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Monday, September 6, 2010

Book Review of Theatre de la Mode: Fashion Dolls: The Survival of Haute Couture.

Before, during and after my summer vacation to the beach I kept my eyes glued to this Theatre de la Mode second edition book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, published by Palmer-Pletsch Associates. Just click here to see the cover, details and more reviews at Amazon.

After reading some reviews about inadequate photos, I was hesitant to buy it so I borrowed it through interlibrary loan and then upon reading it and loving the photos - hurriedly purchased my own copy from Amazon. 

For this post, please allow your mind to become a blank screen so that you may imagine the events which produced the Theatre de la Mode masterpiece.

In the fall of 1944, L'Entraide Francaise - the organization responsible for providing and coordinating French war relief - contacted Robert Ricci of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne suggesting a project to feature the endurance of the French fashion industry and couture. France's great engine of fashion, slowed by the impediments of war, would receive a revitalizing boost from this project.

Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture president (from 1937-47) Lucien Lelong recounts that pre-war figures proved fashion industry revenue to be of great benefit to French economy: "...export of a single dress made by a leading couturier enabled us to buy ten tons of coal... ."
In Charles-Roux's Theatre de la Mode, Lelong remembers the July 1940 invasion of Chambre Syndicale headquarters by five German officers hoping to install offices in Berlin and Vienna. To this invasion, Lelong responded: "You can impose anything on us by force, but Paris couture cannot be uprooted,... . 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 does it function quite spontaneously, but also it is the product of a tradition maintained by a large body of skilled men and women in a variety of crafts and trades."

The French still suffered after liberation. People worked and slept without heat due to coal and wood shortages. The Theatre de la Mode book quotes Kent State University Professor of History Stanley Garfinkel: "Aside from the dead, the wounded, and the deported, some five million men, women, and children were without adequate shelter, food, or clothing."

During German occupation the French produced frivolous clothing to taunt the Germans, who benefited from any saving of supplies - but liberation produced a period of restraint - "Take care of your clothing", warned the press. Looking stylish required some ingenuity: the book pictures men riding bicycles to power salon hairdryers. Limitations were set on wool - and the yardages used per garment. Thread was scarce.

During this time of widespread shortage and bitter cold, Theatre de la Mode was formulated. 

Paul Caldagues, a fashion journalist, suggested the presentation of dolls dressed by couture houses as a means of reviving the French fashion industry. 

Participation in this concept was extended to the most prominent Parisian artists. Christian Berard, a set decorator and painter beloved by art society, became Artistic Director of Theatre de la Mode, which was organized as a symbol of hope - the return to life - after 4 years under the shroud of war. It required the collaborative effort of designers, illustrators, set decorators, makers of shoes, gloves, jewelry, and handbags; milliners, hairdressers, and stagecrafters. 

Eliane Bonabel rendered the mannequin design and Jean Saint-Martin constructed the 27-inch wire dolls with plaster heads. Each couture house contributed 5 outfits for the dolls - who were posed within little theater sets. The artists and couturiers were free to explore their creativity, though scenery was portrayed to complement the variety of clothing: tailored, sportswear, daywear, and eveningwear.

All artists provided services free of charge. Ticket sales revenue and sales of promotional dolls went to L'Entraide Francaise. 

On March 27, 1945 Parisian society queued for the Theatre de la Mode opening at The Grand Gallery of the Pavillon Museum of Decorative Arts - and gazed spellbound at the sets populated by so many fashionably-dressed dolls. The room was draped in red velvet with the small stages serving as sole sources of illumination, while the music of Henri Sauguet set the mood. Visitors saw sets featuring Paris streets, an "enchanted grotto", a surreal war scene, the Palais Royal, a modern art garden scene, a city constructed of wire, the Champs Elysees, a ship's dock, a carousel, a grand sitting room, and Christian Berard's theater set - which inspired the exhibit's name.

Populating these sets were crowds of mannequins whose hair had been styled by the great coiffeurs Antoine and Guillaume - with custom made rollers and pins. Custom ensembles were often completed by finely-finished inside seams, working buttonholes and pockets, working handbags, jewelry, miniature embroideries, undergarments, and umbrellas.

The Theatre de la Mode exhibition earned about a million francs for L'Entraide Francaise and drew around 100,000 visitors in its first venue. It was sent on tour to other countries and eventually stored in the basement of a San Francisco department store called City of Paris (now Neiman Marcus). The store owner Paul Verdier insisted the dolls be preserved and at his own expense had them sent to the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Washington in 1952.
Click here to go to Maryhill Museum's audio tour, which is one of the next best things to an actual trip there.

In the foreword to Charles-Roux's Theatre de la Mode, past director of Maryhill Museum of Art Linda Brady Tesner says Theatre de la Mode is a visual masterpiece that represents 1945-1946 through clothes, accessories and theatrical sets. Tesner gives British art historian Sir Kenneth Clarke's definition of a masterpiece: "...the work of an artist of genius who has been absorbed by the spirit of the time in a way that has made his individual experiences universal."

Stanley Garfinkel, a Kent State University Professor of History who helped bring renewed interest to Theatre de la Mode in 1990, quotes an editorial from New York Herald Tribune after the exhibition was shown there: "There is the same dignity, the same grace, the same poetry, telling the heroism of a city that in spite of terror and suffering saved itself whole, preserving alike its good taste, its loyalty to beauty, and its indefatigable skills."

Theatre de la Mode: Fashion Dolls: The Survival of Haute Couture by Edmonde Charles-Roux is a gem if you are delighted by the history that forms fashion.