Last month’s little side trip through Oregon along the mighty Columbia River brought us to the bridge that connects Washington State to Oregon via Highway # 97. A faded brown and beige sign pointing north announced Maryhill Museum. A second sign informed us that the museum was five miles away. With no particular deadline to meet at our destination we pointed the car north and followed the road. Friends had briefly mentioned the Maryhill Museum but we were surprised to find a stately manor house in such an isolated area. When we spotted the building we thought we had somehow been transported to Europe. The license plates on cars in the parking lot quickly brought us back to reality, confirming we were in southern Washington State overlooking the Columbia River Valley.
We toured the museum and grounds for well over two hours and felt culturally enriched. Collections of rare gilded furniture from Rumania, paintings and sculptures alongside temporary exhibits of photography and ceramics made time fly. One of the exhibitions I was drawn to and spent an extended period of time with was the “Théâtre de la Mode: Born of Innovation and Necessity”, the Fashion Theater on the top floor.
Let’s set the mood: The lights dimmed, making this the only area in the museum where flash photography was permitted. I immediately felt I had discovered a secret treasure trove – an exhibition hall filled with small scale mannequins dressed in the most exquisite post war clothes I had previously only seen in pictures.
One of the wall plaques informed me that Théâtre de la Mode was created in Paris in the devastating aftermath of the German occupation of World War II. During a bitterly cold winter, the Theater of Fashion was a fascinating component of France’s postwar effort. France was determined to regain its position as leading fashion center in the world and the fashion houses and designers were enthusiastic about assisting the country’s economic recovery.
It was soon realized that the severe shortages of every type of fashion supply made it impossible to design a life-size high fashion collection for 1945. This lack of supplies resulted in the innovative rebirth of a custom dating back to the Middle Ages, that of using dolls to present the latest French fashions. The goal was to have the design collection, scaled to one-third full size, displayed against a backdrop of dramatic theatrical sets.
The two primary sculptors, Eliane Bonabel and Jean Saint-Martin, created the usual wire-body mannequins; a third, Joan Rebull, created the plaster of Paris heads. Each was topped with an individual hair style, and the dolls were sent off to the leading couture houses to be costumed as well as fitted with meticulously designed accessories.
The Théâtre de la Mode was produced by many of the 20th century’s most illustrious fashion and set designers and artists. It was first opened in Paris in 1945 and later traveled to major cities in Europe and the United States. Its spirit of artistic collaboration represented a sense of hope and expectation that the effects of war could be overcome.
I hope you have enjoyed today’s stroll down memory lane. I love fashion and I know there are a few of you out there who do as well… right, Gillian?
(The images are a little dark because I decided to aid in the preservation of the historical artifacts. I used my 50 mm f1.4 lens in manual mode without a flash.)