Before Barbie: French Fashion Dolls in the Pacific Northwest

World War II French Fashion Dolls at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Washington State

All summer long a blazing hot pink jolt of marketing buzz for the live-action Barbie movie has electrified the atmosphere. This dynamic energy propelled the film to a groundbreaking achievement: the first female-directed motion picture to soar past the billion-dollar mark in box office earnings! The film’s success goes beyond mere numbers—the Barbie movie breathed new life into the movie theater industry following a pandemic-induced slump.

Greta Gerwig being interviewed at a reception for the Barbie movie at the British Embassy in D.C.
Director Greta Gerwig being interviewed about the Barbie movie. She became the first female director to have a $1B film. “Barbie Movie Reception” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by UKinUSA

Of course, Barbie has long been a cultural phenomenon. However, she is not the first doll to revive an industry after an economically catastrophic event.

Barbie movie marketing promotion included a life-size doll box for photo ops.
The Barbie movie marketing promotions were widespread this summer. Many locations included a life-size box to take photos and become a real doll! “Barbie Movie Reception” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by UKinUSA

Be a Doll

In March of 1959, nearly 14 years after Germany’s surrender to the Allied forces and the conclusion of World War II, Barbie made her debut. She emerged as a direct result of the war’s aftermath, with subsequent economic prosperity in the United States and the baby boom positioning the fashion doll for commercial success. However, Barbie’s origins lie with another post-war fashion doll, albeit one targeted at a more mature audience.

During a visit to Germany, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler encountered the provocative Lilli doll, an adult novelty toy designed to titillate men with its dress-up and undress features. This encounter sparked Handler’s idea of adapting the same fashion doll concept but aiming it at young girls, instead—a departure from the prevalent baby doll offerings of the time.

The original Bild Lilli Doll, precursor to Barbie
The Bild Lilli doll, shown here as she was originally sold, was the inspiration for Mattel’s Barbie doll. The dolls were marketed as “erotic” gag gifts for men. “Silke Knaak personal Bild-Lilli Collecti” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by teadrinker

Interestingly, the Lilli doll was a comic book character made manifest. In 1945, in war-ravaged and defeated Germany, a man named Axel Springer established a publishing company which would later launch an anti-communist pictorial daily broadsheet called Bild-Zeitung. The inaugural edition showcased a comic strip featuring a provocative blonde named Lilli who captured the post-war zeitgeist. The sexy Lilli became popular enough that she was made into a doll a few years later, the very doll that Ruth Handler encountered in 1956 and which sparked the inspiration for Barbie. In fact, Mattel even purchased the rights to the Bild Lilli doll in the 1960s!

The original Lilli comic cartoon as it appeared in Bild Zeitung's first issue in June 1952
The original Lilli cartoon as it appeared in the June 1952 inaugural issue of Bild-Zeitung. Upon being told that she will meet a tall, rich, handsome man, Lilli asks the fortune teller for his name and address.

In many ways, Barbie represents the rise of American cultural dominance after Europe was decimated by war.

Théâtre de la Mode

The notion of fashion dolls, dolls designed to wear stylish ensembles, wasn’t entirely novel. In the 16th century, they served as a common method for clothing makers to promote their fashions. This was particularly important since travel to fashion hubs was difficult and mass media to advertise clothing collections did not exist. Thus, miniature dolls clad in the latest styles were dispatched to royal courts to showcase fabric qualities and clothing designs.

1600 fashion doll before Barbie
An example of a fashion doll from 1600 in the collection of the Statens historika museer in Sweden. This doll was created to show off the qualities of the textiles and the design of the dress.

In 1944, this concept found new life after Paris was liberated during World War II. Robert Ricci (son of couturier Nina Ricci) sought to rejuvenate the French fashion industry, which had endured years of hardship under German occupation. Amid ongoing textile scarcities, Ricci and fashion journalist Paul Caldaguès devised a solution: crafting miniature clothes to conserve fabric and adorning dolls with these creations.

Champs-Élysées parade liberation of Paris WWII
Crowds of French citizens line the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to celebrate the liberation of Paris form Nazi control on August 26, 1944. Photo by Jack Downey.
Theatre de la Mode fashion doll in 1940s wedding dress. Maryhill Museum of Art.
For the Theatre de la Mode exhibition, mid-1940s fashions were rendered in miniature as a response to severe textile shortages. The small fashions were then draped on 27.5″ dolls. “Maryhill Museum of Art 64” (CC BY 2.0) by Glen Bledsoe
Maryhill Museum of Art Theatre de la Mode miniature accessories.
Even miniature accessories like shoes, purses, and jewelry from the likes of Cartier were created for the dolls to wear. “Maryhill Museum – Théȃtre de la Mode –” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Joe Mabel

Aided by Lucien Lelong, president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, Ricci rallied the era’s leading couturiers, including figures like Balenciaga, Balmain, Lanvin, and the house of Hermes. Accompanied by skilled artists and artisans, they embarked on creating the Théâtre de la Mode—an exhibition featuring wire-and-plaster dolls standing 27.5 inches tall, elegantly dressed in couture fashion. Beyond being a visual delight, the exhibition aimed to raise relief funds for war-battered France and offered the couture houses a platform to once again showcase their creativity. Théâtre de la Mode opened in March 1945 at the Louvre and proved a tremendous success!

A close-up of a 1940s fashion doll for the Theatre de la Mode exhibition showing the wire-frame body and plaster head.
A close-up shot shows one of the fully-dressed fashion dolls created by artist Jean Saint-Martin with plaster head by Joan Rebull. The artisans made the dolls from wire frames so that they would not appear too much like toys. “Maryhill Museum of Art – 61” (CC BY 2.0) by Glen Bledsoe

Setting the Stage

Theatre de la Mode fashion dolls at the MAryhill Museum of Art. The set is a recreations by Anne Surgers of "At the Palais Royale" by Andre Dignimont.
Dolls stand in various poses to show off 1946 fashions in this scene featuring a background of the Palais-Royale by artist André Dignimont, as recreated in the 1980s by Anne Surgers. “Maryhill Museum of Art 59” (CC BY 2.0) by Glen Bledsoe

The Théâtre de la Mode showcased top Paris designers and Europe’s notable theatrical and interior designers. Christian Bérard, a painter and scenic designer, served as the project’s artistic director. He was renowned for designing Vogue covers and worked often with the Ballets Russes.

Christian Berard Vogue Magazine Covers Illustrations
Christian Bérard had a very expressive and unique painting style, which set the direction for various Vogue cover illustrations he did in the 1930s.
Christian Berard Theatre de la Mode
In an attempt at embedded narrative, Christian Bérard created a tableau he called Le Théâtre.

Bérard created his own set featuring a miniature theater with a tiny chandelier in a reference to the larger show itself. However, he also guided a number of high-profile artists and set designers like André Dignimont, Jean-Denis Malclès, and Jean Cocteau.

Cocteau’s tableau is an homage to French filmmaker René Clair’s “I Married a Witch.” It features a large room with bombed out holes that show a peek at the destroyed city of Paris beyond, while a witch on a broom takes flight through the ceiling.

Jean Cocteau Theatre de la Mode
Cocteau was the only one who seems to have acknowledged the devastation suffered by the city of Paris in his tableau.
André Dignimont's "At the Palais-Royale" set for the Theatre de la Mode
Above, we see André Dignimont’s sketch for his tableau titled “At the Palais-Royale.” The image below shows the tableau as recreated by Anne Surgers.
Jean-Denis Malclès Theatre de la Mode Le Jardin Incomparable
The final “Incomparable Garden” tableau by painter and decorator Jean-Denis Malclès (as recreated by Anne Surgers) is very faithful to the concept sketch.

More appropriately for this blog, Georges Geffroy, a renowned 20th-century interior designer crafted a set for the 1945 exhibition. He is one of my own inspirations and I’ve touched on his work previously on this blog here. His “At Home” tableau shows an elegant Parisian apartment in miniature decorated with gold damask and neoclassical motifs.

Georges Geffroy book
My copy of a monograph on Georges Geffroy’s work. He was one of the great decorators of the 20th century.
Georges Geffroy Un Salon du Style Theatre de la Mode
Georges Geffroy’s tableau, “Un Salon de Style.” The window curtains, barely opened, suggest that the war-torn Paris beyond the windows cannot compare to the elegance behind closed doors.

Unfortunately, this set was among those that did not make it across the Atlantic when the show went stateside. However, Geffroy did get to design the interiors of the actual exhibition hall in New York!

Georges Geffroy decor for the Theatre de la Mode Exhibition in New York City.
Among Geffroy’s hallmarks was the widespread use of velvet in his interiors. For this corridor at the NYC exhibition of Theatre de la Mode, he plastered the walls and columns with luxurious gold velvet, accented in green velvet.
Georges Geffroy Theatre de la Mode New York City concept
This concept for the design of the New York City exhibition shows an 18th-century style niche featuring a French country house.

Currently, the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Washington displays the Théâtre de la Mode dolls and sets on a rotation of three sets every two years. The museum sits on a cliff over the scenic Columbia River.

Theatre de la Mode Maryhill Museum of Art display
The fashion dolls as presently displayed at the Maryhill Museum of Art in a tableau by Louis Touchagues (recreated by Ann Surgers) titled “La Rue de la Paix en la Place Vendôme.”
Columbia river and gorge in Washington and Oregon
A view of the mighty Columbia River which separates Washington state from Oregon. This section of the river is quite rural and arid.

Dolls On Tour

So, how did the dolls end up in rural Washington State, of all places?

Theatre de la Mode London ad
An advertisement for the London exhibition of Théâtre de la Mode.

After the Paris success, the exhibition briefly went to Barcelona, then continued its journey to London and Leeds to great fanfare. Later, partial showcases of Théâtre de la Mode were presented in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Vienna.

Next, the dolls sailed across the Atlantic to New York City with all-new 1946 fashion designs. The De Young Museum in San Francisco hosted the final stop, starting in September 1946. However, after the San Francisco exhibition, the Chambre Syndicale chose not to ship the dolls back to France. At some point, the dolls were placed in the basement of San Francisco’s City of Paris department store, one of the exhibition’s sponsors, and the sets were lost.

Theatre de la Mode US posters
These posters were created to advertise the American exhibitions of Théâtre de la Mode.

The Maryhill Museum of Art eventually acquired the dolls in 1952 thanks to Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the wife of San Francisco sugar magnate Adolph B. Spreckels and sister-in-law to John D. Spreckels (who donated the California Legion of Honor to San Francisco and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion to San Diego, respectively). She was able to convince Paul Verdier, the president of the City of Paris department store, to donate them to the museum in Washington state where they were displayed for 30 years in relative obscurity, until they were “rediscovered” when sent to Paris in 1983 for restoration. It was in the 1980s, too, that many of the sets were caringly recreated by Anne Surgers from photographs and text descriptions.

Oregon Journal from July 1952 advertising the Theatre de la Mode dolls
This clip form the Oregon Journal dated July 1952 heralds the arrival of the dolls to the Maryhill museum. (From the Artifex Almanach blog)

And that’s the story of how these important French fashion dolls, symbols or French resistance and resilience during World War II and precursors to fashion dolls like Barbie, ended up in the Pacific Northwest where they can still be seen to this day!

Maryhill museum building
The Maryhill museum building was originally intended to be a mansion for American businessman Samual Hill.


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