Petite Chic 2-foot-3-inch models display fashion's finest down to teeniest detail

February 11, 1993|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,Staff Writer

Small miracles can occur in the face of adversity. A real and dazzling example is being brought to the Baltimore Museum of Art Sunday. Theatre de la Mode: French Fashion Miniatures, proves that courage can be dressed with elegance and charm.

A fashion show featuring doll-sized mannequins was conceived in the Paris of 1945, the first haute couture presentation with potential for export after years of repression under war-time occupation.

The German Reich had imposed strict quotas and all materiel was skimmed to supply the military. The great and influential French fashion industry had been reduced to beggary and rags.

But the Parisian spirit knew how to turn rags into chic resistance. Parisiennes refused to be cowed by the conquerors; despite the shortages of yarn, fabric and shoes, they turned threadbare clothes inside out and created jaunty and defiant hats from snippets of trim.

At war's end, the French fashion industry, responding to a yearning for the return of beauty and elegance, mounted a show of the spring and summer collections of 1946. Shortages of fabrics, electricity and machinery prevented a full-scale presentation, so 53 top couture houses chose to present their creations in miniature set in decorative stages. The houses are ,, now legendary -- Balmain, Balenciaga, Lucien Lelong, Worth, Nina Ricci, Hermes. But the Theatre de la Mode looked beyond the making of clothes and turned into a major creative collaboration that drew the best from the worlds of art, theater, music, ballet and writing.

A hundred thousand French flocked to the original display and the show toured Europe and America in 1945 and 1946 to raise funds for war-relief and to remind the world that French fashion had survived the deprivations of war.

1946, the last stop for the theater was in San Francisco. The small models eventually found a home at the small Maryhill Museum of Art in Washington state where they were forgotten by the fashion world. They were rediscovered by a fashion researcher in 1983 and arrangements were made to return them to France where the clothes and stage sets were punctiliously re-created.

The refurbished Theatre de la Mode comes to the BMA after stops in Paris, New York and Tokyo. The little ambassadors of fashion, 167 of the more than 200 original models, are a marvel. Each couturier miniaturized his creation down to buttons and trim. The originals were made by the finest seamstresses, milliners and craftsmen working in Paris. The coiffures, some of real hair, some of fantasy fibers, were dressed by stylists who had worked for royalty.

The clothes and designs can scarcely be believed with details exact to the tiniest button. The daytime suits and dresses are correct in every seam -- little pockets work, tiny pleats are in place, little leather belts have specially cast brass buckles.

Accessories are crafted in microscopic detail. Some of the smallest sporty handbags are lined and top-stiched to the millimeter. Tiny suede and leather gloves are finely finished to the last little finger.

The shoes are perfect examples of the cobblers art. Suede platform boots button with pin-dot size snaps. Platform wedge sandals are trimmed in hairline-fine contrast leather, walking oxfords lace and tie with thread-fine woven shoe strings.

Each costume is finished with a coordinating hat or headdress -- finest straws are woven into sailor shapes and elegant velours and felts are finished with feathers of hummingbird size.

Evening dresses sweep and drape and enchant the eye, ornamented with embroideries and beading to the smallest scale.

This exhibit is magnificent in its smallness. It is not a doll show and there is nothing cute or cloying in its execution. In their stage settings, the 27-inch high mannequins exude charm, wit and essential French elegance -- a war, a world and an idea far removed from the Barbies of our time.

THEATRE DE LA MODE

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive.

When: Feb. 14 through April 25.

Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday to Friday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, Sunday.

Admission: Museum members and children 6 and under free. Ages 7 to 18, $1.50. Seniors and full-time students with ID, $3.50. Age 19 and over $5.50. Free museum admission Thursday, but a $2 fee to Theatre de la Mode for ages 12 and over.

Call: (410) 396-7100.

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