Throughout its history, mankind has been faced with challenges of formidable magnitude – pandemics, wars, natural disasters, financial crises, uncertainty for the future, dread of the past. Now, here we are, at the end of a year which brought us all to our knees, strained rela=onships, damaged the simplest ways of communication, which came so naturally before. It’s been a war with a disease, a fragmentation of human consciousness, doubts in our values and beliefs and we have not given up just yet.
History is a teacher, probably the best one. I am taking you back to 1945 in post-war Paris. The bullet holes in the windows and walls of homes and shops, the burning black holes in the city opened like wounds by bombs, the hunger, and deprivation. And then, the women! Their flowery dresses floating with the breeze, their elegant legs hurried through the rubble, their tiny feet in harsh shoes, fit for walking on the remains of the war with the nostalgia of times almost forgotten.
Almost! Because probably the only most valuable export of France during the war came out from the hands of the best couture masters. It was said that a drop of French perfume was worth ten tons of petrol and a dress made in a French fashion house was worth ten tons of coal. Paris fashion barely survived. Most designers were forced to work for the German army, for the wives and mistresses of commanders in the high ranks, but many refused and were struggling to survive, others went out of business. The plan of the aggressors was to turn Berlin and Vienna into the two fashion capitals with the skills of the French designers. That never happened. French women never lost their craving for elegance and beauty. French men never lost their appreciation of women, and the fashion houses cherished what was leT.
And what was leT was nothing. No thread, no buMons, no cloth.
“We wore large hats to raise our spirits. Felt gave out, so we made them out of chiffon. Chiffon was no more. All right, take straw. No more straw? Very well, braided paper…. Hats have been a sort of contest between French imagination and German regulation…. We wouldn’t look shabby and worn out; aTer all, we were Parisiennes,” said one of the workers at Reboux.
At the same time, international magazines were screaming with joy. “At last, Paris is out! Their fashion – defeated!” And they were so wrong. Paris couturiers amongst them Nina
Ricci, Balenciaga, Germaine Lecomte, Mad Carpener, Maral & Armand, Hermès, Philippe & Gaston, Madeleine Vramant, Jeanne Lanvin, Marie-Louise Bruyère, Pierre Balmain decided to show the world that Paris was alive. They presented the most extraordinary and touching fashion exhibi=ons of all mes. Lacking basic materials, they all collected the small pieces, the scraps leT at the cour=er houses and designed the most stunning collection, only… it was on mannequins made of wire and about 70 centimeters tall. It was the most beautiful demonstration of creativity, elegance, and most importantly, Parisians’ fight for the revival of grace.
The any leather bags, the even smaller earrings, necklaces, bracelets, the smallest details added to the specific features of the almost 60 fashion houses in France shone in the glory of the innova=ve and passionately designed clothes for women of any size, rich or poor. The dolls only looked small. “The meticulous aMention to details is so striking … The buMons really buMon. The zippers really zip. The handbags have liMle stuff – liMle wallets, liMle compacts – inside them,” pointed the historian Lorraine McConaghy. In truth, they represented all life is worth living for – hope.
At that time, Chrisan Dior was sell working for the conservative Lucien Lelong, but his work on the event was formidable. His dresses stood out with their simplicity and sheer elegance. “Deep in every heart slumbers a dream and the couturier knows it: every woman is a princess.” The worry about his sister’s life, imprisoned in a concentration camp, and the dooming question if she would ever return alive, urged him to work even harder and with utmost devotion. Here is the time to mention that his unsurpassable perfume “Miss Dior”, sell holding its prize and popularity, is dedicated to his sister, who eventually returned and it took years till she started living again.
The exhibition was supported by the whole bohemian society in Paris. Théâtre de la Mode became a touring exhibition of 237 figurines. It opened at the Louvre in Paris on 28 March 1945, and was enormously popular. It aMracted 100,000 visitors and raised a million francs for war relief. Later,Théâtre de la Mode toured in Europe. It was presented in London, Leeds, Barcelona, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Vienna.
At the end of 1945 the mannequins were dressed up in new clothes for the season for the next year and the exhibition leT for the United States. It was shown in New York and San Francisco. ATer the final show, the mannequins were abandoned in San Francisco, while the jewelry was returned to Cartier in Paris.
The Maryhill Museum of Art in the United States got hold of the mannequins in 1952. They were donated by Alma de BreMeville Spreckels. The original sets, accompanying the dolls, created by such artists as Christian Bérard, Christian Dior, Georges Wakhevitch and Jean Cocteau, were, unfortunately, lost. In 1988, Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris undertook a massive restoration work of the mannequins and recreated the sets with stunning resemblance.
The Théâtre de la Mode is still to be found at the Maryhill Museum of Art with rotating selections from the complete series of mannequins and sets.
Today, we can remember this history lesson: no maMer what we are going through, take that “liMle black dress”, which Dior talks about, out of the wardrobe, but remember his words: “White is what goes with anything.” Do it first out of self-love and self-respect and then for the others. A nice ouqit can dress your soul with delight and, quite naturally, call on your seductive inner self.
– Text by Gery Decheva
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