Madame Grès dresses on display at SCAD FASH. Photographs by Isadora Pennington.

A new exhibition at SCAD FASH has brought an incredible selection of dresses by late famed designer Madame Grès to Atlanta. The Art of Draping displays 71 garments that were made between the 1930s and the 1970s, one of which is from the SCAD FASH permanent collection.

Madame Grès was a deeply secretive person and her commitment to her ideals and process reinforced her as one of the most preeminent and instantly recognizable fashion designers during her lifetime. She was known for intense privacy and a serious nature which led to her atelier carrying the atmosphere of a convent. Madame Grès earned a reputation as an uncompromising professional creating pieces that bridge the gap between fashion and fine art.

“Madame Grès wanted to study art and sculpture, but her parents said no and said she had to choose something practical,” explained SCAD FASH Curator Rafael Gomes as he walked me through the exhibition. Though she didn’t pursue fine arts as she initially hoped, she was able to channel her creativity and artistic talent into fashion design. Her dresses exist as a sort of wearable sculpture, with each garment created pleat by pleat and hand sewn together rather than fashioned on a corset or interior structure. She would spend hours every day carefully – and silently – transforming fabric into unique wearable art pieces.

Inspired by neoclassicism and Grecian designs and sculpture, her style exudes femininity and grace, though at times the fabric choices she had were limited by wartime rationing. With fabrics that range from silk to taffeta and wool, and dress styles that included long, flowy kaftans alongside short cocktail dresses, the one constant for Madame Grès designs was an impeccable attention to detail. She famously did not like drawing or planning the dresses before the construction, instead preferring to sculpt with fabric directly on the body of the client or model. 

Sometimes using up to 65 yards of fabric for one piece, Madame Grès dresses soon became some of the most coveted garments on the market. Anyone in high society would be able to instantly recognize a piece by Madame Grès, and later in her career her pieces began appearing in editorial publications. She attracted the attention of many artists including Horst P. Horst, renowned fashion photographer and a colleague and friend of Madame Grès. In fact, of the various portraits of Madame Grès that are displayed at SCAD FASH as part of this exhibition the only ones where she is smiling are those taken by Horst himself. 

When the Nazi party invaded and took over France in June of 1940 Madame Grès was forced into hiding. Grès was Jewish by birth and though she had been christened Catholic as a form of protection her heritage made her a target for prejudice and violence.

Grès refused to collaborate with the Nazi party unlike other fashion contemporaries of her time such as Coco Chanel who openly colluded with Nazis and even had her own official ID number. In contrast, Grès continued diligently working on her designs and finding sneaky ways to show her allegiance by choosing to construct many dresses out of red, white, and blue, and sometimes even hiding the Star of David stitched into the inside of the dresses. Given her unwillingness to cooperate with the Nazi party and escalating hostilities in Paris it was no longer safe for her to operate her atelier and Madame Grès had no choice but to flee to the south of France. 

SCAD FASH docent shows an example of the Star of David inside one of Madame Grès’ dresses.

Despite Madame Grès’ intense secrecy, her magnificent works earned her a reputation and to this day she is considered to be the greatest sculptor of all fashion designers in her time. After a lifetime of refusing to compromise and five decades of fashion design, Grès unfortunately died in poverty. In her later years she had been reliant on help from fellow designers who afforded her the money for basic living expenses, and many did not even learn of her death until she was a no-show at an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, having passed away in obscurity an entire year prior. 

The works on display at SCAD FASH have been loaned to the institution by the Azzedine Alaïa Foundation which was founded by late art lover and designer Azzedine Alaïa in 2007. Within his collection are more than 600 designs and many, many photographs that provide a glimpse into Madame Grès’ long career and offer SCAD FASH students unprecedented access to learn from these unique wearable sculptures. The exhibition has drawn the attention of fashion lovers from all across the world and provides inspiration to all who view it. 

The Art of Draping will be on display through June 30, and visitors should not miss the corresponding Horst P. Horst exhibit in the adjoining gallery. In my opinion Gomes has outdone himself with these two exhibitions, and the programming has brought global attention to SCAD FASH and the programs at SCAD Atlanta. Whether you’re a fashion lover, a photography fan, or a historian at heart, there is undeniable appeal to this season’s exhibitions at SCAD FASH.

Isadora Pennington

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.