Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Theatre de la Mode I

            In 2007 I took a fortnight trip to London and Barcelona. I had an incredible time besides the fact that my days were constant marathons. Two weeks are not enough to see even a fraction of the museums, the galleries, the fascinating historic sites and the numerous other treasures contained in those cities. By the time I boarded my plane on my way back, I was so overloaded with impressions and emotions that I was constantly feeling high and at the same time completely exhausted. It took me another couple of weeks to calm down and distill all the memories from the trip.                          
         One that I’m very fond of is the memory about an exhibition in Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Golden Age of Couture. I’ve had a soft spot for Haute Couture ever since my early twenties when I saw my first movie about the Fashion Week in Paris. I still follow religiously every new collection of my favourite designers as often as I can. You can’t imagine my delight when I found out that my trip to London has the perfect timing and I can visit the exhibit and see with my own eyes some real haute couture pieces. There was also another exciting surprise waiting for me at the museum. The Theatre de la Mode. An exhibit within the exhibit. I had to admit, I’d never even heard of it before and this fact, of course enhanced my impression of it.

              Towards the end of the World War II, in time of great hardship, the Paris couturiers created the Theatre de la Mode as one of the most telling and fully complete representations of fashion splendor. Hoping  to make a statement to the world that Paris was still the center of fashion, couturiers, jewellers, milliners, hairdressers, and theater designers joined together to present the Theatre de la Mode. This was an exhibition of around two hundred dolls, dressed in the latest styles and arranged in theater sets, designed by artists such as Christian Berard and Jean Cocteau. The exhibition, inaugurated in Paris in March 1945, began a long journey first to other capitals of Europe and Great Britain and then in 1946 to the USA, raising funds for war victims and promoting French fashion.
         Luckily for me, there was a beautifully illustrated book accompanying the exhibit, which is now the base for this story. I have to split this narrative into two since even the compressed version, I’m afraid, might run a bit too long and be a trial for your patience.
         I thought it might be a good idea to start with a little history of the period and how it reflected on Haute Couture and fashion in general. After all the need to survive affected every aspect of daily existence in those days, and that went for the Haute Couture as well; the question of prestige took a backseat to the overriding need to protect the very existence of a profession, which at that time provided a million people with a livelihood and to safeguard its capacity to create.

Left-US Army women taking fashion classes.   Right-Members of the Women's Army  Corps trying French perfumes in Paris, 1945.

        Women turning the pages of the rare fashion magazine published in those days may have had their secret dreams at the sight of the great couturiers creations, but what they looked for in particular was the clever idea that would enable them to keep looking smart, or coquette as the term went then, an adjective that is no longer in use today, but which for a long time was the very definition of a certain type of Parisienne, the sort that never ceased to taunt the Germans with their open display of ingenuity  despite the fact that there was virtually nothing to be had.

Left-In spite of all the difficulties, Parisian women made every effort to maintain their nice appearance.  Right-Parisians greeting Allied Troops, 1944.

         Everything was strictly rationed. In June 1941 a “clothing” card was issued that was so complex that the Petit Echo de la Mode published a practical guide to enlighten its readers. Each card was worth a hundred points; a pittance, when one considers that a jacket containing a modest percentage of wool was worth forty points. Many women turned to little dressmakers for their wardrobe, but textiles too were strictly rationed. The rules specifically stated, however, that exception could be made for “unusually tall people and pregnant women”. One could also barter old garments, but since there was a rule against exchanging men’s clothes for women’s, the newspapers of the period carried patterns with which to transform a man’s three-piece suit into a woman’s suit.

Left-Woman painting her legs so that it appears as tough she is wearing stockings in order to save ration coupons. Right- Rationing in Wartime France.

         How did the Parisienne fare in her struggle against deprivation, gloom and hardship? We see her on her way through the streets of Paris on her bicycle, sporting a tailored suit with slightly outsized shoulders, a short skirt - naturally, for fabrics were scarce, her legs painted, platform shoes and hats so fanciful and extravagant they bordered on the irreverent. Much prose had been devoted to those hats. Jean Cocteau wrote in his diary that they reminded him of puff pastries made of tulle or twisted candies. Christian Dior also mentioned those incredible hats: ”Made of scraps that could not be used for anything else, they looked like huge pouffes that defied both the period’s woes and plain common sense”.

Hats were the most important accessory because they gave a new look to an old outfit.

         Parisiennes used this carefree attitude as a weapon against the austerity inflicted by the Germans, who had become so impatient with the general display of insolence that had threatened to close down every single millinery shop. These quarrels were mere skirmishes, however, compared to the constant battle it took to keep the haute couture in Paris. The German Reich planned to turn French Haute Couture into an official body with head offices in Berlin and Vienna. Faced with such a project, Lucien Lelong the president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture /The Fashion Syndicate/ tried a number of arguments:” You can impose anything upon us by force, but Paris couture cannot be uprooted, neither as a whole nor in part. Either it stays in Paris or it does not exist. It is not within the power of any nation to steal fashion creativity, for not only it does it function quite spontaneously, but also it is the product of a tradition maintained by a large body of skilled people in a variety of crafts and trades”. Becoming more demanding still, the Germans threatened to close down the Haute Couture once and for all in late July 1944. It was only saved from total extinction in extremis by the Liberation. Despite its four-year struggle, the industry had succeeded in maintaining its creativity and independence and had kept its skilled workforce, which meant that once again it was in a position to take its place in the overall French economy.

Some outstanding models from the collections of: from left-Pierre Balmain, center and right-Jack Fath.

         The immediate postwar period was one of rebirth and styles, fabrics and prints were in again in the forms of motifs taken from Renaissance velvets, Chinese vases and Delft earthenware. Crepe, whether plain or printed, continued to carry the day in view of its fluidity and body. Suits and coats came in herringbone and hounds-tooth fabrics and large checks. While shoulders were still important, they now owed their effect to the cut alone, often accentuated by a pointed yoke inset that made the waist look smaller. It was known as the V-line, for Victory. Draped designs were back as well. Dressy clothes were short and trimmed with jet embroidery or braid. Evening dresses were still rare, due no doubt to the lack of gasoline, which made it difficult for people to get around.

Left-Pierre Balmain fitting a model. He opened his couture house in 1945. Right-Christian Dior on the eve of his first collection in February, 1947.

         All of these trends were included in the spring-summer collections of 1946. The dresses worn by the figurines in the Theatre de la Mode exhibition in New York give us a complete record of the event. The fashions of the 1940s had been left behind and the new trends and memories of fashions of the past converged in a veritable kaleidoscope, and creativity was once again unshackled.
         Women everywhere bowed to the new image, powerless when it comes to anything as mysterious as Fashion. That in a nutshell, perhaps summed it all up.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Background of a Passion

         Some of my earliest memories as a child were sitting besides my maternal grandmother’s sewing machine and watching her doing her intricate embroideries. And I’m not talking about one of those preprogrammed computerized embroidery machines. It was an old 1920s foot operated Singer with beautiful wrought iron legs. I was mesmerized by the synchrony between her feet, rhythmically moving back and forth to set the machine in motion and her hands constantly sliding the embroidery hoop within a barely visible range of motion, to form the impeccable stitches with which she created her exquisite embroideries.

My Grandmother /at the front/ at the Singer Embroidery School 1924

         On another day I’m quietly waiting in the corner of my other grandmother’s ground floor room where she is counting and stringing hundreds of strands of yarn and winding them on the warp beam, prepping them to be stretched on a loom and woven into colorful rugs and cloths while chatting and exchanging the newest gossip with the women from all over the county who are here to rent her skills.

Couple of blouses my grandmother made for me in my early teens

         Later that same day I’ll go out in the yard to watch my grandfather soaking planks of wood and slowly and patently shaping them and putting them together to build a strong and nice smelling wooden barrel.
         There were times when I patiently had to wait for the little wood burning stove to heat up so my other grandfather could melt the little pot of gold he needed to cast his jewelry. I still remember the awe I felt every time when later on he would open the mold and pull from inside a piece which minutes ago was just a shapeless molten liquid and now was a cast piece that already had the outlines of a ring, pendant or a bracelet.

A pendant from my grandfather, present for my graduation
         Still fresh in my memory are the countless evenings when after dinner I’ll sit and observe my mother doing her cross stitch embroidery, crochet or knitting while listening to her teaching me how to make the stitches more even and precise or how to hide the knots and ends so the back of the work looks almost as nice and neat as the face.

One of my mom's embroideries

          How can I even begin to express the pride I felt at the openings of my father’s gallery shows? After all I must have had contributed something to his art works too. Didn’t he tell me that I’ve been the inspiration for some of them. Didn’t I follow him faithfully to each gallery or museum, soak in every word, memorize every image.

Couple of my dad's artworks

          Since my earliest memories are from the age of three, by the time of my maturity I had plenty of time to cultivate my love and passion for art, fine hand made objects, artisanship and compassion for all the dying crafts that have adorned our lives.
          For centuries people have been using every spare moment to create all the little objects that fill their homes and their lives, paying equal attention as much to the practical as to the esthetic aspect of them.
          Nowadays the evolution of new technologies and know haws has brought millions of improvements to our lives, but at the same time we began loosing the beauty which all those hand crafted items carry. Nobody will question the superiority of industrial design and cost effectiveness of mass production, but can they replace the exquisite charm, finesse and warmth of the masterfully crafted piece bearing the mark of a talented artisan.
           I feel very fortunate to know and be surrounded by many artists and craftsmen, who keep preserving and perfecting their chosen medium, but beyond this circle, I see an increasing amount of people who are completely ignorant about the skills and effort needed to produce even the simplest item.
           I’ve devoted a lot of my time to the fascinating journey to immerse myself in the work of many artists. During my visits to the museums and galleries in every place I’ve traveled to, during all my searches in libraries and websites I’ve developed an immense appreciation of everything that comes out from under the dexterous fingers of a man. I felt like a privileged guest invited to enter their world in attempt to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


         I’m not much of a writer and always have great difficulties expressing my feelings or point of view on paper. Sometimes when I’m interested in a particular subject I can talk about it for hours, but put a pen in my hand and I can hardly manage to put together two or three lines on the page.
         One of the hardest tasks that I remember from my youth was writing letters. Since that was the Dark Age pre cell phone and Internet and I didn’t always have an access to a phone, I was supposed to write letters. Believe it or not at that time I considered three days of hard manual labor a piece of cake compared with writing a couple of pages to my parents.

/ Bits and pieces from my artworks /

         I’ve loved the idea of blogging fascinated me from the first time I’ve read one, but it took me quite a long time to get over my fear of writing. So, in the end I decided to meet the scary task half way. I’ll write some of the posts to present certain subjects and share my own thoughts, but on other occasions I’ll just reprint articles and excerpts from other publications that already studied the same subject /God help me to escape an arrest for that/. I’m also hoping to find other contributors who will be interested to write something on their area of expertise.
          I’ll be honest. I started my blog because I needed to connect with people who are on the same page as me. I had nobody to talk about the things that bring so much joy to my life, the things I like to create, the ideas I feel so passionate about. I need to share all of them with someone who feels the same. I love talking to just about anyone, anytime… especially about their artwork and from where they find inspiration. It was something that I had to begin for myself. Even though my friends and family had always been very supportive and encouraging, they are just not on the same page.
         For years I’ve been trying to find some sort of a forum with lots of visual presentation of arts and crafts, which isn’t reserved mainly for professional publications. I’ve wanted this forum to appeal not only to professionals and seasoned crafts people, but also to the next generation wanting to learn more and be part of this scene, part of the creative process, part of preserving our heritage and traditions.
         Finally I found out that a blog can be the perfect forum for the moment. A contemporary form of mass communication that provides the perfect opportunity to both reach a broader audience and provide me with an easy tool for sharing my ideas.
         I’ll begin my journey of putting my ramblings about my life, art and my passion for everything fiber and textile in this journal with one of my favorite quotes:

         “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, whit great vision, whit a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”                                                --Woodrow Wilson                                    

/ Bits and pieces from some crafts and millinery /