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Revisiting the Théâtre de la Mode, part II: La Grotte Enchantée

The first set as you walk into the Maryhill Museum’s current exhibit of the Théâtre de la Mode is a copy (all the sets were lost and many were recreated) of the set by the youngest artist involved in the project, André Beaurepaire.

Beaurepaire’s set, La Grotte Enchantée (The Enchanted Grotto) was created by the 20-year old French painter, designer and illustrator. André Beaurepaire became an outstanding French artist of the postwar period. He was the last of the Théâtre participants living—dying just last year at the age of 88.

 André Beaurepaire working on his set. Photo by Béla Bernand.
The 1945 Grotte Enchantée, courtesy Le Blog de Cameline
The Grotto scene at Maryhill Museum today, with the reconstructed set by Anne Surgers. Photo by M. Wilds/denisebrain
In this set are some truly gasp-worthy costumes. These are the original creations, being modeled by the original dolls.

From the left of the scene, there is a long ivory dinner dress with elbow-length dolman sleeves, the bodice entirely embroidered in bronze and mother-of-pearl sequins, by Worth. 

Lucile Manguin’s long dinner dress features a long-sleeved black velvet spencer and full organza skirt with criss-crossing black lace. The doll holds a tiny pink taffeta handkerchief edged in black lace.

Gowns by Worth, Manguin, Renal and (mostly hidden) Patou. Photo by M. Wilds/denisebrain

The gorgeous evening gown by Georgette Renal has a white tulle skirt trimmed with widening bands of satin. Nina Ricci designed the black satin evening dress with leg-of-mutton sleeves. Its fitted bodice has a set-in yoke of pale pink satin embroidered with old-gold sequins. The full skirt has a longer pink satin underskirt.

The  Manguin, Renal and Patou again, with the Ricci. Photo by M. Wilds/denisebrain

While each of the dresses (not to mention accessories and hairstyles) are truly incredible in this set, the gown at front and center definitely is worthy of its place on the stage. It was designed by Balenciaga of raspberry satin embroidered with tiny pearls and ruby beads. The doll wears a matching pillbox hat.

Dress by Balenciaga. Photo by M. Wilds/denisebrain
Dresses by Patou, Balenciaga and Ricci, evening coat by Issartel. Photo by M. Wilds/denisebrain
I wish I could have seen better the Jean Patou dress, “Fleurs de Mal,” shown to the left of the Balenciaga. This evening dress has a short-sleeved black tulle bodice embroidered in black sequins. The slim pink wrap skirt is asymmetrically draped. The doll’s shoes are pink fabric and black leather ankle wrap sandals. To the right of the Balenciaga is an Italian Renaissance-inspiration evening coat by Blanche Issartel. It is made of ivory satin with a silver pattern. The coat is worn over a long gold lamé sheath dress. See those tiny gloves? They are white suede. (Click on the photos to see them larger.)

To the right of the scene is a bright red organdy evening dress by Madame Grès. The turban and veil are of pale green organdy with kingfisher feathers, coral beads and rhinestones. 

The black and silver paisley brocade evening coat was designed by Mad Carpentier. It is a full-skirted redingote with large puffed sleeves. The doll’s equally striking toque is black velvet and tulle embroidered with sequins and jet and trimmed with feathers.

Dresses by Grès and Carpentier. Photo by M. Wilds/denisebrain
The Théâtre de la Mode was conceived as a way to express French couture’s preeminence, even as it struggled to hold itself together during and just after the Nazi occupation of Paris. This scene’s elaborate, elegant, minutely-detailed, gorgeously-designed and heart-meltingly optimistic creations succeed in reaching, even surpassing their goal. I had to sit and look at these dolls for a long time.


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Théâtre de la Mode, part IV: The Fashion Designers

Jacques Fath with one of his creations for the Théâtre de la Mode, 1945

The designers involved in the costuming for the Théâtre read like a who's who of Paris couture of the time, or a near who's who. Notably absent is Coco Chanel, who had closed up shop in 1939, believing that war was no time for fashion.

It was indeed a very challenging time for French fashion. After the Nazi occupation, raw materials, energy and transportation were at a minimum. In 1940 German officers seized the entire archives of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. Balenciega and Grès were shut down on the grounds that they had used more than their allotment of fabric. Balenciaga reopened with the intervention of the Spanish Embassy, while Madame Grès had to quit making her iconic draped designs.

The German Reich was planning to uproot French haute couture, making it part of its regime, with headquarters in Berlin and Vienna. By 1944, the Nazis threatened to shut down the haute couture completely. It was only saved from extinction by the Liberation.

Remarkably, during the four year occupation the majority of haute couture designers had managed to remain in business, maintaining their creativity and keeping their skilled workers. When the Liberation came, the industry was prepared for its rebirth.

Prints came back in the form of polka dots, stripes, plaids, checks and historic patterns derived from Chinese vases, Delft earthenware and Renaissance velvet. Draped designs were also back, emphasizing necklines and hips. Small waists were emphasized with the V-line (for Victory). Jackets softened, hems lengthened, colors and elaborate decoration returned.

Some of the designers involved with the Théâtre were especially important prior to the 40s (Schiaparelli comes to mind first) while some younger designers were rising stars, important at and after the New Look transition.

Dior was part of the firm of Lucien Lelong from 1941 until December 1946. According to Nadine Gasc ("Haute Couture and Fashion 1939-46," one of the essays collected in the book Théâtre de la Mode), there is little doubt that Dior was responsible for a turquoise chiffon dress with white polka dots, with its low neckline and emphasis on the waist. The only difference between this and his New Look style of 1947 is the length.

Jacques Fath, among others, showed a pen silhouette.

Fath's "Poudre d'Iris," a beige wool jacket with mid-calf straight black skirt, currently on display at Maryhill (photo, denisebrain)

Long, full-skirt strapless gowns were back again, shown by a number of designers. Fewer showed a silhouette more common to pre-WWI times, a narrow long silhouette with wide-brimmed hat. Some, like Balmain, showed both. Either way, without a doubt, evening wear was back.

Dress by Balmain, 1946 (yes, those are tiny feathers; click on any
image for a closer view)

Eliane Bonabel showing a doll dressed by Balmain to Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland, New York, spring 1946

List of the design houses contributing to the Théâtre de la Mode

Agnès Drecoll
Alice Thomas
Ana de Pombo
Anny Blatt
Blanche Issartel
Charles Montaigne
Freddy Sport
Georgette Renal
Germaine Lecomte
Henriette Beaujeu
Henry à la Pensée
Jacques Fath
Jacques Heim
Jean Desses
Jean Farell
Jean Patou
Jeanne Lafaurie
Jeanne Lanvin
Lucien Lelong
Lucile Manguin
Mad Carpentier
Madeleine Vramant
Madeleine de Rauch
Maggy Rouff
Marcel Dhorme
Marcel Rochas
Marcelle Alix
Marcelle Chaumont
Marcelle Dormoy
Martial & Armand
Nina Ricci
Pierre Balmain
Pierre Benoît
Robert Piguet
Véra Borea
One of my favorite dresses currently on display at Maryhill, a long bare-backed evening gown in vertical bias panels of pink, blue lavender, cream, black and gray rustic linen, by Calixte. The cowl could be worn as a hood. (photo, denisebrain)

Reference: Nadine Gasc, "Haute Couture and Fashion 1939-1946," Théâtre de la Mode

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