COLLECTIONS : Now . . .and Then : The 1940s: A traveling exhibit of miniature mannequins shows off styles of postwar Paris.

Fashion history buffs have been fascinated by "Theatre de la Mode," an exhibition that opened last spring at the Louvre in Paris, moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art here this month and will tour the United States (cities undetermined) and Japan next spring.

A display of 150 vintage miniature mannequins dressed in couture creations from the mid-40s, the show reveals some surprising trivia: The Nazis understood the economic importance of fashion and the role of style in French culture. In fact, they almost transferred the entire French industry to Berlin.

But they didn't. And in the spring of 1945, after the liberation of Paris, the couturiers began to rebuild their industry. Materials were so scarce, however, that they had to show their styles on 27-inch wire figurines.

In 1945 and 1946, more than 200 of these dolls, clothed by Balenciaga, Lanvin, Balmain and Worth, among others, were arranged on miniature stages designed by France's artists and set designers.

The exhibit, sponsored by the Chambre Syndicale, the couturier trade organization, was named "Theatre de la Mode" and dispatched to the major European cities, as well as to New York and San Francisco.

"After the war, everybody wanted the idea of dream, opulence, femininity, and fantasy," said Costume Institute associate curator Katell le Bourhis, who organized the New York exhibition.

After the final stop of the 1946 tour in San Francisco, the mannequins were donated to the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Wash.

Several years ago, the figurines came to the attention of Stanley Garfinkle, a historian preparing a documentary on Christian Dior. "The French had completely forgotten about them," Garfinkle said.

The dolls were sent back to Paris to be restored, and the "Theatre de la Mode" was re-created. It will eventually return to Maryhill Museum.

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