The third week of our vacation led us to the Columbia River Gorge, about an hour east of Portland, Oregon, but on the Washington state side of the River. When we made our travel plans, the Théâtre de la Mode was the last thing I expected to see. But knowing that this famous exhibit resides in a museum in “a remote, out-of-the–way” part of Washington state, I looked it up a few weeks before our departure. To my great surprise, I realized we were going to be only about an hour west of the Maryhill Museum, home to this Exhibit since 1952. I never expected to see any part of this Exhibit in person, so I was elated to know I was going to have the opportunity to view it.
This is the front of the Catalogue of the Exhibit.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this collection of post-WWII fashion, here’s a brief history. At the end of WWII, France was left economically bereft, the population experiencing severe shortages of every kind. The fashion industry in Paris had been decimated by the German occupation, but it was still alive and anxious to make a comeback. The idea for a miniature traveling “theatre of fashion” was conceived by Robert Ricci, the son of the couturier, Nina Ricci. It’s intent was two-fold: to provide a platform for the well-known fashion houses to showcase their designs, with the intent of re-establishing French domination of high fashion, and as a fund-raiser for the French survivors of the war. It was decided to use mannequins of approximately 1/3 the scale of humans (27.5 inches tall), in order to conserve precious materials. It was also decided to construct the mannequins out of wire, making them distinct from actual dolls, and to maximize the effect of the clothing, which they would model.
One of the glass cases in the Exhibit shows a “naked” mannequin, which gives one a good look at what the fashion designers and “petit mains” were working with while dressing them.
Joining the fashion houses in this endeavor were milliners, hairstylists, jewelers, handbag makers and shoemakers. Fifteen sets, within which to show the dressed mannequins, were created by noted artists and showcased Parisian street scenes, as well as Parisian interiors.
Here is one street scene, recreated in the Exhibit.
And here is another view of it.
When the Théâtre de la Mode was ready to tour, almost 200 mannequins had been dressed. Its first opening was at The Louvre on March 28th, 1945. In its first month of exhibition, 100,000 visitors went to see it, raising one million francs for the efforts of war relief. From Paris, it went to London, Leeds, Barcelona, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Vienna, eventually traveling to the United States. Its final showing was in San Francisco, where the collection was mysteriously stored, post-exhibition, in the basement of a local department store. An interested patron of the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington (USA), Alma de Bretteville Spreckles, spearheaded its acquisition by the Museum in 1952. Although the jewelry worn by the mannequins had already been returned to France, and the sets were lost, the majority of the fashions and models were intact.
Here is a copy of the original poster for the opening of the Exhibit in March of 1945. The drawing is by Jean Cocteau.
Currently, the Maryhill Museum exhibits one-third of the entirety of the Théâtre at a time, on a three-year cycle. This meant, of course, that I would only see one-third of the mannequins during my visit, but I could live with that! My only regret is that none of the designs by Balenciaga were currently on display. (I might have to figure out a way to go back in future years??) But there were plenty of other notable fashion houses represented, as well as some I had not previously known about. Here are some of my favorites (taken with an I-phone, and no flash, making the quality less than desired in some instances):
Ball gown by Lucien LeLong, with white kid gloves and pink slippers
Always a fan of Jacques Heim, I thought this mink coat and dress were amazing.
Another evening gown, this one by Paquin. Imagine the morale boost these gowns would have given French women immediately post-war.
Not all the fashions were ball gowns, however, Here is a sports ensemble by Hermes:
Honey suede jacket with black wool crepe skirt. The shoes are honey suede platform oxfords!
Day dresses and suits were in abundance:
This was actually called a cocktail ensemble, by Madeleine de Rauch. The white cotton embroidery on this synthetic linen was exquisite. She is wearing long cognac suede gloves and white suede shoes, too.
Three day suits, from left to right, by Charles Montaigne, Robert Piguet, and Pierre Balmain. Such an abundance of riches!
Now this is certainly a cocktail ensemble! By Martial & Armand, it features a navy wool coat, with a blue and red striped silk faille dress, all topped off with a red straw hat trimmed in navy silk faille.
This day ensemble by Robert Piguet shows a pink and gray heather wool box jacket over a black crepe dress, both of which look very current today.
One of my favorite dresses is shown in one of the street scenes above. Here it is shown in the catalogue:
Made from black crepe de Chine printed with daisies and butterflies, trimmed with a white lace rosette. The black suede gloves are by Hermes, while the straw boater is by Rose Valois.
Here is an example of one of the fashions which was not on display, but pictured in the catalogue. This raglan sleeve windowpane check coat is by Alex. Coats similar to this were so in vogue in the 1950s!
And although not among my favorite fashions, this evening dress by Schiaparelli is not to be missed:
The catalogue was for sale in the Museum Store (and it is also available on Amazon.) It not only gives a complete and extensive history of the Exhibit, it also includes a Catalogue Raisonne and many detailed images. Definitely worth your while if you are interested in finding out more about this amazing chapter in the history of Haute Couture, of which I have here barely scratched the surface.
There was much of other interest to see in the Maryhill Museum as well, including an extensive collection of early Native American art and artifacts, and some beautiful early blankets which complemented our earlier visit to the Pendleton store:
Pendleton blanket , c. 1910.
A round-corner Pendleton blanket, c. 1904.
And who is this?
It’s never too early to introduce my granddaughters to Haute Couture! Little Carolina and her big sister Aida got their first introduction to French fashion here, until they decided the Childrens’ Activity Room was more fun! Many thanks to my daughter, Susanna, who kept them occupied while I exhibit-gazed!