Born: Jean Dimitre Verginie, in Alexandria, Egypt, 6 August 1904. Education: Studied law, then design, in Paris. Career: Designer, Mme. Jane in Paris, 1925-37; opened own house in Paris, 1937; launched Jean Dessés Diffusion line in America, 1950; in Paris, opened boutique Les Soeurs Hortenses, 1951, and made-to-measure dress shop, Bazaar, 1953; closed couture house, 1960; closed ready-to-wear house, 1965; freelance designer in Greece, to 1970. Died: 2 August 1970, in Athens, Greece.
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Jean Dessés belongs to the small group of couturiers, such as Vionnet, Balenciaga, and Grés, whose clothing combines technical skill with sculptural aesthetic. Although he began as a designer for a small couture house in Paris in the 1920s and opened his own house in 1937, it was not until the postwar years of the 1940s and 1950s that his work gained its greatest acclaim.
The hallmarks of his postwar fame are evident in his prewar work. Draped and twisted sashes and bodices, cape or kimono sleeves, a fondness for asymmetry, and ornament derived from the architecture of the garment rather than applied as surface decoration, were all elements of both his day and evening wear in the late 1930s. Magazine coverage during that period suggests that he favored jerseys and crêpes, with the jersey dresses in particular anticipating the draping skill which Dessés would use to such advantage after 1945.
Immediately after the war Dessés began to explore his own heritage for design themes which would best use his cutting expertise. He showed a collection inspired by ancient Egyptian costume in 1946 and returned to this theme in the mid-1950s, while the costume of ancient Greece provided a continuous thread through his work. His design legacy rests primarily on the pleated and draped silk chiffon evening dresses which notably expressed Dessés' historical interests.
Dessés' transition from jersey to chiffon may have been mandated by the fuller silhouettes of the 1940s, or perhaps by the fact that Madame Grés was the acknowledged master of the draped jersey column, but the change set him on a path which made his name. In September 1951 Vogue lauded Dessés' chiffon gowns as the "Fords" of his collection and "good for a lifetime." By 1958 they were termed "classic." The variations on the theme seemed endless, but there are several important common factors. Appearances notwithstanding, the dresses were not always simple Grecian draperies. The understructures were formal and the cuts were complex, with swags, sashes, bows, and scarves twisted and pleated into shapes that seem effortless and defy analysis; in lesser hands they might simply seem contrived. The dresses also show his sensitive, if somewhat conservative, color sense. Cream or ivory, always flattering, are constants, but Dessés often used two or three shades of one hue, or used three different hues, but of equal value, to maintain harmony. It is also worth noting that the garments are impeccably made; every yard of hem in the double-or triple-tiered chiffon skirts has a hand-rolled finish.
Dessés was equally deft with crisp silks, rough tweeds, and fine dress wools, and his most skilful and inventive draping and cutting techniques were often allied with these fabrics. Dropped shoulder lines, raglan or kimono sleeve variations, and draped collars softened voluminous mohair coats and tweed suit jackets. Tucks, godets, and intricate seaming molded crêpe and gabardine dresses to the contours of the figure. Skirt fullness was swept to the back, folded in at the side, or turned into tiers of flounces which spiraled from hem to hip—all through manipulation of the grain in one piece of cloth.
The most successful of his silhouettes, such as the Streamlined and Winged collections of 1949 and 1951, may not have set trends, but they interpreted the trend with elegance. He favored asymmetry and oblique lines, which gave the garments a sense of movement even in repose. Bold, architectural details such as stand-away pockets and cuffs were used like punctuation marks, adding drama and intensity to a silhouette. Dessés made complex but not fussy clothes, and, on occasion, did set the trend in 1950 when he introduced a onesleeved stole.
Dessés made an easy transition to the 1960s. His stylistic talents were well suited to the cutting possibilities of the stiffer fabrics and simpler silhouettes in vogue at the time. He was also able to devote more of his attention to the ready-to-wear "Jean Dessés Diffusion" line he had started in 1949, and licensed to two U.S. manufacturers— one for suits and one for evening clothes. Dessés closed his couture operation in 1965, apparently due to poor health, and lived in Greece, occasionally designing on a freelance basis until his death in 1970. His influence on fashion has outlived him, however, figuring into the work of Valentino, who was with the Dessés house for several years in the 1950s.