1944. Wartime France. No fabric. The norm had been 100. They were down to an index of 26. There was not even enough material to make socks! Paris, the world’s fashion capital, had lost hope of reviving its precious haute couture.
American photojournalist Lee Miller came to France as a war correspondent. She connected with Edmonde Charles-Rouxe, a French war correspondent. As they were occupied with war reporting she revealed her true purpose. A group was secretly planning an exhibition of haute couture in Paris that was expected to have tremendous impact, and she wanted Charles-Rouxe to be involved. A month later, Paris flocked to see a display of miniature dolls created by the great artists of haute couture, put on display for their pleasure. The French Resistance was even involved in bringing haute-couture back to Paris with British support!
The exhibition was so successful that it continued until after the war was over. To promote the exhibition abroad at that time, a French government official wrote to the Ambassador of France in Britain: “France has little, alas to export, but she has her appreciation of beautiful things and the skill of her couture houses. “In 1946, it went to New York and San Francisco, where the mannequins were left languishing in the basement of San Francisco’s City of Paris department store. In 1990, the mannequins were transferred to Maryhill Museum of Art. Haute couture had always been the domain of Paris. During the war, New York had survived without the inspiration Paris provided. Paris was back in its rightful place!
Who was part of this movement to show the world the capital of the fashion industry had survived the war? Some 60 couturiers worked together. Among them, Nina Ricci, Christian Dior, and others.
What made it successful?
They worked together. 60 couturiers who normally were competitors set aside their rivalries to reestablish their national industry.
They did the unexpected. Too hard to make shoes for these dolls? Then we will! Bags? That too! The dolls, measuring one-third the size of human scale, even had specially made jewels and lingerie. All difficulties became challenges to show off their skill in a friendly and fierce competition.
They did it despite hardship. This was done while the average Parisian could only eat 1400 calories per day!
They contributed selflessly.The artists donated their services; the couture houses contributed labor and material and made a contribution for each costume provided for the exhibition. All the proceeds went to a central organization: L’Entraide Francaise, set up for the Theatre de la Mode.
They went where their market was: Barcelona, London, Vienna, then New York, and San Francisco. They made themselves known.
Their work was excellent. It was truly artistic, enough that in 1952 the Maryhill Museum of Art acquired the collection from San Francisco and set about restoring it. In 1990, the museum did an extensive restoration.
What can we learn from them as translators and interpreters?
Just as the Theatre de la Mode artists made specially sized shoes for their costumes, we can focus on the details our clients care about and no computer can replicate.
Work together. Teamwork is important, and there is enough work for all of us. We can promote our profession without being concerned about competition because each of us has different strengths and skills to contribute.
Working with the allied professions makes us better. The artists worked with sculptors, editors, and publicists. We can partner with desktop publishers, web designers, publicists, and professionals in the copy editing field.
They worked as a professional association. Today, we have several professional associations to support us. ATA, for example, stands ready to help members set up partnerships to promote the profession.
Do the unexpected. Taking a risk can be beneficial. We still know Nina Ricci today. Christian Dior was not famous at that time, but today it is a well-known brand.
Chip in. The proceeds of the artists’ cooperative effort went to a common fund. That helped set aside any rivalries. When we do volunteer work for an association, we are not promoting our own brand, but the profession.
Keep quality a priority. Will our work stand the test of time?
Author: Helen Eby
Contributing Editor: Paula Irisity
For further reading: Theatre de la Mode: Fashion Dolls: The Survival of Haute Couture, by Charles-Roux, Edmonde et al, 2002, published by Maryhill Museum of Art, Palmer/Pletsch Publishing: Portland, OR, ISBN 0-935278-57-7