collection of garments in the patriotic colours of the French flag. Her house would remain closed until the end of the war.

madame gres 1969

2006.420.5. Madame Grès gowns. Silk. c1969. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

madame gres photoshoot

Madame Grès, Dress, photographed by Eugène Rubin for Femina, c1937.

Her pure, elegant, and fluid garments remain as desirable and influential as they were when first created. One could say that she was a modern innovator of couture simply because she refused to follow the crowd. Madame Grès remains as one of my favourite designers because she created dresses that were mythical and otherworldly, a great example of a designer that has looked back in time to create contemporary designs. It is impossible to fault her work ethic and endearing spirit towards her work, despite the rapid changes in fashion, the breakdown of her own marriage, and the inevitability of war.

Grès retired during her eighties. Soon after her departure, the fashion house declined into great financial difficulty. Garments were stuffed into bin bags; her studio reduced to a ransacked building. She died aged 90, after other devoted couturiers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Hubert Givenchy purchased an apartment for her to stay in. Her daughter moved Grès to a retirement home shortly before her passing. She died financially destitute, but a legend of haute couture.

madame gress lord snowdon

Madame Grès photographed by Lord Snowdon, c1984 (credit unknown).

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