'During the occupation, even communists regarded Parisian fashion as a weapon of resistance,' Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper report in their new book, Paris after the Liberation (Hamish Hamilton). And the women of Paris used their weapon to the full: a gash of vermilion lipstick defined a determined mouth; a proud head was held high under two kilos of feathers, straw and mattress ticking; a pair of beautiful legs, 'stockinged' with tea stains, 'seamed' with eye-liner and shod with wood and cork, propelled a bicycle through Nazi-occupied streets. What could be more maddening than a haughty woman whose improbable attention to her dress seems to cock a snook at your plans to suppress her?
The significance of French fashion was not lost on the Germans. Total victory required cultural as well as military supremacy and so, having looted France of its art treasures, under the direction of Goebbels, the Nazis tried to move the French clothing and textile industry, lock, stock and barrel, to Berlin and Vienna. The French were horrified. Their governments had sponsored the development of fashion since the reign of Louis XIV. It provided employment for 13,000 skilled artisans, and, indirectly, hundreds of thousands of factory workers.
Madame Gres and her fellow designers, represented by the president of the Chambre Syndicate de la Haute Couture Parisienne, Lucien Lelong, set about dissuading Goebbels. They used logic rather than sentiment, impressing upon him that it was the unique craftspeople who comprised the industry, and that, while the core resided in Paris, the hinterland of fashion stretched across the entire country, from the lace-makers in Normandy to the silk weavers in Lyons. Goebbels eventually conceded that it was an impossible relocation task.
When liberation came in August 1944, the French fashion industry was alive, but only just. The euphoria of freedom was soon followed by the heaviness of winter hardship. Life had to be rebuilt from the rubble. 'French haute couture was no longer in the commanding position it had enjoyed before the war, when fashion was dictated from Paris,' observe Beevor and Cooper. 'After the Liberation something had to be done to show the world that the vitality of French fashion was as strong as ever, and that it was ready for business.' And that something, touched upon briefly in their book, was a magical project, the 'Theatre de la Mode'.
The project encapsulated the constructive verve of the French. The exhibition of hand-
made dolls, wearing the finest clothes that the city's couturiers could create, travelled across the world to announce that the phoenix of French fashion had risen from the ashes.
The idea came not from the couturiers
but from Raoul Dautry of the Entr'Aide Francaise - an umbrella organisation of French war charities. He suggested that the couturiers put on a fund-raising exhibition and approached Robert Ricci, the press attache of the Chambre Syndicale and son of the couturier Nina Ricci. Between them they enlisted the support of the artistic community of Paris. It was decided that the dolls themselves should be designed by the artist Eliane Bonabel, who was asked to create a light and transparent form that could not be mistaken for a child's toy. The resulting elegant wire-frame mannequins were constructed by Andre Beaurepaire and Jean Saint-Martin, and the Italian sculptor Joan Rebull designed the plaster heads, which he insisted remained unpainted.
The next stage was to place the dolls in a setting, and so the artistic director Christian 'Bebe' Berard invited his friends - the ballet impresario Boris Kochno, Jean Cocteau, the painters Andre Dignimont, Georges Douking, Emili Grau-Sale and Louis Touchagues, the theatre decorators Georges Wakhevitch and Jean-Denis Malcles and the decorator Georges Geffroy, to design the sets.
The clothes, chiefly copies of the spring-summer couture collections for 1945, were made by over 70 couturiers with as much precision and delicacy as the originals. Tiny buttons fastened and unfastened, pockets opened and were lined with the same material as their real-life counterparts. Miniature fur pelts were meticulously matched. If stripes were too big for the mini-version, they were reduced 'by cutting the cloth and reconstructing the stripes', as Madame Carven, one of the couturiers, remembered. Patou, instead, sought out cloth printed with tiny patterns to be in proportion with the dolls.
Hampered by the cold, power strikes, rationing and the necessity to walk or bicycle from one end of Paris to another for quarter of a metre of precious cloth for a petticoat, or silk for a tiny sash, the team worked through the winter, dressing their Lilliputians and placing them in fantasy settings - a summer garden, a grand salon, a busy street or a theatre. Shoes and bags were made in miniature too - and once these were completed, why not umbrellas, hats, wigs? For wouldn't each detail communicate to the world that all the accessory crafts were being revived? Even the underwear was perfect. And the final flourish of luxury amid adversity - Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier provided precious baby jewels.
When the show opened at the Pavillon de Marsan in the Louvre on 27 March 1945, over 100,000 came to marvel. And between March 1945 and 1946, the frail wire dolls, only 70cm high, carried the creative spirit and commercial ambitions of the French from Paris to London, Leeds, Barcelona, Stockholm, Copenhagen and several cities in America.
While Paris was isolated, the Americans had developed their own thriving fashion industry. They had perfected mass manufacture of garments for the first time; furthermore, the PR pioneer Eleanor Lambert had been promoting home-grown talents who had been working anonymously for Seventh Avenue labels. Designers such as Hattie Carnegie, Claire McCardell and Adrian were taking their place in the fashion limelight. In the face of this, the dolls also communicated a tough economic message: the French, for whom fashion was the second-largest industry and a significant foreign currency earner, were back and determined to reassert their supremacy.
The scheme was a success. As we now know, Paris seized back the fashion initiative, and for the next two decades haute couture enjoyed an Indian summer. But the dolls, having served their purpose, were tossed aside.
Susan Train, bureau chief of American Vogue, arrived in Paris in 1951. 'I had heard
of the Theatre de la Mode from Michel Brunhoff, editor-in-chief of French Vogue. But I never saw it. By the time I arrived it was lost, gone for ever.' Or so she thought.
In 1985, however, Professor Stanley Garfinkel, an American historian, contacted Train and announced he had found the dolls. 'I nearly died,' she says now. 'I was stunned, shocked, thrilled.' Garfinkel had accidentally come across them in the tiny Maryhill Museum at Goldendale in Washington State where they lay in old boxes like forgotten mummies - battered, broken, dusty, dead.
Train travelled to Maryhill and vowed to enlist the help of the French fashion industry and American Vogue to restore the dolls and their sets. Eliane Bonabel, Jean-Denis Malcles and Andre Beaurepaire were still alive and could offer first-hand accounts of the Theatre de la Mode. Alexandre de Paris, now the most renowned hairdresser in the world, had worked on the original wigs in 1944 as a young apprentice. He promised to restore them exactly, for he realised their significance. 'I believe these dolls were little ambassadors for France and we have no right to damage them, neglect them. I felt honoured to have collaborated in this project at a moment when the vitality of Paris was restored.'
Nadine Gasc, founder of the textile and fashion department of the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, added her expertise to the restoration. By the spring of 1990, half a century after their debut, the dolls went back on stage in
the heart of the Louvre, where they had
begun their public life, to be marvelled at by
a new generation.
What these little white ghosts from the past remind us is that interaction between the arts, decorative or fine, is vital. Would artists of Berard or Cocteau's fame now work alongside fashion designers? Would designers dedicate their skills to a team project without laying down demands for accreditation or payment? So often, it is only in adversity that such collaborations blossom.
The dolls also remind us that the pursuit of excellence and feminine beauty is not a frivolous end. If it lifts the human spirit, then it should command our respect and affection. These mute creatures offer up the greatest defence of fashion at its most brilliant.-Reuse content