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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  1. Marie-Christine says:

    Ah, I was lucky enough to see the exhibit in San Francisco when the whole thing was restored – wow! The level of detail is incredible, to describe these as ‘dolls’ is needlessly trivializing. And I love the styles of that period :-). Let me point out that Vionnet’s famous quarter-scale mannequins were probably the inspiration. And it made sense in those difficult times to send inanimate exhibits, it’s only later that people such as Mme Carvel traveled with gaggles of live glamorous models to show their collection.

    Totally agree with you that couture is helpful for the appreciation of regular old clothes..

  2. rayna says:

    yes, fashion is feudal. I guess that is why everyone clamors to have their label to gain “celebrity status” – if they’re wearing us that makes us a star too right? lols.

  3. ioanna says:

    Didn’t some Parisian designers continue to work under the occupation dressing the wives of the Nazis and the French collaborators? I seem to recall this from Christian Dior’s biography…

    • Carl C says:

      The designers and their houses could sell only to Nazi’s, the French (who were limited in the latter years of the war to 1 outfit a year), and to allies of the Germans. They couldn’t sell to any country that was an enemy to the Reich. Coco Chanel took up with a German officer during the war, and after the war had to flee to Switzerland or be tried as a collaborator.

      Given the circumstances, none of the other, 50 remaining couturiers were convicted or jailed for “collaborating.”

  4. Connie says:

    Re:fashion is feudal

    When my husband was working on his PhD and even later when he was first accepted to a university to teach I used to refer to academia as a “feudal system”, meaning that the main professor would lord it over you and then take the glory by putting his name on the published article for all the work you and your fellow degree candidates did. Not only that, he/she could make or break your career depending on the recommendations you got. It seems to me that haute couture fashion houses work in a similar manner. One lord of the manner taking all the credit while all the “peasants” work their buns off.

  5. Kai Jones says:

    I live near enough to Maryhill to visit on a day trip, and have done so a dozen or more times (there’s lots more to the museum than this exhibit). I remember seeing the dolls before the French restoration; I’ve been coveting those dolls since I was a teenager! If I recall correctly the museum’s gift shop sometimes had reproductions of a few of the dolls for sale, but I never had the cash for one.

  6. Anir says:

    I’d love to know the context of the saying because there is a saying “fashion is futile.” Perhaps that’s what the guy said? To wit: Yves Saint Laurent said,
    “Les modes passent, le modèle est éternel. La mode est futile, le modèle pas.”
    Roughly “Fashions pass, style is eternal.
    Fashion is futile, style is not.”

  7. Trish says:

    Kathleen, so great to see your post on Theatre de la Mode. I appreciate you coming to enjoy with us.

    I was fortunate to see thirteen of the TDLM mannequins in Denver at a United Federation of Doll Club national convention. I felt like I was in church while I was in that room… I truly love the whole concept and I am pleased that I own all of the reproductions that Robert Tonner created (I think there are 18 or 19) because even though they cannot compare to the originals (remember that had to be sellable at a price affordable to doll collectors) they make me feel like I have a piece of the incredible history of the couture.

    Thanks again for including us in your beyond fabulous web log!!!

    The book, the video and ten of the Tonner dolls are still available at the Maryhill Museum store online. The book is $29.95 but Amazon has a few copies for $19.99 (so link on through this blog and spend that cash!!!!)

  8. ashley says:

    The recent history of TDLM is interesting (to me) as well. The dolls and sets were thought lost. (The sets were designed by artists of the day — they, too, are incredible!)
    Boxes were found in San Francisco, but no one knew what they were. They thought they were just an interesting collection of nice dolls and old clothes. But a few people noticed that these were not just ordinary, they were extraordinary. Finally, a series of connections were made: ‘So and so really should give this person a call, because I think they may be interested…’ and on and on until eventually, the folks with the dolls were put in touch with someone who knew about TDLM and Voila! The incredible sets and dolls and clothes and shoes and handbags, once thought lost, were found!
    One of my friends here, Judy Barlup (a tailoring teacher), was involved in the conversations a bit. When she tells the story, she is so passionate that tears come to her eyes (and mine).
    I’m still not sure if the board of directors at Maryhill museum *really* understand the value of what they have. (The curators do.)
    The detail is incredible! The stitching on the *shoes* is perfect, perfect, perfect! Even more incredible when you realize that the shoes are so tiny! I got to see them up here in Seattle at the Museum of History and Industry. (A group of us went and oohed and ahhed and worked hard not to reach out to touch them — so tempting!)
    The workers (can’t think of the right term) became energized working on them, and competition developed. It became not just about the designs and outfits, but then also about the *underwear* and details that no one would ever see (like wallets inside the purses). Power would be on in one building in one part of the city and everyone would gather everything and run over there to take advantage of it. Then the power would go off there and they’d go to another part where it was rumored that power was on. Imagine what that means on so many levels…
    Here’s a nice summary that was in our local paper when the exhibition was here:

    It’s incredible to see these in person, not just because of the workmanship and beauty, but also because of the stories behind it all. I’m glad you got to see them, Kathleen, and delighted that you’ve shared it with everyone.
    We’ve shown the video at some of our neighborhood groups here in our local ASG chapter. If you don’t have the chance to ever see the dolls, it’s worth seeing the video.
    Kai — how lucky you are to be able to see the dolls many times!

  9. Marsha says:

    I have had the pleasure of many visits to Maryhill to see the collection. The sets are wonderful and the detail on the garments is amazing. Before they were sent back to Paris in 1987 to be restored, I was lucky enough to be a part of one fund raising event. In Portland, OR, our Prof Assoc of Custom Clothiers group was asked to dress dolls to be auctioned off at a fund raising dinner. We were given a silk scarf donated by Saks that said “Theatre de la Mode” on the patterned print. We each dressed a doll that consisted of a stick body with a ceramic head. We were required to incorporate the scarf in some manor. I padded up a body shape and basically draped the dress using the scarf and some silk crepe. It was wonderful to see the dolls and how unique each one turned out. They became the table center pieces and were auctioned raising between $200 and $600 each for the restoration. It’s always made me happy knowing I played a tiny part in sending the manniquins back to Paris for their restoration. Some of the same craftsman worked on them in Paris over 40 years after their original creation.

  10. Thomas Ball says:

    I directed the film mentioned above and one of the other posts above is the correct answer to the Fashion is Feudal mystery. The narrator (in a French accent) was indeed saying Fashion is futile. The veiled YSL reference was indeed what Stanley Garfinkel, who was the producer and writer of the film, was referencing. Glad to see this project is still an inspiration to those who love fashion; not to mention the enduring interest in its “futility.” Stanley was interested in it because of its unique window into history. He did not look at it as something futile at all.

  11. Karen C says:

    I would love to view this video, but can’t seem to locate a copy. Any help would be appreciated. Can’t seem to locate Mr. Bell’s email address.

  12. Carla Gielens says:

    I really hope to see Theatre de La Mode once; live. I’m not really able to travel to Paris to see the dolls. As I understand well the dolls were not only telling that haute couture still had a leading position. They gave a little smile to the watching people who just lived in times of war. They could see their lives could be different then only being ruled by war. The scenes of Theatre de la Mode were all friendly and had a radiation of safety and freedom. I think that ‘s an important issue. Or am I too naive?

    Do I understand it well that the dolls can be borrowed from ‘Paris’, for instance by Holland? I hope someone can tell me if that is possible. Maybe it is nice to see for children, for people interested in fashion and for adults who actually still are children but are not able to travel far away.

    Thank you for your attention.

  13. Kathleen says:

    Carla, lucky for us, the dolls are not in Paris. The Syndicale donated them to the Mary Hill museum in Washington State. It’s in the middle of nowhere, 100 miles east of Portland. The museum is too small to display all of them at once, the collection is rotated. In short, research before you make plans to go.

  14. Carla Gielens says:

    I will wait untill there is a chance to go to Paris or Washington State to see the dolls. We must have little dreams, don’t we?
    Meanwhile I have taken a look in the book of Theatre de la Mode of Edmonde Charles-Roux. The photographs are small and not always very clear. But the couturiers have used their fantasy and creativity very well. You can see thát from a distance. The settings/scenes are very inspiring, and not only for fashion. If you use your imagination you could tell or write stories, fairytales and novels. The Port of nowhere, The enchanted grotto or I married a witch………… always nice items to fantasize about. Before I had the book of Charles-Roux in my hands I was planning on writing a little book about Theatre de la Mode in the Dutch language. Now I am thinking of something completely different. Maybe I will do both. Please do write more of your informal reports on what you have seen of Theatre de la Mode. Inspire me!

    Question: are there still reproductions of the dolls you can buy and what do they cost? I will try not to be upset by the height of the price.

    Greetings from Holland and have a nice day!

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