(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