Monday, September 6, 2010

A textile history gem in the desert: Théâtre de la Mode at Maryhill

With summer waning, and both DH and I in the throes of the back-t0-school blues (see, one downside to being an educator is that there was no cheering in our household when the kids went back to school), we decided to get out of town for a day and see something interesting. We aimed the car north and then east, taking a drive up the Columbia River gorge, our end goal being the Maryhill Museum. Which I'll get to in a moment.

After leaving I-84 and taking the twisty, windy old historic Columbia River Highway, one of the first stops is Vista House on Crown Point, overlooking the west end of the gorge. Vista House was built in 1916 and recently restored.

From its observation decks, visitors get a view of the Columbia River gorge. This is looking east, the direction we were traveling.

The river cut through layer upon layer of Columbia Flood Basalts, creating spectacular cliffs. Where you have cliffs in this wet climate, you're bound to have waterfalls, and the gorge is full of them. Latourell Falls is easy to visit:

As is the famous Multnomah Falls, perhaps the most photographed waterfalls in the world after Niagara (the upper fall is over 500 feet high):

Once you get past the mountains, you're on the east side of the state, in the High Desert region. Here the cliff faces are covered with dry grass and dotted with sagebrush and the occasional non-native Russian olive.

And that is where, smack in the middle of nowhere, on the Washington side of the gorge (cross the Columbia at Hood River and have 50 cents ready for the toll), you find the Maryhill Museum of Art (if you squint, you can see Mt. Hood in the background).

Samuel Hill, one promoter of the Columbia River Highway, bought over 5000 acres in this area to found a Quaker farming community. He also began construction on a grand house for himself, modeled after his house in Seattle. Loïe Fuller, a pioneer of modern dance and a friend of Hill, talked him into using the house to create an art museum. Why they all thought that a grand house in the middle of practically nowhere would make a great site for an art museum is anyone's guess, but perhaps Hill believed that the town would grow into something much larger. Queen Marie of Romania, also a friend of Hill (who must have had an amazing social life) visited the unfinished museum for a very grand opening ceremony.

The museum now houses furniture and art donated by Queen Marie, a small collection of very fine Victorian art, including some pre-Raphaelite painters, some beautiful Orthodox Icons, an excellent collection of Rodin bronzes and sculptures, an amazing display of chess sets, beautiful Native American art (more on that, since some spectacular textiles were included in that display) and...


Théâtre de la Mode was an odd and fascinating chapter in fashion history. The year was 1945, the location, Paris. World War II had come to an end and Paris was in the middle of rebuilding itself, and that included rebuilding the fashion industry. Paris was, after all, the fashion capital of the world. But in war-torn Europe there was little fabric to be had, and the fashion designers couldn't put together enough to create full-sized fashions to be worn by life models -- especially since the New Look that was about to be launched called for wide skirts over crinolines and far more bows and adornments than anyone could dare (or afford) to wear during the war years.

The solution was to do what fashion designers had done in centuries past: create and dress dolls to display new fashions.

So Théâtre de la Mode was born. Craftsmen created dolls with detailed faces, but wireframe bodies and limbs. Fashion designers dressed the dolls in their newest creations. Then, to show off the fashions in the best light possible, stage artists, including surreal film director Jean Cocteau, created theatrical settings to display the dolls.

The entire existing collection, stages and all, are housed at Maryhill. Nine stages exist, three of which are shown at a time in rotation in a room dedicated to the collection.

This stage, titled Ma Femme est une Sorcière (My Wife is a Witch), features a fainting bridesmaid, several women looking aghast, and the bride flying off on a broomstick through a hole in the roof of the decaying garret, while a city burns in the background. Decidedly a Jean Cocteau confection, n'est-ce pas?

Tonner Doll Company has dolls dressed in Théâtre de la Mode fashions for sale. You can see the Tonner doll (left side) and the original Théâtre de la Mode doll (right side) for each of the dolls offered.

If you're in the Pacific Northwest, resident or visitor, and have time for a drive up the gorge, don't miss out on the Maryhill Museum.

I'll get a report out on more textiles from the Native American traditions when DH finishes processing his photos.


Cindy G said...

Fascinating! I know I've seen an article about those dolls somewhere, but can't remember where. Maybe an old "Threads" magazine?

Katie said...

Omigooses. That makes this costume history geek very excited!

Caffeine Girl said...

Thanks for taking us along on this outing. What amazing country! The falls are just spectacular. And I would kill to see the pre-Raphaelite works!


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