Currently Reading – Theatre de la Mode

The story of the Théâtre de la Mode is quite well-known. Briefly, it was a project undertaken after the liberation of Paris in 1944 to show that the Haute Couture had survived the war, and to raise money for war recovery. Dolls, sculptures actually, were designed by young artist Jean Saint-Martin, and members of the  Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne designed fashions for the dolls to wear. Scene sets were designed by famous artists like Christian Bérard.

Lots of money was raised. The show toured Europe, and then went to New York, with the show ending in San Francisco. When the show ended, the dolls somehow ended up at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Oregon.

There is, of course, so much more to this story. When I spotted this book in an antique mall last fall, I picked it up and then put in my to-read pile. Well, that pile has been shrinking, and I finally got around to reading Théâtre de la Mode. My timing could not have been better, because this is not just the story of some beautifully dressed sculptures; it’s the story of how beauty can survive in the midst of the most terrible of circumstances.

As an American Baby Boomer, I grew up with my family’s tales of the depravitations of World War II. There were stories of cars with no gasoline, of cakes with no chocolate, and of new clothes being remade from old. To my middle class 1960s life, it all sounded so dreadful. In recent years the sufferings of life in Britain during and after the war have been well documented in movies and television. But what about life in Paris after the liberation from Nazi control?

The writers of Théâtre de la Mode did an exceptional job of painting a picture of post-liberation Paris. What was pointed out was that after the cheering was over, one of the harshest winters in known history set in, with shortages of everything from coal to milk. The infant mortality rate soared to 10.9 percent. Electricity was turned on only at meal times and at night. New, warm clothing was not to be had.

But in spite of all the misery and hardships, the couture had survived. Paris had lost its position of the world’s fashion leader, but plans were made in 1944 for the city to regain what it had lost. Part of the plan was the Théâtre de la Mode.

Couture houses, milliners, and shoemakers worked through the winter of 1944-1945 on their contributions to the project. Sets were built, dolls constructed, and tiny garments constructed. In March, 1945, the Théâtre de la Mode opened at the Pavillon Marsan. It was a smashing success. Paris was ready for some beauty and fantasy.

Above you see Eliane Bonabel, who was instrumental in the development of the dolls.

When the show closed in Paris, it traveled to other cities across Europe. Late in 1945 new clothes in what couturiers imagined to be the latest fashions were made before the dolls were sent to New York, accompanied by Bonabel. The show opened there in May of 1946, and then traveled to San Francisco where it was shown at the De Young Museum. When it closed, the dolls were stored at the City of Paris department store in the city.

There the dolls stayed until 1951 when Paul Verdier, president of the store, arranged for the dolls to be sent to Maryhill. There they resided until they were “rediscovered” in 1984 by Stanley Garfinkel of Kent State University.  A plan was hatched to send the dolls back to Paris where they would be restored, and put on display again at the Pavillon Marsan. All the original sets had been lost so reproductions were made of nine sets.

This book came about as a result of the restoration and the Paris exhibition. There are essays by people involved in the project, and by historians. All are interesting. The photos by David Seidner are really special.

Today the Maryhill Museum of Art displays the dolls and sets on a rotating basis. I have definitely put Maryhill on my long range plan list. And now, a little taste of the lovely photos of the dolls.

Coat and dress by Martial & Armand, hat by Blanche & Simone, shoes by Bertili

Left: Suit by Lucile Manguin, accessories by Vedrennes

Right: Suit by Dupouy-Magnin, hat by Jane Blanchot, shoes by Gelé.

The only slacks that I spotted: Sport ensemble by Freddy Sport

Beachwear ensemble by Maggie Rouff, hat by Gilbert Orcel, sandals by Casale

Beachwear ensemble and hat by Jacques Heim, sandals by Hellstern

Dress by Madame Grés, veil by Caroline Reboux

Left: Dress by Henriette Beaujeu, hat by Rose Valois, gloves by Hermés, shoes by Grezy

Right: Dress and hat by Schiaparelli, gloves by Faré, shoes by Casale

In all there were over 235 dolls, though some are now missing. Many of the accessories are also missing. For the 1991 exhibition, Massaro made some reproduction shoes.

Essays by  Edmonde Charles-Roux, Herbert R. Lottman, Stanley Garfinkel, Nadine Gasc, Katell le Bourhis, and photographs by  David Seidner 


Filed under Currently Reading, Designers, Museums, World War II

27 responses to “Currently Reading – Theatre de la Mode

  1. KeLLy aNN

    oh my goodness! I used to check that book out from the Library all the time! I love it.


  2. A dress by Madame Gres! The displays and sets are wonderful in person. Maryhill is a wonderful place. If you ever visit, let us know here at Pendleton. We would love to have someone from our company show you around Pendleton HQ in Portland (if you’d like), and take you up the Columbia Gorge to the museum.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jacq staubs

    Truely amazing time capsule. Locating the appropriate fabric / scale of weave and print and tedious handsewn skill and detail is wonderful. The wire mannequins that are balanced .The millinery as well. I had heard of this – until now never have seen it. Thank you.


  4. This is a fabulous post. What a find! It’s all new to me and so beautifully conceived and carried out and carried on. The Schiaparelli dress in the last photo: At first I thought the print was of airplanes! That didn’t seem right. My guess on enlargement is that it’s the Bastille. Can you confirm?
    Thank you for this gift.


  5. This is amazing, I knew nothing of it. The “dolls” are absolutely wonderful, as well as the clothing. I used to live in Portland and very much regret that I never heard of this museum.
    bonnie in provence


  6. Ruth Beaty

    You would not believe the price for the book on Amazon! I went and checked thinking I would like to get one, maybe? The cheapest was about 30.00 dollars and one was 106.00. There is also another version at a much more reasonable price.


  7. Astounding models! Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Lizzie. Much needed perspective on the importance of beauty and fashion. Hope you both have a lovely weekend! xx 🐰🌼🌷🐰


  8. Hi Lizzie, I wrote about my visit to the Maryhill Museum on my blog a few years ago, and about the Theatre de la Mode, which is truly one of the great secrets of fashion history for some reason. Then a couple of years ago, I found an original poster from the Exhibition when it was at the deYoung Museum in SF, also documented on my blog. I consider it one of my great treasures! Thanks for reviewing the book and adding to the knowledge of this remarkable time in history.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’ve seen a few of the dolls before, but they are making a much bigger impression on me now. Context is everything. The shoes are amazing!


  10. susanstrawn

    This collection at Maryhill took my breath away when I visited several years ago. I bought postcards with photos and a DVD sold at the Maryhill gift shop that described the history. Then I used those to develop a lecture about the Theatre for my undergraduate history of dress course, a refreshing way to illustrate the postwar fashion world. One student, memorably, referred to them as the ‘creepy little dolls’ but I expect her appreciation improved with time and maturity!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Claritza

      I saw some of the dolls at a traveling exhibition in Baltimore a while back. The faces and wire have a certain stark otherworldly quality which contrasts with the richness and glamor of the clothes and accessories. Would love to visit the museum!


  11. Creepy? Oh dear, too many weird movies perhaps …
    bonnie in provence


  12. seweverythingblog

    Wow! I was fortunate to visit this exhibit at Maryhill some years ago. It is amazing!


  13. I saw the tour at MOHAI in Seattle in their old location. And then I went over and over again. None of my photos have survived to now. It was breathtaking, and even more interesting in light of it’s history. I have been planning a road trip to Maryhill with family for some time, but the timing never works out (they are closed in the winter). This year I will make it.


  14. Oh, I’ll have to look this book up, thanks for posting this! I have the first of the Tyler Wentworth Théâtre de la Mode dolls by Robert Tonner and was looking for a site that shows them all and the originals. I hadn’t found a photo of the original of mine so far. Found that, but also your post. Tonner did not too bad a job, though some were better done than others I think.


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