Sculpting the fabric: Madame Grès’ emotional and innovative Pleating Technique

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Conference Proceedings
Authors: Anabela Becho

Abstract: Madame Grès (1903-1993) worked for six decades in the exclusive world of Parisian haute couture, creating clothes as if they were living sculptures, always in search of the ideal dress.Her legacy was designs marked by a ceaseless quest for absolute beauty. Her long,draped dresses crafted with obsession and technical mastery are a profound reflection on fashion, time and memory. In its undying association with sculpture, her oeuvre encloses an inherent affirmative, solid, timeless perpetuity. Respect for the principles of design lies in Grès’s discourse with textiles; because it is a discourse, a thought that is transformed into matter, that grows pleat by pleat in a game of alternating light and shade. The couturier's folds enclose successive pain and mystery, melancholy and persistence, obsession and conviction. There can be no doubt that Grès’s gowns were designed for the female form, in the cutting and manipulation of the fabric, in a prodigious, precise technique in which nothing could be left to chance. This is why they are perfect examples of the highest calling of design.Nonetheless, it is precisely in the relationship between body and gown, the harmony and tension between the organic and inorganic, that Grès’s work goes beyond mere design. It moves naturally into the real world of creation, as the couturier’s gowns do not just dress the body; they become the body itself, in which fabric and flesh turn into a single, indivisible, absolute entity. Even though her oeuvre was much wider than the so-called “goddess dresses”, the long draped gowns, reminiscent of eternal time, became her archetype. Incontrast with the ephemeral nature of fashion, it is my goal to show in the course of this paper that precisely the opposite can be true, through the observation of the French couturier’s meticulous, emotional and innovative pleating technique, in which the role of avant-garde materials is crucial. The expressive use of pleating and drapery in all its limitless variation and fluidity along the outside is rightly considered to be Grès’ hallmark. Grès had a profound respect for the textile material, honouring its integrity, preferring not to cut it, and reducing its size through successive pleats — the amplitude of her dresses’ skirts could occasionally reach twenty metres in diameter. Grès’s work was unmistakably modern, though it did not seem to belong to a particular age. At the same time, it takes us back to a distant past and forward into the future. The evocative power of her gowns is absolutely breathtaking. It is ingrained in their materiality, the details of their construction, and the quest for perfection and for beauty. Although a woman of her time, bound by a cultural context specific to her epoch, there is a deliberate quest for timelessness at the very heart of Grès’ work, which, I argue, can be perceived in her technique. In a manual process, wrapped in an emotional dimension, each draping, rib, or pleat is worked minutely, actively taking part in the construction of the garment’s final shape. The initial width of the fabric could be reduced to a few centimetres by an exquisite pleating technique: to be kept in place the folds were sewn at the back, a sartorial innovation in the universe of Parisian haute-couture. Time seems to be suspended by this technical detail. In the light of the French philosopher Henri Bergson's theory, this suspension can be seen as durée, a moment of simultaneity, an experience of temporality based on a constant interaction between the past (the classical approach), the present (the moment of the making of the dress) and the future (the preview of the following repetitive gesture of making). In the draping of the fabric, we become conscious of the physical dimension of the hand that created the sculptural object, that carved the cloth as if it was stone, involving the body in a game of hide and seek, concealing and revealing its contours, emphasising its movements. It is this tension between the body and the fabric that brings the dresses alive, as the result of an emotional relationship between the humanity of the making process and the technical innovation of the textile material.

Keywords: Grès, Time, Memory, Draping Technique, Avant-garde Textile Material

DOI: 10.54941/ahfe1002874

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