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Mad Carpentier

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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 III: The Sets

"Le Théâtre," the grand set originally created by Christian Bérard, gave the show its name. The recreated set is featured on the cover of a book devoted to the history of the exhibition.

The Théâtre de la Mode's artful dolls and their fashions were displayed in a series of décors, or sets, each designed by an artist or set designer.

The Théâtre made its debut in Paris on March 27, 1945 and it was still being shown when the war ended in May. By then 100,000 French had seen the exhibit, and it traveled to England, where it attracted even more visitors. Parts of the exhibit were shown in capitals throughout Europe and Scandinavia. In the spring of 1946 the fashions were updated and the show went to New York. Everywhere it went, the Théâtre dazzled and charmed, reestablishing French fashion leadership.

The last stop for the Théâtre de la Mode was San Francisco, where it opened on September 12, 1946. After the exhibition closed, the sets and dolls were stored at the City of Paris department store, and by the 50s, with French couture thriving, the exhibition was abandoned and presumed destroyed. It had served its purpose.

In fact, most of the dolls survived but the sets did not.

The sets now seen at Maryhill, on rotation, are recreations. Of the 12 original sets, 9 were recreated.

The variety in these sets is remarkable.

In Jean Saint-Martin’s "Croquis de Paris," the artist used wire to create his "sketch" (photo, denisebrain)

Maryhill’s Théâtre de la Mode is currently featuring Jean Cocteau’s Ma Femme est une Sorcière (My Wife is a Witch), and Jean Saint-Martin’s Croquis de Paris (Paris Sketch), both originally created in 1945 and re-created in 1990 by Anne Surgers. Also on view is Scène du Rue (Street Scene) created by Anne Surgers as a replacement for Georges Wakhevitch’s set The Port of Nowhere, 1945.

Anne Surger's "Scène du Rue" (photo, denisebrain)

Jean Cocteau's "Ma Femme est une Sorcière" (photo, denisebrain)

Cocteau's dreamlike set was a tribute to the French filmmaker René Claire. The dolls in beautiful gowns, exposed to ghastly gashes in the surrounding architecture were haunting—I'd even say disturbing—to me. The creation dates from the Paris of WWII, and one can only imagine the feelings this set must have stirred.

Detail of Cocteau's set, gown by Worth (photo, denisebrain)

Gowns by Mad Carpentier and Calixte (photo, denisebrain) click on any of my photos for a closer view

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