the show must go on

Théâtre de la Mode Once revived French couture — and might do so again

No runway? No sweat. Here’s how the Theatre of Fashion kept couture running through the ages.

Théâtre de la Mode Once revived French couture — and might do so again
Théâtre de la Mode at Pavillon de Marsan at the Louvre in Paris, May 1945LAPI/ROGER-VIOLLET

The pandemic may have shut down most of the fashion industry, but confinement has got nothing on couture: Autumn/Winter 2020’s Paris Couture Week went ahead in July, presenting us the season’s haute couture collections in virtual formats. It’s how we got Balmain’s livestreamed socially distanced party on a barge that made its way down the Seine, and a glut of videos attempting to convey mood and aesthetic in a paltry few pixels (we see you, Margiela).

And Dior’s been no different, sending out a 15-minute video to unveil its latest couture missive, the house’s first online presentation. It opens on a curious scene: an atelier full of artisans putting the final touches on lush gowns of satin, organza and pleated chiffon — except none of these designs are close to human scale. They’re miniatures, dressed on doll-sized mannequins, their intricate designs and meticulous craftsmanship no less plain. Titled Le Mythe Dior, the film goes on to introduce us to a cast of wood nymphs and forest sprites, but those small mannequins and their similarly shrunken dresses — they’re no fairy tale.

Maria Grazia Chiuri presented her haute couture collection for Dior in the film La Mythe DiorDior

More than 75 years ago, the institution of haute couture was straining under a different predicament. At the height of World War II, the Germans occupied the French capital with intentions to export couture and couturiers to Berlin, particularly to transform Germany into Europe’s new fashion epicentre. This was no frivolous plan: fashion powered Paris’ culture and economy, and represented the country’s second largest industry. It kept thousands of midinettes, shoemakers, corsetières and salespeople in good employ, and since the days of Louis XIV, defined France’s cultural identity and soft power. As the monarch’s Finance Minister, Jean- Baptiste Colbert, once observed: “Fashion is to France what the goldmines of Peru are to Spain.”

It’s no wonder then that Lucien Lelong, president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which governs the country’s couture industry, aggressively negotiated with the Nazis to leave haute couture to the French. While some couturiers did flee and others shuttered their showrooms, about 60 of the city’s 92 houses were allowed to stay open and in operation throughout the occupation. They struggled with a dearth of supplies and a ban on exporting their wares, but they nonetheless persisted, serving the wives and mistresses of Nazi officials in a bid to stay alive and afloat.

Parisian haute couture would survive through the end of the war, though by 1945, its rarefied status met fresh competition. Over in America, young designers were creating stylish yet practical outfits that addressed post-war realities, as New York quickly emerged as the world’s new fashion capital. Though France itself was roiled by shortages of coal, electricity and foreign currency, it held fast to those fashion bona fides.

Lucien Lelong’s short dance dress is now on display at Maryhill Museum of ArtMaryhill Museum of Art

“They’re not just gonna let that go because of a four-year occupation by Germany,” said fashion historian Melissa Leventon in an episode of the radio show 99% Invisible. “They were not going to let it die without a really tough fight.” And to rescue its economy and cultural cachet, Paris did what Louis XIV would’ve ordered: it went into its goldmine.

Post-liberation, Robert Ricci, son of Nina, proposed to the Chambre Syndicale a travelling exhibition of Paris’ latest couture creations. But because fabrics were still hard to come by, he suggested the use of petits mannequins or fashion dolls to avoid any human-dimensioned extravagance. It would be an economical endeavor, but not without grand ambitions — to announce to the world that haute couture, or better yet, the dream and glamour of haute couture was alive and well.

Thus, Théâtre de la Mode (or Theatre of Fashion) was hatched, with all of the city’s fashion and manufacturing industries pitching in. The dolls, one-third the size of life-sized mannequins, were designed by artist Eliane Bonabel and constructed with salvaged wire and plaster. Some 60 salons — including Balmain, Balenciaga, Nina Ricci, Hermès and Bruyère — were called upon to each design a few ensembles, which were then crafted with scrap fabric. Lelong, himself a couturier, also participated with design help from his assistant, one Christian Dior.

However miniature, these were lavish outfits, exquisitely and exactingly detailed right down to the last sequin and embroidered hem. Zippers zipped and buttons buttoned. All furs, leathers and silks were real. Tiny wigs, shoes and even lingerie were fitted on each doll, which also flaunted minute accessories, from gloves to hats to handbags stuffed with cosmetic cases. This meant scores of artisans working tirelessly with limited resources and under straitened circumstances. As Bonabel recalls: “Plagued by inadequate heating, electricity cuts, barely adequate food rations and often obliged to get to work on foot or on bicycles,the skilled tailors and seamstresses in the workrooms nevertheless threw themselves into the project with enthusiasm and fervor.”

And you bet it was worth it. Théâtre de la Mode opened at the Louvre in March 1945, with more than 200 dolls posed in 15 ornate tableaux designed by artists like Jean Cocteau and Christian Bérard. It attracted over 100,000 visitors in Paris alone (their entry fees raised a million francs for war relief), before making its way across Europe — London, Barcelona, Vienna and Copenhagen. The next year, the exhibition was updated with new ensembles for the 1946 season, retitled A Fantasy of Fashion, and sent on to America. There, French designer Jacques Worth proclaimed to The New York Times: “We have come merely to get you back to France.”

The mannequins and outfits would eventually be left behind at the exhibition’s last stop in San Francisco (they’re now safely in the collection of the Maryhill Museum of Art in Washington). But by then, they’d already worked their magic. The show didn’t just restore Paris’ standing in the international fashion stakes, it greatly rekindled its couture industry and community. It was, as Vogue’s long-time Paris bureau chief Susan Train dubbed it during the 1990 restaging of the exhibition, the “back-in-business show”. A year on, Dior would launch his own maison, boldly debuting a collection not short on elegance and exaggerated volume. Though excessive for a country still undergoing rationing, this so-called New Look would go on to remake the fashion world in its own image.

Of course, the concept of fashion dolls was nothing new: as far back as the 18th century, they were a way for clothiers to present their latest fashions to their wealthy clientele. Likewise, the Théâtre was such a showcase, especially for a world devastated by war and lacking access to fashion catalogues — except “You couldn’t buy these clothes,” as Lorraine McConaghy, historian at the Museum of History and Industry, noted to The Seattle Times in 2012. “It was a fantasy of what would come.” The exhibition was equally fashion and advertising campaign, heralding new visions of style, possibilities and art de vivre. It urged its viewers to dream again, to recover.

How apt, then, that Dior brings us this reminder of the Théâtre de la Mode. No more or less dire than that of WWII, the crisis facing the fashion industry today has halted production, thwarted calendars and forced a re-evaluation of the industry’s priorities. And yet, collections continue to be sent out in videos, lookbooks and barges on the Seine with optimism and perseverance. Or with what Train, writing in Théâtre de la Mode: Fashion Dolls – the Survival of Haute Couture, once called “an élan of solidarity and hope for the future”. French couture, it seems, always finds a way.

In a twist, for a world that’s more connected than ever, fashion mediated by screens is still a meagre way of experiencing haute couture. “In fashion, it’s very important what you can see with your eyes — but also, what you can touch, see in person,” said Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s artistic director. It’s why the house is planning to dispatch its trunk of mini mannequins out into the world, Théâtre de la Mode-style, ensuring its fantasy reaches our reality. Now, as then, Parisian couture rests on tiny shoulders, but as history has borne out, they can take the weight.

This story first appeared in the September 2020 issue of A Magazine.

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