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Eliane Bonabel

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Revisiting the Théâtre de la Mode, part III: Le Jardin Marveilleux



The second scene from the Théâtre de la Mode currently being shown at the Maryhill Museum is Le Jardin Marveilleux (The Marvelous Garden).

The Marvelous Garden at Maryhill. Photo by M. Wilds/denisebrain
The designer of this delightful and somewhat surreal set was Jean-Denis Malclès. The current scene is the recreation by Anne Surger. 

The Garden as it appeared in 1945
Malclès was a painter, stage designer, costumer and illustrator. He was a master of magical effects and he gave his all to Le Jardin Marveilleux.

Jean-Denis Malclès. Photo by Béla Bernand
You may notice that the images of the sets dating from 1945 include clothing different from that on display now. The clothing of 1945 was replaced for the exhibit’s tour in 1946 because the couturiers wanted the fashion to be the very latest of their styles.

In the current display you will see an evening dress by Mad Carpentier with a yellow silk chiffon bodice embroidered with blue beads, old rose lamé and mother-of-pearl sequins...tiny versions of the couturier’s usual embellishments. The skirt is lilac tulle over a pink underskirt. 

Dress by Carpentier. Photo by M. Wilds/denisebrain
Dress by Heim, evening coat by Bruyère
In front of the beautiful bridal gown by Paquin (yes, those are minute covered buttons down the bodice front) is a shadowy figure in one of the most outstanding outfits of the 1946 version of the exhibit.

Wedding gown by Paquin, outfit by Balmain, Photo by M. Wilds/denisebrain
Created by Balmain, the original was lost and considered essential to recreate.

Here is the ensemble as illustrated by René Gruau in 1946. The long cord holds the drape of the dress:


And here the designer of the dolls, Eliane Bonabel, shows this Balmain doll to Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland, in New York in the spring of 1946.


At the right of the Garden scene is a stunning gown of black silk with a green silk under skirt by Madame Grès. Exhibited alongside is another narrow silhouette. It was called “Caran d’Ache” by its creator, Jacques Fath. Designers were experimenting with both sheath silhouettes and the very full skirts which presaged the New Look of 1947.

Dresses by Grès and Fath. Photo by M. Wilds/denisebrain
I was amazed by the miniature scale of the jacquard used for a gown by Bruyère. If only we could see her feet, shod in matching fabric and bordeaux leather shoes! All the shoes you are able to see are miniature masterpieces. 

Dress by Bruyère. Photo by M. Wilds/denisebrain
Some of the tiny shoes on display. Photo by M. Wilds/denisebrain

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Théâtre de la Mode, part VI: Loss & Rebirth—Again

(For the start of this on again-off again series on the Théâtre de la Mode, please see my blog of March 14, My visit to the Théâtre de la Mode, part 1.)

In 1983, Professor Stanley Garfinkel of Kent State University was told about the Théâtre while researching at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The next year he went to Paris where he met Eliane Bonabel and Jean Saint-Martin (the designer of the dolls and the wire artist who made their structures) and he presented the story to Susan Train, the Paris Editor for American Vogue. No one in Paris knew of the dolls' continuing existence at Maryhill. A Franco-American partnership was spearheaded by Garfinkel and Train.

In the mid 1980s the dolls were sent to Paris for meticulous restoration, and in a few cases, total recreation. All but a few of the sets were recreated by Anne Surgers.

In 1990 the exhibition reopened in Paris, later traveling to New York, Tokyo, Baltimore, London, Portland and Honolulu before settling back at Maryhill in 1995. It is on permanent rotating display there, with three of the sets on view at any one time.

Eliane Bonabel with the dolls in 1991

In searching for information about the restoration of the Théâtre, I came across a Telos film called Théâtre de la Mode.

The film has a double poignancy in that it was made along with the exhibit's restoration. Many of the people interviewed were involved with the original project and are now gone. The restoration (and the film) seem to have come from a cusp time: Society was finally eager again to see this work of couture's past greatness, and it was not too late to find some of the original creators. Robert Ricci (son of Nina Ricci), who was instrumental from the conception of the Théâtre de la Mode, died two weeks after he was interviewed for the film. Eliane Bonabel, Stanley Garfinkel, Jean Saint-Martin, all but one of the set designers, and all the fashion designers are gone now.

Eliane Bonabel, a beautiful 72-year old in 1991, was the highlight of the film for me. She describes the Cocteau set, saying that he gave only vague instructions about the set-up and meaning. It was clearly a bombed out building, and a bride is lying dead while her spirit flies off, a symbol of hope and rebirth. The other dolls look on in shock and sorrow. The couturiers at first balked at having their creations appear in such a scene, clearly a reference to The War, but eventually all consented, agreeing that the gowns were even more beautiful in this setting.

The original Cocteau set in 1945


The film is in all ways touching, a reminder of the loss that inspired the Théâtre de la Mode, and the rebirth that was in turn inspired by it. Now it has been 20 years since the newly resurrected Théâtre and we have lost so many more people tied to the exhibit—but we still have their dolls. Susan Train wrote of the dolls in her introduction to the book Théâtre de la Mode:
Born at a moment in history and under circumstances that were more than difficult, but in an élan of solidarity and hope for the future, they stand also for the creative ability, skills, and pride in perfection of detail of the artisans, couturiers, and artists of France. Their message is as strong today as it was in 1945-1946 when they carried it through Europe and to the United States and, inanimate though they appear to be, they are in fact, like the phoenix, a symbol of life.
Doll dressed by Madame Grès, photographed by David Seidner,
shown on the cover of the Telos film Théâtre de la Mode

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Théâtre de la Mode, part II: The Dolls

Théâtre doll in coat by Molyneux (photo, denisebrain)

The couturier Lucien Lelong, President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture 1937-45, is credited with the idea for the Théâtre, although it wasn't a new concept. From as early as the Middle Ages traveling dolls had been used to broadcast Paris fashion, but this had never before been done on such a scale, and with such an important purpose.

The young illustrator Eliane Bonabel was given the task of designing the dolls, and Jean Saint-Martin of creating their wire structures. Wire was used both for its modern airiness, and because it was still relatively available in wartime Paris. The refugee Catalon sculptor Joan Rebull created the plaster heads of the dolls.

Bonabel with one of the dolls in 1945. The dolls are 27.5" in height.






Saint-Martin working on the wire structures





Saint-Martin also designed the artfully minimalist "Croquis de Paris"
(Paris Sketch) set (photo, denisebrain)

I can't tell you how much these little dolls affected me in person. Not only were they created by artists and honored with miniature versions of fashions from some of the greatest couturiers, but their expressions seem serious and purposeful. Their resolve is tangible.

After being in the presence of these dolls awhile, don't be surprised if you feel you are being watched!

Dresses by Agnès Drecoll, Maggy Rouff, Jean Farell, Gaston, Raphaël and Henry à la Pensée, with Dupouy-Magnin mostly hidden (photo, denisebrain)

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