The Poster for Theatre de la Mode exhibition in New York, 1946.
1945, Paris was waxing enthusiastic over a dreamlike vision. It was fantastic, an astonishing exhibition where, set in a miniature theatre, one saw little people contrived in wire, for lack of anything else available. Most hallucinatory of all these so-called dolls were wearing the latest creations of the top couturiers.
In 1939, there were seventy registered couture houses in Paris, including the grand establishments of Chanel, Schiaparelli and Balenciaga. This flourishing industry was disrupted by the wartime occupation of Paris. Private clients dispersed, international sales almost ceased and many couturiers closed. The Germans planned to move couture to Berlin but Lucien Lelong, the president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisien, couture’s regulating body, objected, saying “It is in Paris or it is nowhere”.
But what is the question is not so much the importance of the event, but the significance it has acquired with passing of time. It could not have been born except in those difficult years of Paris life. A tragic period one will always remember, a haunting period of doubts when the world lived in “the pitiable hope of regaining a lost paradise”.
It is tempting to try to imagine life in Paris as it was in the weeks during which the Theatre de la Mode took concrete form, to stand in the wings as the artists and their teams created mannequins and decors in that first winter of free Paris.
|“Palais Royal” by Andre Dignimont. Navy wool day dress by Marcelle Chaumont|
The autumn and the winter that followed the liberation – the months during which the Theatre de la Mode was conceived and elaborated – were in many ways the harshest of all the war – the weather brutal, the shortage acute. Rationing had disappeared. There was a thriving black market, but only for those who could afford it. A full sixteen months later, in December 1945, bread rationing was put in effect once more, the daily allowances decreased. The paradoxical result was that even more of a sacrifice was to be demanded of French citizens in the immediate postwar than in any of the grim years that preceded it.
“Le Jardin Marveilleux”- /The Marvellous Garden/ by Jean-Denis Malcles.
And in that month of March 1945, amid the vast chaos of devastated France, the triumph of a spectacle that disclosed the ambiguities and the seduction of the epoch was for numerous creators the first sign of a possible survival. Using the ages-old tradition of traveling miniature mannequins dressed in current couture, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture mobilized a whole industry with unprecedented cooperation’s and creativity to prove that life could begin again through these 27” tall ambassadors of fashion.
“Croquis de Paris”- /Paris Sketch/ by Jean Saint-Martin. Ensemble by Marcelle
At its point of departure, the Theatre de la Mode derived from a well established custom, dating, some say, from the Middle Ages, when traveling dolls were dispatched far and wide. Their mission was to present the elegance and prestige of Paris fashion to foreign courts. On seeing to what degree such new fashions could accentuate a woman’s charms, a number of princesses, reassured by the anonymity of such ambassadors, ended by copying their styles. The use of traveling dolls and their purpose of revealing the latest fashion became an exclusively Parisian tradition.
To give new life to an old idea during a period of crisis was all to the credit of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisien, whose president was Luciene Lelong. But the real instigators of the project were Paul Caldagues a fashion journalist of exceptional talent and Robert Ricci, the son of Nina Ricci, who had been both editor and publicist, a man of communication before his time.
Ensemble by Martial & Armand. Yellow dress – Unattributed.
Day ensemble by Lucile Manguin “ Barbizon” and Sport suit by Dupouy-Magnin.
The organisation responsible for providing and coordinating war relief was L’Entraide Francaise. In the fall of 1944 its president, Raoul Dautry, called on his friend Robert Ricci at the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisien. He had the idea of asking the Chambre Syndicale to organize something which would show the continuing vitality of the fashion industries and the couture. At the same time this would prove that they were very concerned about the fate of those in need and were willing to make a great effort to help them. The idea was discussed and approved at an executive meeting of the Chambre Syndicale. According to Robert Ricci, it was Paul Caldagues who first suggested an exhibition of dolls dressed by the couture houses. They wanted the most prominent Parisian artists of the moment to be associated with the project.
|Evening dress by Gres. Long dinner dress by Lucile Manguin.|
The whole playbill of the Theatre de la Mode was a mixture of names that placed elbow to elbow totally contrasting artists. It assembled prewar prodigies, men who were born with talent, fortune and influence with others who had struggled and tried a thousand métiers before succeeding. This project brought together Parisians of ancient stock with newcomers: exiles and expatriates from all over France, Spain and Russia.
Jean Saint-Martin and Elaine Bonabel. Jean Saint-Martin.
A special homage must be accorded to two gifted and inventive beings, the first to give the Theatre de la Mode its modernistic character. A young illustrator of rather unconventional background and barely twenty years old, was entrusted with the task of creating the prototype of a small feminine creature. This young girl was Elaine Bonabel, who at thirteen had been the youngest of the writer Celine’s illustrators. She had also created a series of hand puppets that aroused great interest. Thus it was she who received the commission and her drawings were accepted overnight.
|Jean Saint-Martin. Elaine Bonabel.|
The realisation was given to a man who already practiced various means of expression. His name was Jean Saint-Martin. He was a sculptor who at the age of sixteen was engaged by Siegel, the maker of wax mannequins, where he assisted in creating the a la garconne mannequin – symbol of the 20s. At the request of Robert Ricci, he contrived a small mannequin that was almost an abstraction in its supple lightness. It was made from wire – twisted, bent, stretched and soldered. Wire – a material that was still not too difficult to find in Paris then. Being next commissioned to create one of the sets for the Theatre de la Mode, more extraordinary still, Saint-Martin made that in wire too.
|Andre Beaurepaire. Christian Berard.|
The obvious choice as art director was Christian /Bebe/ Berard, an artist of versatility, talent, wit and charm and a favourite of Parisian fashionable, artistic and theatrical circles. Berard called upon his friends: ballet impresario Boris Kochno; writer, poet, filmmaker Jean Cocteau; painters Dignimont, Douking, Grau-Sala, Touchagues; stage designers Wakhevich and Malcles; decorator George Geffroy; and a new young talent in Paris, twenty year old Andre Beaurepaire.
|Louis Touchagues. Boris Kochno.|
It was Robert Ricci who solved the problem of how to present the dolls and allow each artist his own place in the sun by creating a little theatre in which each one would build his set and would place in them the dolls dressed by the couturiers.
“Un Salon de Style”-/An At-Home/ by Georges Geffroy.
The artists and couturiers were given complete freedom to create the sets and the clothes as they pleased. Berard decided his décor would represent an opera house. The others chose morning, afternoon or evening scenes so that the proper variety of clothes could be shown in a corresponding environment. Each couture house, according to the size and nature of its collection, agreed to produce from one to five outfits.
During the winter of 1944-45 the Theatre de la Mode gradually took shape. The clothes were miniature versions of the full size collection. Each was fashioned with the same precision and perfection as the original: tiny hand-stitched buttonholes for hand-covered buttons that could really be unbuttoned, pockets that were really pockets, inner construction ass meticulously finished as if the dress were to be worn inside out. The stripes of Carven’s “Sucre d’Orge” were too wide to be used for the mini version, so they were reduced by cutting the fabric and resewing it. At Patou a special basket-weave fabric was remade to scale.
|Doll’s parts. Work in progress.|
Plagued by inadequate heating, electricity cuts, barely adequate food rations, and often obliged to get to work on foot or on bicycles, the skilled tailors and seamstresses nevertheless threw themselves into the project with enthusiasm and fervour. At first the figurines were only to be dressed, hatted and coiffed, but later there was a kind of rivalry between the couture houses and they said “Why not have shoes?” So then little shoes were made. “ Why not have bags?”, “Why not have umbrellas?” A few workrooms even made underwear. There was real competition going on between couturiers. Each one tried to find out what the other was doing in order to do more and better.
Doll’s heads. Milliner’s shop.
All the artisans who worked with the couture houses became involved. Tiny belts, flowers, gloves, feather ornaments for evening coiffures, miniature embroideries and jewellery were created to complement each costume. The great coiffeurs of the era such as Antoine and Guillaume created coiffures to scale. The challenge of creating miniature hats was a great deal of trouble. It was a work of precision correct to a millimetre. They built tiny moulds, fitted, cut, repinned and started again. The furs had specific problems of their own. The machines to sew the pelts needed needles, but the needles came from Germany. They didn’t have coloured threads, so they bought white and dyed it. The workrooms were cold, the electricity cuts constant, plying a needle, working a skin, wetting a skin in freezing water – terrible.
|Doll’s shoes. Shoemaker.|
There were shortages of every conceivable kind. The Chambre Syndicale had to obtain special government permits for the lumber and plywood used for the decors. The couturiers ransacked their stocks for scraps of fabric. The couture houses not only contributed labour and materials but also made a financial contribution for each costume and hat provided for the exhibition. Each artist donated his services. A prestigious locale, the Grand Gallery of the Pavilion Marsan at the Museum of Decorative Arts, was secured at no cost. All revenue from the sales of tickets and programs went to L’Entraide Francaise and sales of cloth dolls dressed by the couturiers were to bring in additional profits.
|Ensemble by Georgette Renal and Day dress by Molyneux. “Palais Royal” by Andre Dignimont.|
The exhibition opened the evening of March 27, 1945. The Republican Guard in helmets and uniforms flanked the stairs leading to the Grand Gallery. The public walked almost in silence, religiously. Day after day the people of Paris, starved for beauty, for glamour, for amusement after four years of occupation, streamed to the Pavilion Marsan. Students came to sketch and to study how the fabric had been draped. So did the fashion-conscious Parisiennes who made their own outfits, but who might never go to a collection themselves. It must be remembered that ready-to-wear as we know it today did not exist in France at that time.
|The eve of the inauguration. “Le Carrousel”-/Merry-Go-Round/ by Joan Rebull.|
The exhibition was so successful that it was prolonged for several weeks. At its conclusion, receipts for l’Entraide Francaise came to about a million francs. It had also had its uses for the couture industry. Something which had continued to exist, but was not known to all had reappeared in the mainstream of life. The 100 000 people who visited the exhibit spread the news that there was still a flowering of fashion houses and that they were still there to defend French fashion.
“Ma Femme est une Sorciere”-/My Wife is a Witch/ by Jean Cocteau.
Next stop for the exhibition was London. The British called it “The Fantasy of Fashion”. A private viewing was arranged for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. In six weeks some 120 000 Londoners queued up to exclaim over the extraordinary fashions from Paris. Restrictions on textiles had been very severe in wartime Britain and were still in force. British women were still in uniform or wearing shabby, skimpy, utilitarian clothes. They must have had very mixed feelings about this French extravaganza, but it did enable them to dream of a more glamorous future.
|Evening dresses “Fleurs de Mal” by Jean Patou and Calixte. Ermine cape “Rose de France” by Mendel.|
On January 2,1946, the Theatre de la Mode opened in Leeds, center of Yorkshire’s textile industry and an important prewar source of fabric for the French fashion industry. Elements of it had been sent to Barcelona as part of larger French exhibition. During the fall and winter of 1945-46 portions of the exhibit had toured Copenhagen, Stockholm and Vienna.
In the spring of 1946 the Chambre Syndicale decided to send an updated version of the Theatre de la Mode on a tour to the United States, with the figurines dressed in the latest 1946 fashions. It was housed in the opulent Whitelaw Reid mansion in New York. George Geffroy was put in charge of the interior design and several new sets were made in Paris to the specific layout of the mansion.
|Pleated organdy dress by Maggy Rouff. “Scene de la Rue”-/Street Scene/ by Georges Wakhevitch.|
The newspaper coverage of the opening gala reception was extensive, as it was both a social and artistic event. The audience was dazzled by the tiny precious stone or diamond jewellery such as Van Cleef’s gem-studded epaulettes on a Schiaparelli evening dress or Cartier’s bejewelled plastron for Worth. Twelve of the leading Paris jewellers had added their might to the spectacle.
|Jewellery by Cartier, Lesage and Chaumet.|
From New York the Theatre de la Mode traveled to San Francisco, where the French community of 20 000 gave it an emotional and enthusiastic welcome. Mexico City, Chicago and Dallas were among the many cities clamouring to host the exhibition after San Francisco, but none could offer the right package of a suitable site and sufficient funds to guarantee a surplus for l’Entraide Francaise.
|An article in the July 30, 1952, Oregon Journal.|
By the early 1950s, the French couture houses were prospering again and having served its purpose the Theatre de la Mode was abandoned by its French sponsors and presumed destroyed. The figurines valuable jewellery was sent back to Paris and they were packed away in the basement of “City of Paris” department store (now Neiman Marcus) pending a decision on future exhibitions or their return to Paris. Finally Paul Verdier, owner of City of Paris, wrote to the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture suggesting that the dolls be preserved at the Maryhill Museum of Art. It was Alma de Bretteville-Spreckels, a major benefactor of Maryhill, who had proposed this solution. It was approved at an executive meeting of the Chambre Syndicale in September 1951. The mannequins arrived at Maryhill Museum in1952 and since then have been the most appealing exhibit of the French Decorative Arts collection.
Evening dress by Balenciaga. “La Grotte Enchantee”-/The Enchanted Grotto/ by Andre Beaurepaire.
|Silk brocade evening coat by Mad Carpentier. Silk damask and satin evening dresses by Worth and Jeanne Lafaurie. Evening dress “Nocturne” by Jean Patou.|