Monthly Archives: April 2018

“A Fantasy of Fashion from Paris”

Not everyone who sews is interested in fashion history, of that I am aware.   There was, however, a pivotal moment in modern fashion history that had such an impact that its influence is still felt today, although many current dressmakers/sewers of fashions have never heard of it.  I am, of course, speaking about the Théâtre de la Mode, about which I wrote in August of 2016. If you are one of those who think fashion history is dull, I hope to convince you otherwise, by another visit to the years of 1945 and 1946, in postwar France and beyond.

In a nutshell, the fashion industry in Paris during World War II had struggled mightily due to the widespread shortages, rationing, and bare existence imposed on all Parisians during the occupation of France and even for a time after the War had concluded.  To quote from the back cover of Théâtre de la Mode, Fashion Dolls: the Survival of Haute Couture (Second Revived Edition c 2002 Maryhill Museum of Art.  Published by Palmer/Pletsch Inc. Portland, Oregon): “Liberation in the fall of 1944 after four years of foreign Occupation found Paris surviving on minimal resources.  Hoping to make a statement to the world that Paris was still the center of fashion, couturiers, jewelers, milliners, hairdressers, and theatre designers joined together to present the Théâtre de la Mode.  Using the ages-old tradition of traveling miniature mannequins dressed in current couture, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture mobilized a whole industry with unprecedented cooperation and creativity to prove that life could begin again through these 27” tall ambassadors of fashion.  The exhibition, inaugurated in Paris in March 1945, began a long journey, first to other capitals in Europe and Great Britain, then in 1946 to the United States.”

This is the poster for the Exhibition in New York City, page 49 of the book referenced above.

Many new fashions were added to the exhibition before it traveled to New York in May of 1946. It is worth noting here some of the names of the couturiers who participated in this endeavor: Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, Jacques Fath, Jacques Heim, Hermès, Jeanne Lanvin, Lucien Lelong, Molyneux, Paquin, Schiaparelli, Worth, Jean Desses, Nina Ricci, Jean Patou, Madame Grès, plus many, many more not as well known to us today. Its New York opening was attended, with much excitement, by the city’s diplomatic and social elite.  After the drought of fashion leadership from Paris during the War, the New York fashion industry was anxious for renewed access to Parisian inspiration and patterns, and the Théâtre de la Mode seemed to be the kick-start both countries needed.

Two of the dresses which hint at some of the changes in the air for mid-century fashions. Henriette Beaujeu designed the dress on the left and Schiaparelli was the designer for the dress on the right.

Even beachwear was included! Jacques Heim designed this ensemble of pareo pants, bra, and split skirt.

From New York, the Exhibit traveled, in September of 1946, to San Francisco to the de Young Museum, which turned out to be its final public viewing.   San Francisco at that time had a French population of over 20,000, and the response from that community was overwhelming. Sponsors of the Exhibition included I. Magnin, and two department stores (now defunct) both owned by French families, the White House and the City of Paris (who would not want to shop at that store?)  It is here that I want to pick up the story of this amazing period in time.  Hopefully I can add some details to its history and some weight to the esteem which the Théâtre de la Mode enjoyed at that pivotal time.

So what, you may ask, gives me the credence to do this?  Well, it all circles back to my sewing.  I am one of the very fortunate ones who have a room dedicated to sewing.  I, like so many of you in your own situations, spend hours and hours in this space.  It is filled not just with all the tools and machines and items I need for fashion sewing, but also with decorative objects which keep me company as I stitch away.  Over the years I have accumulated signs, millinery heads, and other fashion and sewing-related things (with support from a very understanding husband, I might add!)  I was not looking for my most recent find.  In fact, I did not even know that it existed.  However, when I saw it listed for sale on the Internet, I immediately knew what it was.  I also knew it could potentially add to the history of Théâtre de la Mode in the United States.

“IT” happens to be an original poster for the Exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, in September of  1946.

The pure visual quality of it struck me, especially when compared with the New York poster shown above.  It must have been a deliberate decision to commission an artist of the renown of Jean de Botton to produce the image for this poster, giving emphasis to the excitement and importance of this Exhibit.   De Botton (1898-1978) was a French artist living in New York City, known for his Abstractionist and Impressionist style of painting. (He became a naturalized American citizen before his death.)  I can only conjecture that he saw the Exhibit when it was in NYC, as his image for the poster is reminiscent of several of the sets on which the mannequins were displayed.  However, he added additional elements which enhance the intrigue of the Exhibit, some of which would have spoken directly to the French population in San Francisco at that time.

The image of the ship refers to the city of Paris. The latin motto of the city, “It floats, but does not sink,” appears on the ship, as seen below in the close-up.

More French imagery in the flags and pennants.

It appears that the term “A Fantasy of Fashion from Paris” was the artist’s idea or at the direction of the sponsors in San Francisco.

And what an incredible assortment of images in this section of the poster!

I feel very fortunate to have found this original poster, and to have it signed (and inscribed) by the artist makes it even more amazing.

Signed by the artist in September of 1946 and inscribed to Irving Mills (1894-1985), possibly the music publisher, musician, lyricist and promoter of jazz artists who was a contemporary of de Botton’s in NYC.

No one could have imagined that the San Francisco showing of the Théâtre de la Mode would be its last public appearance. Arrangements could not be made to move it to other cities, so, in an unbelievable set of circumstances, the sets, the mannequins and fashions were moved to the basement of the City of Paris Department Store.  There they stayed, largely forgotten and thought by many to be “lost” until September of 1951 when Paul Verdier, President of the City of Paris department store made arrangements for them to be sent to the Maryhill Museum in Washington state, where you can see them now.

However, the impact of the Exhibit at that time cannot be overstated.  The concerted effort by the couturiers and others in the fashion industry to move past the barren War years realized success more quickly than anyone could have imagined. It was just a few months later, in 1947, that Christian Dior introduced his “New Look” – and the fashion industry as we know it today began to flourish.

Christian Dior changed fashion history with the introduction of this new look.

This poster is a rare survivor of a pivotal time in fashion history.  If you are still reading by now, I hope this “Fantasy of Fashions from Paris” reminds you, as it does me, of the resilience of the human spirit, its love of beauty, and its indefatigable artistic inclination.

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Filed under Fashion Exhibits, Fashion history, Mid-Century style

A Spring Tradition

Early to mid-Spring means birthday time in our family, especially so now with our two little granddaughters, who have birthdays in March and April.  Fortunately both little girls love dresses and love wearing them, so of course my Spring sewing agenda has to include making two “birthday dresses.”  (Last year’s dresses were a bit more elaborate than what I had planned for this year. In fact, I just lengthened the hems on these “strawberry” dresses so the girls can wear them for one more year!)

I found these Liberty fabrics last year on Fabric.com and immediately ordered yardage in two colors.  They stayed tucked away in my fabric closet until early March when I got serious about getting these dresses sewn.

All along I intended to pair each print with 16thinch coordinating cotton gingham, and then I set about finding a pattern which would accommodate this idea. I ended up using a Children’s Corner pattern (Louise) which turned out to be the perfect choice. View B showed a hem band and collar in contrasting fabric to the rest of the dress.

View B includes the Peter Pan collar and hem band.

These dresses are quite simple to make, and the pattern is precise.  I really, really like that this company gives you separate pattern pieces for each size in the envelope.  For example, this pattern included sizes 1 – 5.  So – there are full patterns for each size. I used size 3 and size 5, and it was such a pleasure not to have to trace a pattern for each dress. Mysteriously, the seam allowance allotted for the pattern pieces was only ¼”.  I increased it to a standard 5/8” as I am much happier sewing with a more substantial seam allowance.  The only other changes I made to the pattern were to make the back opening button on the left side rather than the right side, and to add three decorative buttons to the bodice.

I needed to move the bottom button on this dress as it was not quite lined up!

First I made the size 5 dress.  I realized once it was well underway that a touch of rickrack would add so much more interest to the dress.  Finding lilac colored rickrack was quite the task, but once again an Etsy shop (Creative Trims) had just what I needed.

Looks too plain without some additional embellishment.

The rickrack looks so much better!

I applied the rickrack by hand.

The second dress came together quickly (for me, at least!) Making the dresses alike, but in different colors was an idea I liked, and I was hopeful that the girls would like that, too!

A back view.

I am happy to report that, according to my daughter, the little girls love their birthday dresses.  Time to start planning for next year!

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Filed under Liberty cotton, Sewing for children, Uncategorized

The Never-Ending Winter

One advantage to this never-ending Winter we are having in the Northeastern part of the United States is the focus – and extra time – it has given me in finishing my Winter projects. After completing my recent Classic French Jacket, I did some “birthday dress” sewing for my granddaughters (still to be shared) and made two baby gifts, and only then did I come back to making a matching sheath dress for that jacket.

I had thought long about how this dress should be constructed, and not having the advantage of taking a class in such a project, I knew I would have to figure it out on my own. I decided I would combine classic couture construction with the techniques used for making a classic French jacket.

First, I underlined the three pieces of the dress (front and two back panels) with black silk organza, and I anchored all the darts with a catch-stitch. (I always go back to that sound advice from Susan Khalje – couture is about control – and I know how this extra step helps to keep everything in its rightful place.)

Then I machine quilted the two back panels and the dress front just as I would quilt the separate pieces of a French jacket. I ended the quilting about two inches from the tops and bottoms of the pieces and tied off each line of quilting inside between the two layers. I figured the quilting did not need to be as closely placed as it is with a French jacket, so my quilting lines are about 2 inches apart. This following photo shows the quilted channels on the inside (they are virtually invisible on the fashion fabric):

The three pieces were sewn together as a Jacket would be sewn with the edges of the lining loose and then finished by hand with a fell stitch. At this point I felt fairly confident that the dress was going together as I had hoped. And yes, there is a lot of handwork involved! Next I inserted the long back zipper by hand and then finished the neckline and lining with a fell stitch.

Because I wanted to apply a length of trim above the bust – to match the trim placement on my jacket – I did the armholes last, as the trim needed to be attached before they were finished.

 

Finally, the hem. The length had to be precise, as there will be no lengthening nor shortening of this baby! The final step was to sew the hemline trim on by hand. I delineated the back vent with the trim to give it some extra interest. Also, although it is not visible here, I angled the edges of the vent slightly to the inside so that when the dress is on, the vent will not gape, but rather hang straight. This is another one of those lovely couture tricks I learned from Susan Khalje!

I must say this dress is a dream to wear, with that quilted silk interior.

And – I am quite happy with how it looks with my jacket.

Br-r-r-r-r!

As warm as this dress and jacket are, I was freezing when these photos were taken!

I have faith that Old Man Winter – who is truly ancient by now – will soon leave us, but not without a fond farewell from Fifty Dresses who appreciated his extra encouragement on seasonal sewing!

 

40 Comments

Filed under Boucle for French style jackets, classic French jacket, couture construction, Linings, Sheath dresses, Suit dresses, Uncategorized