One of fashion's most twisted tales is how the world's finest collection of couture dolls, created in post-war Paris by the crème of French couturiers, came to rest in Goldendale, Wash., at Maryhill Museum. The saga is neatly detailed in a new edition of Théâtre de la Mode--Fashion Dolls: The Survival of Haute Couture. This book reprints the catalog of a 1990 revival exhibition of the dolls at the Costume Institute at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The dolls were born in a wounded Paris shortly after the Nazi occupation ended in 1944. With the fashion industry in a demoralized shambles, designers wanted to revive enthusiasm for haute couture.

The newly expanded book contains enlarged versions of David Seidner's stunning photographic portraits of the dolls, as well as all-new detail shots of custom jewelry forged for each mini-mannequin--van Cleef gem-clotted epaulettes, a Cartier plastron. The whole is capped by a context-laden, illustrated walkthrough of the dolls' conception.

The reprinting is a labor of love spearheaded by Pati Palmer, president of Portland's Palmer/Pletsch Publishing. Palmer was a tyke when her mother took her to the obscure Maryhill Museum to see the dolls way back in the '50s. They were, at that time, separated from their original elaborate backdrops and encased in spooky vitrines scattered throughout the museum.

Palmer grew up to be a publisher of sewing and decorating books, as well as a designer for Vogue and McCall's patterns. Work on an unrelated book by couture sewer Roberta Carr reacquainted Palmer with her beloved Théâtre, since Carr had been involved with its 1990 Met revival. Palmer was drawn to the dolls' poignant history and published the book, in part, to show her "admiration for the artists who came together to show the world that their industry and hope couldn't be obliterated."

The dolls were constructed of wire, soldered and sculpted into womanly, willowy forms just over 2 feet tall. Crowned by plaster heads painted with sophisticated faces and styled with chic coiffures, the dolls were curiously elegant and solemn--not at all toylike. France's fine artists and couturiers collaborated to create the gorgeous garments that adorned--and sets that surrounded--the dolls, among them Schiaparelli, Hermès and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.

It was a miracle it ever occured. Privations like unreliable electricity and the scarcity of colored thread required ingenious solutions from the Thé‰tre's designers and artists.

Real buttonholes, hand-covered buttons, pockets, finished interior seams, belts, shoes, furs and frothy hats all contributed to the dolls' extraordinary detail and polish. In some cases fabrics were rewoven to scale. Miniature hat blocks had to be constructed. If there were doubts that French fashion could carry on, they were vanquished with one glance at these crazy curios.

Bone up with the book, and prepare yourself for a visit with these lovely objects once the museum re-opens in March--an optimistic, fanciful display of l'esprit du temps. Amazing how the shadow of war and devastation moves some cultures toward beauty.


2002 Give Guide
Miss Mona's Rack is a secondhand store offering affordable clothing, community job training and a source of income for Danzine, a nonprofit agency for sex workers that's continually seeking volunteers, as well as monetary and clothing donations. Give your hip holiday togs at 628 E Burnside St.; call 234-9615 or visit www.danzine. org/store.html for more information.

Thé‰tre de la Mode--Fashion Dolls: The Survival of Haute Couture Fashion Photographs

Revised Second Edition by David Seidner, essays by Edmonde Charles- Roux, Herbert R. Lottman, Stanley Garfinkel, Nadine Gasc (2002, Palmer/Pletsch Publishing, 192 pages, $29.95)

Maryhill Museum of Art
35 Maryhill Museum Drive, Goldendale, Wash., (509) 773-3733. 100 miles east of Portland on Highway 14.
9 am to 5 pm daily, March 15 through Nov. 15.

"It's a Strange Land: The First Annual Freak Alternative Fashion Show"

Freak flags fly at this cocktail-fueled fashion show.

XV, 15 SW 2nd Ave., 790-9090. 8 pm Thursday, Dec. 12. $5-$8.