In 1944, Paris, much like many other parts of the world, were in the process of recovering from war. Rationing was still in place and they were struggling to rebuild. Having once been known as the fashion capitol of the world, they were keen to let the world know they were still on top. Unfortunately, there was no chance of any designer being able to get the necessary materials for a entire collection. Many couture houses had closed down during the war and some would never reopen.
Step forward Robert Ricci, son of Nina Ricci, and head of commission of public relations at the Chambre Syndicale ( governing organization for haute couture). Ricci’s idea was to organize an event to raise money, the event being a collection of dolls, all to be dressed by the major fashion houses. Out of the 70 registered couture houses in Paris at the time 53 took part. Among them some of the most well known fashion names in the world, Schiaparelli, Lanvin, Hermes, Patou, Fath, Worth, and Balenciaga. ( Just to name a few).
The dolls were made of transparent wire, with plaster heads and stood 27 inches high. Each house created 5 designs and their were a total of 237 dolls at the opening of the exhibition in March 1945. Each doll was immaculately dressed, and the details on their clothing was exquisite: proper linings, trimmings, small purses and powder compacts. Some of the jewelery was even made by Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels.
The dolls were set up on sophisticated backdrops, designed by some of the well-known artists of the time: Jean Cocteau, Christian Berard, Jean Saint-Marti and Jean Denis Malcles. The sets were part fantasy, part real, some in recognizable Parisian scenes. The Opening of the exhibit was in March 1945 and it 100,00 people attended it before it moved on to travel around Europe and then the states, before its final stop in San Francisco.
When the exhibit was disbanded in San Fran, it was stored in the City of Paris department store (now Neiman Marcus) and forgotten about for several years, until, it was discovered in the basement in 1952. The original sets and many of the dolls had been destroyed, before they were rescued by someone who had connections within the MaryHill museum. The dolls were sent to the museum and displayed in a glass case, and became forgotten about again, until in 1988 when a historian by the name of Arthur Garfunkel became aware of their existence.
He persuaded the curator of the Maryhill to set up a collaboration with the Met museum and the French government (who had been unaware the dolls still existed). 9 of the 13 sets have since been fully recreated as well as all the remaining dolls being fully restored to their one time glory. The MaryHill exhibits 3 of the 9 sets every year and the rest travel the world. There is currently a book available on Amazon that gives the full history and its well worth a read if you are interested. I found the information on this exhibit utterly fascinating and the dolls exquisite. If you happen to have the exhibit coming near you, I highly recommend going to see it.