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In praise of constancy

May 11, 2010


There are pieces by some of the great couturiers from fashion history that are instantly recognisable. They’re icons. Utterly unmistakable. These are pieces that form the focus of whole exhibitions at the Met. Pieces that at auction would command a sum to make you suck in your breath and run optimistically up to your attic. Pieces which understandably are a tiny bit thin on the ground.

For some reason, it’s rather startling to come across these iconic pieces when flicking through old fashion magazines. I think the shock stems from seeing these pieces presented as being so attainable. To a reader back in the 40s or 50s, that fashion magazine is a great big catalogue of shopping possibility. (Possibility limited only by the reader’s individual budget, of course.) The page is turned, and our reader thinks, oh, yes, that’s nice, maybe I’ll get that. Or that. Or…  But to today’s reader, the same magazine is merely a vintage window into a fashion world past, a source of inspiration, primary historical evidence.

So flicking through some old issues of the French magazine L’Officiel de la Mode yesterday, it was rather unnerving to be so casually confronted with the images in this post.

No reading of the accompanying magazine text is needed to tell you who is responsible for these classical creations. Who else could the couturier be but Madame Grès? Once you’ve spotted one example, others start leaping off the pages at you, until a whole gaggle of Grès clad goddesses is all you can see. And you know what’s even odder than seeing dresses which we now consider iconic pop up in old fashion magazines? That these Grès gowns don’t look like they belong in fashion magazines from the late 1950s. They stand out, not just because they’ve beautiful and distinctive, but retweak the model’s hair and makeup and this could be a dress from almost any time.

In fact, why don’t we put two Grès dresses together from a decade apart, which in fashion years (not unlike dog years or perhaps tortoise years) is absolute aeons.

A Grès from 1948:

And one from 1959.

Spot the difference. I appreciate that saying these dresses are very similar risks sounding as if I’m underestimating the high level of skill and the evolution of the draping techniques that Grès used. So perhaps we should just say instead she stayed true to her vision. Perhaps we could say that in a world of fashion that thrived on novelty, Madame Grès preferred constancy. Along with these legendary Greek style dresses finely pleated out of jersey, she also refined the basics of the one-piece drape – the sari, the tunic and the kaftan. While designers were working on the next big shape or silhouette, simplicity of line was paramount to Grès. Originally trained as a sculptor, she’s said to have loathed scissors. Most of these Grecian dresses are draped from a continuous length of fabric (often up to 15 yards) and pleated by hand.


Just one more pic. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you which of the two beachwear clad models below from 1945 is the one wearing Grès :)

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