EXPERIMENTING WITH MADAME GRES-INSPIRED PLEATS

by Daughter Fish

Since my baby was born, my husband and I have been playing a delicate little dance of lets-split-our-free-time. He, being an artist, needs time in his studio. As a writer, sewing fiend, and a person generally used to lots of time alone, I also need time in my studio. Problem is, I don’t really have a studio. I work out of our 450-square-foot apartment, which has become increasingly compact feeling since we’ve welcomed baby fish. Of course, I’m not really complaining. Every parent has to balance all the adjustments that come with babies, and overall I’d say we have it pretty easy. But about 2 months ago (8 months postpartum) a little voice went off in my head—”hey, lady!” it said, “you need to be taking some time for you!” Lacking my own little work space during the weekends, when baby and hubby are home, I’ve started retreating to other private/public corners of the city for a few hours here and there. One of my favorites is the main public library off of Bryant Park, where, a couple Saturdays ago, I spent some time ogling Madame Grès: Spinx of Fashion in the art library.

Like many people who like dresses and draping and art, I’m in awe of the fantastic pleated gowns Madame Grès made from the 1930′s through ’80′s. They’re very Grecian, but also very modern looking—even the ones that are 80 years old. I’ve been collecting a little inspiration board of her pieces on Pinterest, but the Spinx of Fashion includes some great examples I hadn’t seen before. The coolest thing about her gowns is that they’re mostly made of uncut yards of fabric (usually silk or wool jersey), and the pleats are what give them shape. I’ve been fascinated by clothes made from geometric patterns lately (as with my recent caftan, and older future dress). Working with geometric pattern pieces is much easier for me since, at this point, I’ve only got the space on our Ikea island to cut and sew.  When I realized that Grès’s amazing sculptural dresses are essentially made from big rectangles, I decided I needed to try something similar.

For this practice run, I used a cheap jersey knit from Chic Fabrics. Basically, I simply cut a hole in the center of 2 yards of jersey, exactly the same as I did for my prior caftan. And then I went to town pleating the fabric. The pleating reduced the 60-inch wide fabric to about 20 inches (so 30 inches on each side down to 10 inches).

I used the shoulder line as the starting point for pleats down the front and back.

I’m not totally convinced the back is working. I like the gathers, but there’s some weird puckering in the fabric down the center.

The dress has only ties for closures. I made them out of thin reuleaux, which was a technique that Claire McCardell (another favorite) often used in her dresses. The cool/weird thing I added was another detail Grès used in some of her dresses. Instead of leaving the dress loose at the hem, I sewed the front and back together at the hemline, leaving slits for my lets to go through. I’m not sure if I should be calling this a dress, jumpsuit, or romper.

The plus side of this design is that I can crawl all over the floor at home with baby and not worry about exposing myself in an unladylike manner. I imagine this will come in handy over the summer at the park. The downside, which I didn’t realize until wearing the dress for a few hours is that, well, it’s real hard to go to the bathroom. Let’s just say I’ve had to get creative.

One of Madame Grès’s looped leg designs, from Spinx of Fashion

Another of Madame Grès looped leg designs.

And my inspiration for the realeaux ties, from a Claire McCardell designs, from Secrets of the Couturiers

I want to try this design again with better fabric (maybe silk jersey) and make more precise pleats. And with the next one, hopefully I can come up with a better strategy for taking her on and off!

In other news, if you don’t get Thread Cult updates via iTunes or the Thread Cult website, I’ve posted two great interviews over the past weeks. One with the historical costumer, Lauren Stowell (aka American Duchess), and with the amazing couture expert Claire Shaeffer.