Saturday, July 3, 2010

Theatre de la Mode: Rebuilding Parisian Haute Couture

“Theatre de la Mode”, the theater of fashion. The name promises images of grand staircases and plush velvet curtains and delicate women adorned in exquisitely beautiful clothes. It certainly delivers on that promise, but it represents much more than just beautiful clothes. It represents hope and struggle and rebirth.

Imagine Paris, once the center of fashion--now after four years of Nazi occupation and war--a bombed out shell. Fabric shortages, lack of heat, electricity, food and materials left the fashion industry in ruins. Many designers closed their houses, some never to open again. Many of those who did reopen never again enjoyed the prestige they once had. Still others fled Paris altogether. In the end it devastated France, a nation where fashion was the second largest national industry and employer. Materials were in short supply as were the rich clientèle who patronized the haute couture houses. Once Paris was liberated in 1944, there was still the nagging question, how was the industry to recover?

The story began in autumn 1944 as a newly liberated Paris struggled to rebuild. Millions were homeless, and cold and hunger were rampant. Parisians had gone four years without new underwear let alone worry about new high fashion clothing. Rationing was still very strict, and people were forced to improvise. Old clothes were cut and restyled to make new clothes as raw materials were scarce.

And so it was born from the hope that a newly liberated Paris could and would rebuild. L’Entraide Francaise, which was the organization responsible for providing war relief approached Robert Ricci, son of couturiere Nina Ricci and the head of the Commission of Press and Public Relations at the Chambre Syndicale (the governing organization for haute couture), to organize some type of event to help raise money for war relief. Ricci approached Chambre president Lucien LeLong with the idea of presenting something which would not only show the fashion industry’s concern for the fate of those in need but would also show the world that the French fashion industry was still a force to be reckoned with. Ricci presented the idea of exhibiting a collection of dolls dressed by the major fashion houses. LeLong agreed but it was decided that these could not be ordinary dolls.

Robert Ricci turned to a 20-year-old illustrator named Eliane Bonabel to design the mannequins. The mannequins needed to be standardized so that all the designers could work in the same scale. She conceived the transparent, wire shapes, much like a clothes hanger, that would not detract from the garments. She didn’t want the mannequins to resemble toy dolls as they had to enhance the clothes so the wire mannequins were perfect. Wire was also a readily available material in war ravaged Paris. The mannequins were 27 inches in height.

Artist Jean Saint-Martin was enlisted to build the wire sculptures and Spanish-born sculptor Jean Rebull, created the plaster heads. It was Ricci who also had the idea to display the mannequins in front of theater sets. He approached renowned artist Christian Berard to be artistic director and oversee the show and assemble the artistic talent. Each artist was given free reign as to what their background would be.

In the end, 53 designers collaborated on the show that became "Theatre de la Mode." Among these were Balenciaga, Hermes, Lanvin, Pacquin, Patou, Shiaparelli, Fath, Carvin, Madame Gres and Worth. Each house created up to five designs each. Each of the designers worked in the same 27 inch miniature scale. Work on the clothes progressed during the winter of 1944/1945. These miniature gowns and accessories were painstaking in their detail. They had proper linings, closures, buttons and trimmings. Many were hand beaded, and designers often provided miniature foundation garments. The couturiers were not the only artists who were involved. The wigs were all professionally made and styled, and each one wore a pair of beautifully scaled down shoes. Jewelry, gloves, hats, purses, belts, and even little powder compacts were designed and made.

The mannequins were staged before elaborate backdrops representing scenes of Paris and fantasy settings. In the original “Theatre” there were 13 settings by artists such as Jean Cocteau, Christian Berard, Jean Saint-Martin, Georges Wakhevitch and Jean Denis Malcles.

The original sets are as follows:
  • Le Theatre by Christian Berard
  • La Rue de la Paix en la Place Vendome by Louis Touchagues
  • La Grotte Enchantee by Andre Beaurepair
  • Ma Femme est une Sorceire by Jean Cocteau
  • Palais Royale by Andre Beaurepair
  • L’ile de le Cite by Georges Douking
  • Croquis de Paris by Jean Saint-Martin
  • Le Jardin Marveilleux by Jean-Denis Malcles
Lost Original Sets
  • Matin dans le Champs Elysees by Emili Grau-Sulu
  • Le Port de Nulle Part by George Wakhevitch
  • Un Salon de Style by Georges Geffroy
  • Le Carousel by Joan Rebull
  • Scene du Rue by Anne Surgers (added in 1990 as a replacement for Le Port de Nulle Part by George Wakhevitch)
The Theatre de la Mode debuted in March 1945 at the Louvre's Museum of Decorative Arts. Its opening drew 100,000 visitors. The exhibit later traveled to London, Barcelona, Vienna and Stockholm, drawing royalty and ordinary people alike. The exhibition of the Theatre de la Mode sent the message loud and clear that Paris, while struggling and deprived after four years of Nazi occupation, was still here and not about to surrender its standing as the reigning leader of high fashion.

In preparation for its 1946 American debut in New York and San Francisco, designers added a 13th set and dressed the mannequins in new fashions to reflect the new styles for 1946, presumably repurposing fabric from the 1945 creations. No one is quite sure what ever happened to the original clothes. The 1946 dresses are what visitors to the Theatre de la Mode see today.

The collection includes a polka-dot dress from the house of Lucien LeLong which is believed to be the work of Christian Dior, who later launched the cinch-waisted "New Look" of 1947. Dior was working for LeLong at the time of the “Theatre de la Mode”.

San Francisco was the end of the line for the Theatre de la Mode. Having served its purpose of relaunching the French fashion industry, it was disbanded and stored until 1952 in the basement of the City of Paris department store. By then, French fashions were booming again, and the designers who had labored so hard on its creation abandoned it.

The sets were destroyed, but the mannequins were rescued by an art patron with ties to the Maryhill Museum, which acquired them and displayed them under glass for several decades.

The story takes yet another turn when in 1988, Kent State University historian Arthur Garfinkel learned of the mannequins' existence while doing research on Christian Dior.

Garfinkel traveled to the Maryhill Museum to see the mannequins and persuaded the Maryhill to send the collection to Paris for documentation and restoration. This became a two-year collaboration between the museum, the French government, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Hanae Mori salon in Japan. The refurbished Theatre de la Mode reopened in 1990 in its original location at the Louvre's Museum of Decorative Arts. Since then, it has traveled from Maryhill to New York, Tokyo, Baltimore, London, Portland and Honolulu. The original Theatre had 13 sets, by 1990, nine of the sets were rebuilt. The different stage sets create elaborate backdrops for the mannequins as they display both casual and formal wear of the day. Each year, three of the nine sets are on display while the others travel the world.

The Theatre de la Mode can be seen at the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington

Maryhill Museum of Art
35 Maryhill Museum Drive
Goldendale, WA, 98620
(509) 773-3733


  1. I've been a fan of Tonner's reproductions of the Theatre de la Mode line for years, but I had no idea of their actual history! This is fantastic reading, and makes me like them even more--I so wish he'd go back to producing them!

  2. Wow JC, you really do your homework! Please, keep up the great job with the history articles.

  3. I actually saw "le petit theatre de la mode"" (at least part of it) when it was in exhibition in Seattle MOHAI (museum of history and industry) I was absolutely under the charm of those lillte creations. Each one is a piece of art, they are really unique and precious for the fashion history.
    I am as well a fan of Tonner dolls and I think r.Tonner did a great job as reproducing some of those.

  4. I would have loved to have seen it! How fortunate! That's simply wonderful--and thanks for your comments and visiting our blog.

  5. I saw the dolls in a basement cabinet, at Maryhill, when I was a little girl. I was ten and my family was on a car trip of the state. At the time, my mother and I thought that they were fascinating, you could see the detail in the handmade clothes but I couldn't figure out the wire legs. This was before Barbie, I sure wanted a doll that size.
    I've recently revisited the display and appreciate the condition of the clothing.

  6. I saw it in Baltimore - actually went TWICE - I've been fascinated by it ever since -- would absolutely LOVE to see it again!!


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