Theatre de la Mode

Last Saturday, I was magically transported to Paris during the Nazi occupation. My friend Trish invited me to an event her doll collector’s club was hosting, that of a 45 minute video on the history of Theatre de la Mode including 18 reproductions produced by the doll designer Robert Tonner. I know a few of you have heard of the Theatre de la Mode but most people haven’t. I had but it didn’t really interest me -until now. I know a few of you have written to me about it before but it didn’t resonate. I had to experience it.

Imagine if you will, war torn Paris, the capital of fashion. Many couturiers shuttered their doors, never to open again or if they did, never to regain lost footing (Vionnet). Some fled. All told, it was devastating for a nation of which fashion was the second largest national industry and employer. Materials were in short supply as were clientèle (who are often muses) and Germans have never been internationally lauded for their fashion sense. Once the city was liberated in 1944, how was the industry to recover?

Think about it. How does a nation announce to the world that they’re back in business? How does a national industry tactfully transcend the gloom and decay of international sorrow? In grand style, they revived an even older tradition, telling the story of fashion with dolls arranged in a theater setting (link).

The idea for the Theatre de la Mode came from Robert Ricci, son of Nina, and the then head of the Chambre Syndicale, which was enlisted by Entraide Francaise to help raise funds for their work. Like the rest of Europe, Paris was suffering from severe shortages, and fabric was especially hard to come by. Rather than staging ‘real life’ fashion shows, which would have been almost impossible in these circumstances, the Chambre Syndicale decided to do everything in miniature, using mannequins on a 1:3 scale. This harked back to the old practice of sending dolls dressed in miniature versions of outfits to faraway buyers.

Doll bodies were the most pressing problem. One needed a standardized template so participants could render to the same scale, yet with materials lacking and industry devastated, how could this be created? An illustrator and sculptor were commissioned to create the dolls. As ever, high fashion likes a hangar and these dolls were no exception. The bodies were metal armatures sans skin and detail; the metal of their creation was salvage, metal laid in the city streets by the Nazis who’d intended to blow up the city. The metal once intended to destroy Paris, now became the skeleton of its salvation.

Made from wire (a salvaged material), with white, unpainted plaster heads, the mannequins were designed by Eliane Bonabel, an illustrator, and Joan Rebull, a Spanish sculptor. Fifty three design houses, including such well known names as Schiaparelli, Fath, Hermes, Ricci, Balenciaga, Worth, Lelong, Carven and Madame Gres, were given the task of creating up to five outfits each. The only difference between these clothes and those made for real people, was in their size; they had proper linings, closures, buttons and trimmings. Many were hand beaded, and designers often provided miniature foundation garments to go underneath. The couturiers were not the only artists who were involved. The mannequins’ wigs were all professionally made and styled, and each one wore a pair of beautifully scaled down shoes. Jewellery, little gloves, hats, purses, belts, and even little powder compacts had to be made.

The Theatre de la Mode -the first PR campaign to revive an industry- traveled from city to city. First to the capitals of Europe then onto New York, ending up in San Francisco. By all accounts, the Theatre was a rousing success, such that by the time the dolls got to San Francisco, the dolls and the theater languished, forgotten for thirty years. A fashion historian named Stanley Garfinkel from Kent University rediscovered them in the 80’s. They’d come to be housed at the Mary Hill Museum in Washington state, having been officially donated to the museum by the Syndicale in 1952. After they were rediscovered, they were sent back to Paris in 1987 for restoration. Unfortunately for visitors, the museum doesn’t have the space to display the theater in its entirety, sets are rotated. The only way to see them all is if you live nearby and can visit frequently or a museum close to you has arranged to borrow them. The video we saw -I failed to transcribe the title- explained the theatre’s history and provided a series of interviews with people who’d participated in the dolls creation as well as footage of restoration efforts. Here’s another article about the theatre, I giggled when I read the reporter words, “Some of the mannequins wear furs that are derived from extinct birds”. The magical ability of haute couturiers know no bounds.

At Trish’s event, she had some reproductions which were striking but in comparison with photos of the originals (from Theatre de la Mode: Fashion Dolls: The Survival of Haute Couture, there is also Theatre De La Mode but it’s out of print), the originals were beyond compare. The detail is simply not to be believed. I took a lot of photos -before I saw the photos in Trish’s book- and I lost heart. The reproductions, while an admirable effort, were poor facsimiles of the originals. The best they could be are illustrative concepts. Plus, my photos were pretty bad and blurry, the little dears wouldn’t hold still. Here was one of my favorites. I made a dress like this once (sans hood). Now I’ll have to recut it -once I have the book. As I said, the photos of the originals were strikingly different from the reproductions.

As an aside, the narrator in the video said “fashion is feudal”. I apologize for omitting context but the phrase so struck me, I can’t remember it just now. I’m not sure I understand what that means. I asked Eric and he mentioned keiretsu -which I’d never heard either- could it be that? I even searched for fashion+is+feudal but nothing comes up. This is going to gnaw at me till somebody educates me. I mean, I get the gist of it but this is an intriguing concept.

Related: A previous entry (The real value of couture) in which I claim that no matter how wacky high fashion gets, we owe a debt to haute couturiers. They’re the closest we’re ever going to get to a “Got Milk” campaign and it doesn’t cost us a dime. The more expensive and extreme they are, the better (and more reasonably priced) we look by comparison.

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