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,