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Taking a closer look at an ivory silk damask evening dress by Worth in a set designed by Jean Cocteau (photo, denisebrain)

I’ve never been to France, but I’ve had the feeling of traveling through both time and space to the Paris of 1944-46. The occasion was a visit to the permanent exhibition of the Théâtre de la Mode at the Maryhill Museum of Art near the town of Goldendale, Washington.

The museum stands quite alone, a grand chateau situated on a precipice overlooking the Columbia River Gorge.

A view from the Maryhill Museum grounds on the cold November day when I first visited (photo, denisebrain)

It is home to an eclectic collection of art, including the Théâtre.

Created in Paris starting in 1944, the Théâtre de la Mode is a work of haute couture, theater and art, with stage sets and dolls designed and created by artists, and fashions by over 55 design houses.

They came together for the survival of haute couture.

Some of the clothing designers who dressed these artful dolls in miniature versions of their best and most current fashions include Balmain, Balenciaga, Fath, Hermès, Lanvin, Paquin, Schiaparelli and Ricci.

The Dolls

Théâtre doll in coat by Molyneux (photo, denisebrain)

The couturier Lucien Lelong, President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture 1937-45, is credited with the idea for the Théâtre, although it wasn’t a new concept. From as early as the Middle Ages traveling dolls had been used to broadcast Paris fashion, but this had never before been done on such a scale, and with such an important purpose.

The young illustrator Eliane Bonabel was given the task of designing the dolls, and Jean Saint-Martin of creating their wire structures. Wire was used both for its modern airiness, and because it was still relatively available in wartime Paris. The refugee Catalon sculptor Joan Rebull created the plaster heads of the dolls.

Saint-Martin also designed the artfully minimalist “Croquis de Paris” (Paris Sketch) set (photo, denisebrain)

I can’t tell you how much these little dolls affected me in person. Not only were they created by artists and honored with miniature versions of fashions from some of the greatest couturiers, but their expressions seem serious and purposeful. Their resolve can be felt.

After being in the presence of these dolls awhile, don’t be surprised if you feel you are being watched!

Dresses by Agnès Drecoll, Maggy Rouff, Jean Farell, Gaston, Raphaël and Henry à la Pensée, with Dupouy-Magnin mostly hidden (photo, denisebrain)

The Sets

“Le Théâtre,” the grand set originally created by Christian Bérard, gave the show its name. The recreated set is featured on the cover of a book devoted to the history of the exhibition.

The Théâtre de la Mode’s artful dolls and their fashions were displayed in a series of décors, or sets, each designed by an artist or set designer.

The Théâtre made its debut in Paris on March 27, 1945, and it was still being shown when the war ended in May. By then 100,000 French had seen the exhibit, and it traveled to England, where it attracted even more visitors. Parts of the exhibit were shown in capitals throughout Europe and Scandinavia. In the spring of 1946, the fashions were updated and the show went to New York. Everywhere it went, the Théâtre dazzled and charmed, reestablishing French fashion leadership.

The last stop for the Théâtre de la Mode was San Francisco, where it opened on September 12, 1946. After the exhibition closed, the sets and dolls were stored at the City of Paris department store, and by the 50s, with French couture thriving, the exhibition was abandoned and presumed destroyed. It had served its purpose.

In fact, most of the dolls survived, but the sets did not.

The sets now seen at Maryhill are recreations. Of the 12 original sets, 9 were recreated.

The variety in these sets is remarkable.

In Jean Saint-Martin’s “Croquis de Paris,” the artist used wire to create his “sketch” (photo, denisebrain)

When I first visited, Maryhill’s Théâtre de la Mode was featuring Jean Cocteau’s ”Ma Femme est une Sorcière” (My Wife is a Witch), and Jean Saint-Martin’s “Croquis de Paris” (Paris Sketch), both originally created in 1945 and re-created in 1990 by Anne Surgers. Also on view was “Scène du Rue” (Street Scene) created by Anne Surgers as a replacement for Georges Wakhevitch’s set, “The Port of Nowhere”, 1945.

Anne Surger’s “Scène du Rue” (photo, denisebrain)

Jean Cocteau’s “Ma Femme est une Sorcière” (photo, denisebrain)

Cocteau’s dreamlike set was a tribute to the French filmmaker René Claire. The dolls in beautiful gowns, exposed to ghastly gashes in the surrounding architecture, were haunting—I’d even say disturbing—to me. The creation dates from the Paris of WWII, and one can only imagine the feelings this set must have stirred.

Detail of Cocteau’s set, gown by Worth (photo, denisebrain)

Gowns by Mad Carpentier and Calixte (photo, denisebrain)

The Designers

The designers involved in the costuming for the Théâtre read like a who’s who of Paris couture of the time, or a near who’s who. Notably absent is Coco Chanel, who had closed up shop in 1939, believing that war was no time for fashion.

It was indeed a very challenging time for French fashion. After the Nazi occupation, raw materials, energy and transportation were at a minimum. In 1940, German officers seized the entire archives of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. Balenciega and Grès were shut down on the grounds that they had used more than their allotment of fabric. Balenciaga reopened with the intervention of the Spanish Embassy, while Madame Grès had to cease making her iconic draped designs.

The German Reich was planning to uproot French haute couture, making it part of its regime, with headquarters in Berlin and Vienna. By 1944, the Nazis threatened to shut down the haute couture completely. It was only saved from extinction by the Liberation.

Remarkably, during the four-year occupation the majority of haute couture designers had managed to remain in business, maintaining their creativity and keeping their skilled workers. When the Liberation came, the industry was prepared for its rebirth.

Prints came back in the forms of polka dots, stripes, plaids, checks and historic patterns derived from Chinese vases, Delft earthenware and Renaissance velvet. Draped designs were also back, emphasizing necklines and hips. Small waists were emphasized with the V-line (for Victory). Jackets softened, hems lengthened, colors and elaborate decoration returned.

Some of the designers involved with the Théâtre were especially important prior to the 40s (Schiaparelli comes to mind first) while some younger designers were rising stars, important at and after the New Look transition.

Dior was part of the firm of Lucien Lelong from 1941 until December 1946. According to Nadine Gasc (“Haute Couture and Fashion 1939-46,” one of the essays collected in the book Théâtre de la Mode), there is little doubt that Dior was responsible for a turquoise chiffon dress with white polka dots, with its low neckline and emphasis on the waist. The only difference between this and his New Look style of 1947 is the length.

The Lucien Lelong dress thought to have been created by Dior (photo, David Seidner, used by permission of

Jacques Fath, among others, showed a pen silhouette.

Fath’s “Poudre d’Iris,” a beige wool jacket with mid-calf straight black skirt (photo, denisebrain)

Long, full-skirt strapless gowns were back again, shown by a number of designers. Fewer showed a silhouette more common to pre-WWI times, a narrow long silhouette with wide-brimmed hat. Some, like Balmain, showed both. Either way, without a doubt, evening wear was back.

List of the design houses contributing to the Théâtre de la Mode

Agnès Drecoll
Alice Thomas
Ana de Pombo
Anny Blatt
Blanche Issartel
Charles Montaigne
Freddy Sport
Georgette Renal
Germaine Lecomte
Henriette Beaujeu
Henry à la Pensée
Jacques Fath
Jacques Heim
Jean Desses
Jean Farell
Jean Patou
Jeanne Lafaurie
Jeanne Lanvin
Lucien Lelong
Lucile Manguin
Mad Carpentier
Madeleine Vramant
Madeleine de Rauch
Maggy Rouff
Marcel Dhorme
Marcel Rochas
Marcelle Alix
Marcelle Chaumont
Marcelle Dormoy
Martial & Armand
Nina Ricci
Pierre Balmain
Pierre Benoît
Robert Piguet
Véra Borea

Reference: Nadine Gasc, “Haute Couture and Fashion 1939-1946,” Théâtre de la Mode

Down to the Tiniest Details

Originally, the plan was to have Théâtre dolls dressed in miniature versions of haute couture styles with no particular emphasis on accessories. As the couture houses got more involved (more caught up in the project, and also more competitive with one another) it was decided that just as much attention should be paid to all the smaller elements.

At the Maryhill Museum, display cases give a close-up view of some of the tiny accessories (photo, denisebrain)

Tiny shoes were made, along with hats, bags, gloves, umbrellas—the full range of accessories. The tiny umbrellas open, some of the tiny shoes have contrasting trim one millimeter wide. The bags not only open, but are completely fitted inside. The greatest milliners of Paris were called upon to do their work in 1/3-scale size. The greatest coiffeurs of Paris created hair styles using pins and rollers scaled down to the size of the dolls.

(photos, denisebrain)

For the 1946 presentation of the exhibition in New York, tiny fine jewelry was made by Lesage, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Chaumet.

In many cases, what wasn’t to be seen was also created: Jackets are lined and quilted; miniature versions of house labels are sewn into items; some dolls even have intricate undergarments.

The purpose of the exhibition was to convince the world that French fashion—every element of it—had survived the War. It couldn’t have been more convincing!

Loss & Rebirth—Again

In 1983, Professor Stanley Garfinkel of Kent State University was told about the Théâtre while researching at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The next year he went to Paris where he met Eliane Bonabel and Jean Saint-Martin (the designer of the dolls and the wire artist who made their structures) and he presented the story to Susan Train, the Paris Editor of American Vogue.

No one in Paris knew of the dolls’ continuing existence at Maryhill. A Franco-American partnership was spearheaded by Garfinkel and Train.

In the mid 1980s the dolls were sent to Paris for meticulous restoration, and in a few cases, total recreation. All but a few of the sets were recreated by Anne Surgers.

In 1990 the exhibition reopened in Paris, later traveling to New York, Tokyo, Baltimore, London, Portland and Honolulu before settling back at Maryhill in 1995. It is on permanent rotating display there, with three of the sets on view at any one time.

In searching for information about the restoration of the Théâtre, I came across a Telos film called Théâtre de la Mode.

The film has a double poignancy in that it was made along with the exhibit’s restoration. Many of the people interviewed were involved with the original project and are now gone. The restoration seems to have come from a cusp time: Society was finally eager again to see this work of couture’s past greatness, and it was not too late to find some of the original creators. Robert Ricci (son of Nina Ricci), who was instrumental from the conception of the Théâtre de la Mode, died two weeks after he was interviewed for the film. Eliane Bonabel, Stanley Garfinkel, Jean Saint-Martin, all the set designers, and all the fashion designers are gone now.

Eliane Bonabel, a beautiful 72-year-old in 1991, was the highlight of the film for me. She describes the Cocteau set, saying that he gave only vague instructions about the set-up and meaning. It was clearly a bombed out building, and a bride is lying dead while her spirit flies off, a symbol of hope and rebirth. The other dolls look on in shock and sorrow. The couturiers at first balked at having their creations appear in such a scene, clearly a reference to The War, but eventually all consented, agreeing that the gowns were even more beautiful in this setting.

The film is in all ways touching, a reminder of the loss that inspired the Théâtre de la Mode, and the rebirth that was in turn inspired by it. Now it has been 30 years since the newly resurrected Théâtre, and we have lost so many more people tied to the exhibit—but we still have their dolls. Susan Train wrote of the dolls in her introduction to the book Théâtre de la Mode:

“Born at a moment in history and under circumstances that were more than difficult, but in an élan of solidarity and hope for the future, they stand also for the creative ability, skills, and pride in perfection of detail of the artisans, couturiers, and artists of France. Their message is as strong today as it was in 1945-1946 when they carried it through Europe and to the United States and, inanimate though they appear to be, they are in fact, like the phoenix, a symbol of life.”

Doll dressed by Madame Grès (photo, David Seidner, used by permission of

Revisiting the Théâtre de la Mode

I was able to visit Maryhill again, and was treated to seeing a different rotation of sets.

La Grotte Enchantée

The first set as I walked into the Maryhill Museum’s exhibit on my second visit was a copy (all the sets were lost, and many were recreated) of the set by the youngest artist involved in the project, André Beaurepaire.

Beaurepaire’s set, “La Grotte Enchantée” (The Enchanted Grotto) was created by the 20-year-old French painter, designer and illustrator. He became an outstanding French artist of the postwar period. He was the last of the surviving Théâtre participants, dying in 2012 at the age of 88.

The Grotto scene at Maryhill Museum, with the reconstructed set by Anne Surgers (photo, denisebrain)

In this set are some truly gasp-worthy costumes. These are the original creations, being modeled by the original dolls.

From the left of the scene, there is a long ivory dinner dress with elbow-length dolman sleeves, the bodice entirely embroidered in bronze and mother-of-pearl sequins, by Worth.

Lucile Manguin’s long dinner dress features a black velvet spencer and full organza skirt with criss-crossing black lace. The doll holds a tiny pink taffeta handkerchief edged in black lace.

Gowns by Worth, Manguin, Renal and—mostly hidden—Patou. Look at the size of the French seams! (photo, denisebrain)

The gorgeous evening gown by Georgette Renal has a white tulle skirt trimmed with widening bands of satin. Nina Ricci designed the black satin evening dress with leg-of-mutton sleeves. Its fitted bodice has a set-in yoke of pale pink satin embroidered with old-gold sequins. The full skirt has a longer pink satin underskirt.

The Renal and Patou again, with the Ricci (photo, denisebrain)

While each of the dresses (not to mention accessories and hairstyles) are truly incredible in this set, the gown at front and center is definitely worthy of its place on the stage. It was designed by Balenciaga of raspberry satin embroidered with tiny pearls and ruby beads. The doll wears a matching pillbox hat.

Dress by Balenciaga (photo, denisebrain)

I wish I could have seen better the Jean Patou dress, “Fleurs de Mal,” shown to the left of the Balenciaga. This evening dress has a short-sleeved black tulle bodice embroidered in black sequins. The slim pink wrap skirt is asymmetrically draped. The doll’s shoes are pink fabric and black leather ankle wrap sandals. To the right of the Balenciaga is an Italian Renaissance-inspiration evening coat by Blanche Issartel. It is made of ivory satin with a silver pattern. The coat is worn over a long gold lamé sheath dress. See those tiny gloves? They are white suede.

Dresses by Patou, Balenciaga and Ricci, evening coat by Issartel (photo, denisebrain)

To the right of the scene is a bright red organdy evening dress by Madame Grès. The turban and veil are of pale green organdy with kingfisher feathers, coral beads and rhinestones.

The black and silver paisley brocade evening coat was designed by Mad Carpentier. It is a full-skirted redingote with large puffed sleeves. The doll’s equally striking toque is black velvet and tulle embroidered with sequins and jet and trimmed with feathers.

Dresses by Grès and Carpentier (photo, denisebrain)

The Théâtre de la Mode was conceived as a way to express French couture’s preeminence, even as it struggled to hold itself together during and just after the Nazi occupation of Paris. This scene’s elaborate, elegant, minutely detailed, gorgeously designed and heart-meltingly optimistic creations succeed in reaching, even surpassing their goal. I had to sit and look at these dolls for a long time.

Le Jardin Marveilleux

The second scene from the Théâtre de la Mode that I saw that day at the Maryhill Museum was “Le Jardin Marveilleux” (The Marvelous Garden).

Le Jardin Marveilleux at Maryhill (photo, denisebrain)

The designer of this delightful and somewhat surreal set was Jean-Denis Malclès. The current version is the recreation by Anne Surger.

Malclès was a painter, stage designer, costumer and illustrator. He was a master of magical effects and he gave his all to Le Jardin Marveilleux.

If you search out images of the sets from 1945, you will notice that they include clothing different from that on display now. The clothing of 1945 was replaced for the exhibit’s tour in 1946 because the couturiers wanted the fashion to be the very latest of their styles.

In the Maryhill display you will see an evening dress by Mad Carpentier with a yellow silk chiffon bodice embroidered with blue beads, old rose lamé and mother-of-pearl sequins—tiny versions of the couturier’s usual embellishments. The skirt is lilac tulle over a pink underskirt.

Dress by Carpentier (photo, denisebrain)

Dress by Heim, evening coat by Bruyère (photo, denisebrain)

Wedding gown by Paquin, outfit by Balmain (photo, denisebrain)

In front of the beautiful bridal gown by Paquin (yes, those are minute covered buttons down the bodice front) is a shadowy figure in one of the most outstanding outfits of the 1946 version of the exhibit.

Created by Balmain, the original was lost and considered essential to recreate.

At the right of the Garden scene is a stunning gown of black silk with a green silk under skirt by Madame Grès. Exhibited alongside is another narrow silhouette. It was called “Caran d’Ache” by its creator, Jacques Fath. Designers were experimenting with both sheath silhouettes and the very full skirts which presaged the New Look of 1947.

Dresses by Grès and Fath (photo, denisebrain)

I was amazed by the miniature scale of the jacquard used for a gown by Bruyère. If only we could see her feet, shod in matching fabric and bordeaux leather shoes! All the shoes you are able to see are miniature masterpieces.

Dress by Bruyère (photo, denisebrain)

Seeing the Exhibit at Maryhill

As I wrote earlier, the Théâtre is permanently housed at the Maryhill Museum of Art, and there are no plans for it to tour again from what I can tell. You can find details, and the current Théâtre de la Mode rotation by visiting their website.

The museum is open 7 days a week, including all holidays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., March 15 through November 15. It is 100 miles from Portland and not terribly far from any place in the states of Washington and Oregon. The Maryhill Museum website should give you all the information you need to plan a visit. It is an enchanting destination, for more than even the Théâtre; I love the peacocks that strut the grounds!

My red jacket alongside a red jacket by Worth (photo, denisebrain)


Here I was in the presence of this miniature masterpiece of Parisian art and fashion in a museum on the edge of a precipice overlooking the Columbia River, 5,294 miles from Paris.

I carried a very small package with me in my bag when I visited Maryhill. In it was a pair of vintage black gloves marked “Made in France,” boxed up to mail to the buyer, who happens to live in Paris. It suddenly seemed like a somewhat smaller world.

The wonderful book, Théâtre de la Mode: Fashion Dolls: The Survival of Haute Couture can be purchased on Amazon. #paidlink