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Just before I began my last collection, The Regency Wardrobe, I learnt about the history of a group of miniature mannequins that are known collectively as Theatre de la Mode. Off the back of this, and just after visiting Venice, I experimented for the first time with making a miniature garment based on the life story of Wendy Duggan an ardent traveller. I used a doll form for this a first attempt and though its moveable limbs allowed me to choreograph some emotion into the stance of the figure in question I knew that for me and my work it wasn't the correct way forward.

But then I became immersed in designing, making and exhibiting life-size garments for interesting (and sometimes very large) spaces and the call of the small became too quiet to hear. Now I am in a quieter time, that early creative phase when one has to really look and listen for the threads or notes of something new. Now therefore I can hear that call again, and it is getting louder.

From what I have learnt latterly, it seems that being little is where the huge trade that is fashion could be said to have begun. Certainly making miniature garments and showing them on small dress forms has a far longer history than I would ever have imagined. But lets begin where I began in my learning about miniature mannequins and that is with Théâtre de la Mode, which was a post WWII phenomena.

"After Paris was liberated, the idea for a miniature theatre of fashion came from Robert Ricci, son of couturier Nina Ricci. All materials were in short supply at the end of World War II, and Ricci proposed using miniature mannequins, or fashion dolls, to address the need to conserve textiles, leather, fur...Some 60 Paris couturiers...Nina Ricci, Balenciaga, Germaine Lecomte, Mad Carpentier, Martial & Armans, Hermès, Phillipe & Gaston, Madeleine Vramant, Jeanne Lanvin, Marie-Louise Bruyère, Pierre Balmain...joined and volunteered their scrap materials and labour to create miniature clothes in new styles for the exhibit. Milliners created miniature hats, hairstylists gave the mannequins individual coiffures, and jewellers such as Van Cleef and Arpels and Cartier contributed small necklaces and accessories. Some seamstresses even crafted miniature undergarments to go under the couture designs. Seamstresses carried their sewing machines around with them to complete work on the Théâtre de la Mode during Paris's post-War electricity shortages..."

The mannequins of the Théâtre de la Mode collection are approximately 70cms tall, or one third human size, they have limbs made of wire and designers such as Christian Dior took part in making their forms as well as their garments.

"The exhibition was supported by the whole bohemian society in Paris. Théâtre de la Mode became a touring exhibition of 237 figurines. It opened at the Louvre in Paris on 28 March 1945, and was enormously popular. It attracted 100,000 visitors and raised a million francs for war relief. Later, Théâtre de la Mode toured in Europe. It was presented in London, Leeds, Barcelona, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Vienna..."

“Rose de France” ensemble by Mendel, part of the set Le Théâtre by Christian Bérard. Gift of Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne and Paul Verdier, Collection. Photo © Maryhill Museum of Art

In the spring of 2020, I thought the latest collection by The House of Embroidered Paper, 18 months of work and counting, might never be seen. I was not alone, modern fashion houses such as Moschino and Dior were feeling the same way. "How", we were all asking, "with Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions in place could our latest collections be seen by an audience?" That's when I went bigger, a bigger venue, a bigger collection. But for the big names in fashion the answer was to go smaller, much smaller. They decided to follow in the footsteps of their WWII weary fashion house forbears by turning to the miniature. Here you can see the Moschino Spring/Summer collection 2021 and Dior Autumn/Winter 2020. Quite beautiful! So we have come right up-to-date and we have looked at the early association of mini dress forms with great fashion houses but did that early Twentieth Century concept come out of nowhere?

You only have to visit the V&A to know that the answer to that question is no.

photo credit S.Smart and Judi Lynn

Here is a both a historic ones that they have on show in their permanent gallery and two that they have had made up for a temporary, contemporary exhibition in 2019

The first is a fashion doll named 'Vivienne' designed and made by Mrs Latter Axton. Head by Francois Gautier 1885-86. Doll: France, glass, ceramic, mohair and wood. Clothing: England, silk, cotton. Shoes: leather

And there would once have been so many more of these figures out there. So lets clarify their early purpose.

Before there was fashion photography there were fashion plates, such as this one from 1817:

But before there were fashion plates how did women know what the latest fashions were?

Well, there were fashion dolls, yes dolls. They have long since sometimes been described as such. Some, smaller than the Théâtre de la Mode mannequins, were indeed the size of dolls. We will return to the idea that they were arguably also the origin of the doll as a child’s play thing but the use of that word should not confuse as to their purpose. For my own part, when I talk of them, I prefer to refer to miniature mannequins, for that exact reason, but the word doll is implicit in their history.

And that history is long. The idea has been muted that a small human figure made of wood found near a chest of clothing in Tutankhamen’s tomb (1300 BC) may have been a fashion mannequin.

And in the Royal courts of Europe it is certain that miniature fashion mannequins were, made and gifted from the Middle Ages. But don't just take my word for it. I have been latterly very inspired by a particular podcast (and it's accompanying text) that I was directed toward by one of the team of The House of Embroidered Paper volunteers. By then she was working with a pattern for a miniature dress form for me. You can listen to the podcast here on the Haptic and Hue website.

It was there that I learnt of correspondence between the Queen of France and the Queen of England in 1321 regarding a collection of fashion mannequins, sent from the one to the other.

And it seems that from then on they would continue to play their part in diplomatic relations, demonstrating changing fashion trends and bringing with them gestures of goodwill and/or marketing. Their clothes, their accessories, their coiffure even, detailed the ever-changing, theatrical costumes of the French and English royal courts one to the other.

Certainly this was still being practised in the latter half of the 18th Century but arguably it was in the 17th Century that the fashion doll really took off. Improvements in European trade meant that it was no longer only royalty who had access to such things. Poupée de Mode and Queen Anne dolls became novelty items for the aristocracy and because of that they became an integral part of the trade of high end fashion. They thereby travelled around the world aiding the wealthy in their aim to be always wearing the latest designs. Rich fashionable ladies might in fact own their own pair of dolls, one dressed en grande toilette, the other en dèshabille; they became known as the Grande Pandore (Court attire) and the Petit Pandore (every day wear) respectively. Thus the name Pandora is applied to describe miniature fashion mannequins.

Doll's Court Gown (grand habit de poupée) c.1769-75

"Many court visitors looked to France for the latest fashions and sent servants to Paris to seek out the latest trends. French dress makers would send dolls to England in miniature clothes to show the latest fashions." Poupée from Fashion Museum Bath, shown at the exhibition Court to Couture, Kensington Palace 2023

Many women then as now had the same desire it would seem, to follow fashion. It was this desire that would lead to the publication of fashion plates in, for example, Ackermans Repository of Arts (see image above) which I've mentioned often in posts about Regency fashion. And that same desire leads us directly up-to-date of course with magazines such as Vogue.

Previous to any of that however miniature mannequins were being shown directly to individual clientele as a cost-effective means of sharing design ideas and then in fact honing down desire and particularising details by allowing for the very personal choices of the very particular. Imagine the cost otherwise of making up every part of a 17th Century dress by hand, even the ribbon and the lace. Imagine if your client didn’t like the finished item and decided she wanted it in blue instead of pink. Imagine if she decided she wouldn't pay for the first life-sized version you'd created and which she'd had to agree to sight unseen merely relying on a description. Miniatures of larger scale works are used elsewhere in art to help those who are commissioning works anticipate what they will be getting. The sculptor's maquette for example or the architects model. Making your vision in miniature first of all allows others to get on board and support the creation of something larger. It allows artists to present ideas using their preferred visual language. It cuts across the barriers of verbal language and any limitation of imagination.

So fashion merchants would make up dresses in miniature to show to wealthy clients. But those same forms could be likewise placed in shop windows to attract the eyes of the passing masses. At first the Parisian Poupée merely acted as a way that the French fashion industry could demonstrate current fashions in full detail such that local shops, couturiers and tailors could make them up to order. And some full-sized human-scale figures would begin to be used for the same reason. Again in a high end context the mannequin could even be made to a specific client's measurements. This then was the start of shop mannequins as we know them today but when you next see one that is as tall as you are remember that originally, historically, it would have been miniaturised.

photo credit Kerry Crofton

This is not a doll but a miniature dress form from a Victorian era shop window showing the style of dress you could go inside and have made up to your dimensions. It can be viewed now at The Museum of London.

In only have no. 1 of 1-3 of Janet Arnold's sought after books Patterns of Fashion but she does (albeit briefly) refer to fashion dolls:

"Two ladies examining a fashion doll. From a watercolour of an Academy for Young Ladies by Edward Burney, c.1813. The Victoria & Albert Museum" - p 9 Patterns of Fashion 1 c 1660-1860 by Janet Arnold

"Ladies looking at a fashion doll with three dresses. The box on the table in which the doll and dresses appear to have been packed indicates that they maybe be 'the beautifully formed paper models' referred to in the 'Royal Ladies' Magazine, January 1832. From a French woodcut, c. 1830" - p10

"Royal Ladies' Magazine and Archives of the Court of St. James's. (January 1832)

The Gallery of English Costume

To Correspondents

In answer to Mrs. L. we inform her that the drawings of the fashions are made from beautifully formed paper models, which may be seen and purchased - as, for the purposes of the Magazine, they are useless after the copies are published"

- Pattern Cutting and Dressmaking c. 1660-1860 A Selection of contemporary sources (p9) From Patterns of Fashion 1 c 1660-1860 by Janet Arnold

What then of the doll as a play thing for children. I said I would return to that and it's important to try to differentiate. Some say it was during the Victorian age that childhood began to be recognised as a distinct phase of human development, that is, as opposed to just being a time when future adults were small. Teenagers would arguably have to wait until the 1960’s and Biba for fashion that allowed them their own aesthetic but "Poupée" with jointed limbs and glazed head were being made for children in the mid-19th-century. It’s true that at first their wardrobes reflected adult fashion but c.1880 French dolls began to be produced to represent children, allowing children to play the role of parents and arguably changing the fashion industry’s attitude toward fashion for children. And from haute couture to mass production, for Barbie’s plastic accessories, hair styles, shoes, cars and homes owe much, no doubt, to the wigs, toiletries, parasols and furniture that was created for the miniature fashion mannequins of yesteryear. Now as then what a fashionable doll wears reflect the fashions of the time.

That's not to say that some form of doll, basic or ornate, didn't get into the hands of children prior to the 1800's. In the V&A fashion gallery you can find this miniature from 1755-60 listed as a doll, rather than as a fashion doll. If she was meant for a child she yet might as well be a dress form for the attention paid to her outfit.

In Paris in the mid 19th century, as in earlier decades, fashion was not just a source of national pride but a source of jobs for thousands of workers, who desperately needed work post-war. Haute couture designers required an audience and for the first time because of the booming economy in the United States Europe looked to America as it's market.

This is how the miniature mannequins of Théâtre de la Mode ended up living State side. After their tour of Europe...

"...At the end of 1945 the mannequins were dressed up in new clothes for the season for the next year and the exhibition left for the United States. It was shown in New York and San Francisco. After the final show, the mannequins were abandoned in San Francisco...The Maryhill Museum of Art in the United States got hold of the mannequins in 1952....The original sets, accompanying the dolls, created by such artists as Christian Bérard, Christian Dior, Georges Wakhevitch and Jean Cocteau, were, unfortunately, lost. In 1988, Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris undertook a massive restoration work of the mannequins and recreated the sets with stunning resemblance. The Théâtre de la Mode is still to be found at the Maryhill Museum of Art with rotating selections from the complete series of mannequins and sets."

In New York City the miniature mannequins arrived to thunderous applause. Since that exhibition America's contribution to fashion design, with designers like Halston, started increasing. Jacqueline Kennedy would become one of the first American international fashion stars. Is there a connection? Well quite possibly.

But closer to home and more personally it was during the exhibition of The Regency Wardrobe at Firle Place in 2021 that I was introduced to the wonderful project Gowns for Good - miniature versions of real garments created for exhibition to raise funds for charity. With advice over where to source the mini mannequin pattern they use and adapt to fit their creations I found the dress form I needed, simply a small (rough 1/3 or 1/4) version in the style of the life-sized mannequins I was using.

And so the House of Embroidered Paper team and I began making our own small dress forms. From the start I was thinking of going Rococo for the first miniature gown, but what the exact garment designs would be or how we would make the paper and thread details sufficiently small as to fit it... well that was all to be figured out.

Mannequin making and photo credits to Kerry Crofton, Denise Morton and Jane Quail

I'm glad to say seemed to work well. This mannequin is approximately 1/3rd size, and now that I've made one at this scale the world of small scale is wide open.

This is the first piece from my new collection Weaving Silk Stories, please keep an eye out for more posts about this garment and the rest as the collection develops.

For further reading on this subject here are some other interesting websites:

To see some being made have a look at these:

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