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Thursday, March 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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MOHAI exhibit spotlights tiny fashion treasures from war-torn Paris

Seattle Times staff reporter

Flashy, hip and a little sexy, "Théâtre de la Mode" anchors "Fashion at MOHAI," a new exhibit of post-World War II French haute couture at the Museum of History and Industry.

"It's the most visually stunning" display that the museum has ever staged, said spokesman Feliks Banel.

MOHAI, a fortlike landmark, often documents the past in a conventional way — by showing a glue pot from the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 or a miniature recreation of the Denny Party's 1851 landing. With statuettes draped in designer dresses and gowns, the museum is taking a step into fresh territory.

"Théâtre de la Mode," which premiered in Seattle earlier this month, includes 99 small-scale mannequins on five sets. It's a restaging of a 1946 exhibition.

But the figures are more than a fashionable twist at MOHAI. They represent a heroic effort, a triumph of humanity led by brave artistic minds.

In August 1944, the German occupation ended in Paris. The economy was torn. And a shortage of everything left only scraps — of fuel, of materials, of food.

World War II had strangled the capital of international haute couture. So rivals become allies, collaborating amid bombed-out buildings to rekindle a dead industry.

"Fashion at MOHAI" featuring "Théâtre de la Mode"


On display: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through July 16; open until 8 p.m. on first Thursday of every month

Cost: $7 adults, $5 youth and seniors, free children 4 and younger; free on first Thursday of every month

Location: Museum of History and Industry, 2700 24th Ave. E., Seattle

Information: 206-324-1126 or www.seattlehistory.org

There simply weren't enough resources to devise a full-scale runway show, though. By making one-third-sized models, the artists sizzled without skimping on style.

Virtuosos from nearly two dozen haute couture houses (with names like Worth, Nina Ricci, Balenciaga and Lelong) wrapped the tiny-waisted figures in finery. Cartier and Van Cleef and Arpels created strands of jewelry, while artisans crowned the bodies with individual coiffures swept this way and that.

When the artists and designers mounted "Théâtre de la Mode," the exhibition included 200 mannequins dressed in the latest fashions. The figures struck a pose on 12 sets, elaborate scenes directed by artists like Jean Cocteau.

The exhibition opened at the Louvre in 1945 and weaved its way to many cities in Europe. A year later, designers fabricated a whole new wardrobe for the statuettes and introduced them to an American audience. The 1946 version toured to New York and San Francisco.

Some time after the show at the Bay Area's de Young Museum, the pieces were abandoned and the sets destroyed. The French designers no longer wanted these outdated clothes, said MOHAI historian Lorraine McConaghy. "They moved on to full-scale retail haute couture fashion, [so] the exhibition became something of an orphan."

Art patron Alma Spreckels — who founded San Francisco's Legion of Honor and served on the board of the Maryhill Museum of Art near the Columbia River — brought the dolls to Washington in the early 1950s. "She arranged for the mannequins to come to Maryhill Museum for safekeeping and for display," said McConaghy.

Today's artists recreated the sets from photographs of the original sets. In Cocteau's scene, statuesque women in ivory floor-length bridal gowns sprawl across the floor of a mangled attic. "It's this surreal exploration of the terror of occupied Paris," said McConaghy.

As designers forged "Théâtre de la Mode" after French and American troops drove the Nazis out, rationing still ran deep. But the houses couldn't quite shed their competitive past. They strove to out-design one another.

Following the habits of fashionable ladies in the pre-war era, couturiers designed coordinated ensembles for the dolls: dresses or suits came carefully matched with hats, gloves, handbags, shoes and umbrellas. Underneath the visible fabrics and accessories, some seamstresses even stitched lingerie for the mannequins.

"The meticulous attention to details is so striking," said McConaghy. "The buttons really button. The zippers really zip. The handbags have little stuff — little wallets, little compacts — inside them."

Beyond bringing haute couture back in vogue, "Théâtre de la Mode" was under a mandate to help bankroll the nation's economic recovery. "This exhibition raised a million francs in Paris alone," said McConaghy. "It's an incredible celebration of rebirth after the war."

The aftermath of occupation meant that the attire was pieced together from limited sources ranging from fur, fabric and leather to thread and electricity. "The seamstresses carried their sewing machines from neighborhood to neighborhood as the power went off," said McConaghy.

The circumstances that begot "Théâtre de la Mode" made it unlike any fashion show previously produced by the design houses. "You couldn't buy these clothes. You couldn't order that dress, for example," said McConaghy, pointing at a floor-length gown. "It was a fantasy of what would come."

Judy Chia Hui Hsu: 206-464-3315 or jhsu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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