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Monday
Mar062017

Grecian Draping

Two notions come to my mind on hearing the word ‘goddess’: Ancient Greek deities, and screen sirens of the Hollywood’s golden era. Both are evocative of unearthly or extraordinary beauty, creatures with the power to utterly charm and bewitch ordinary mortals.

Thus the ‘goddess gown’ is associated with the garments of the Ancient Greeks – chiton, peplos, and tunic – as well as the sweeping 1930s gowns worn by the likes of Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer, and Rita Hayworth.

Greek clothing was very simply cut. The loose-fitting and free-flowing chiton, worn by both men and women, was basically two rectangles of fabric joined at the shoulders and sides. Lengths and additional shapes – such as circles or triangles – varied, while different looks were achieved through arrangements that created elegant draping. The most common fabrics were linen and wool. Additional decoration came in the form of pleating, embroidery, belts and jewellery. The result was a style of dress that both revealed and concealed the human figure.

Jean Harlow, in a gown by costumier Adrian; designed for the film Dinner at EightBy contrast, the goddess gowns of the stars of Hollywood’s golden years were slender and form fitting, especially in the bodice, and were often backless. Cuts were more sophisticated; linen and wool had been replaced with silk and lamé. But they still had the yards of fabric, the columnar fluidity, complex pleating, and asymmetric draping in common with the Ancient Greeks who inspired them. Where before Paris had lead fashion, now Hollywood began to take over in the popular imagination; many of these fantasy gowns were designed by the famous costumier, Adrian.

In short, these were sexier gowns really meant for goddesses, not the hoi polloi.

In short, these were sexier gowns really meant for goddesses, not the hoi polloi. It’s no wonder these silver screen stars were named for the sirens of Greek mythology, who lured sailors to death with their seductive singing.

Madame Grès (1903–1993) and Madeleine Vionnet (1876–1975) were both French fashion designers who were proponents of Grecian dress.

Grès’s minimalist gowns were wrapped and draped in the most masterful way – that she was trained in sculpture is obvious when one looks at her designs. One of her gowns could take up to 300 hours to create, with pleats sewn by hand, and the cloth draped so that the body shaped the dress – far longer than the Ancient Greeks one imagines.

Gown by Madame Grès, 1940; ph George Platt LynesGown by Madeleine Vionnet, 1933; ph George Hoyningen-HueneVionnet is known for popularising, if not inventing, the bias cut to create sleek and flattering dresses that skimmed the body languidly. Her gowns were soft, floating freely, and did not distort the natural curves of a woman’s body. She used more unusual fabrics for women’s clothing in the 20s and 30s, such as crepe de chine, gabardine and satin, and always ordered two yards extra for each dress to accommodate the draping.

Both Grès and Vionnet have continued to inspire fashion designers to the present day.

Today, we still see the classic goddess gown on our screen stars, but it is also a favourite style of wedding dress (one of the few occasions when ordinary mortals don floor-length gowns), as an alternative to the classic 50s-style princess gown of strapless-boned-bodice-and-big-skirt ilk. … And above all other days, one should feel like a goddess on one’s own wedding day.

Key Characteristics

•  columnar, bias-but
•  fluid draping
•  pleating
•  asymmetry
•  floor-length

Fashion Note

My very simple grey jersey goddess gown is by English label Karen Millen, and features characteristic asymmetry, draping, and an interesting cut to the back.

Photos: January 2014

Scroll down for more images. Links have been provided where available.

Bette DavisCarole LombardGowns by Madeleine VionnetGown by Madame GrèsNorma ShearerGown by Madeleine VionnetRita Hayworth

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