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A Story of International Friendship: The Gratitude Train Mannequins

Jessica G. Rall
Research Assistant

Presentation Slides

In 1949, the Brooklyn Museum received a gift of forty-nine fashion mannequins created by the Syndicale de la Couture de Paris representing a timeline of the history of French fashion. The mannequins were part of the Gratitude Train, a gesture of appreciation for aid sent to France from the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Instead of dividing them among the states as originally planned, the Syndicale gave the entire group to the Brooklyn Museum so that they could remain united as a group and be appreciated for what they are: a singular example of French craftsmanship and design ingenuity.

Beginning in 1947, a gesture of international friendship was germinating across the United States. Drew Pearson, a syndicated Washington political columnist and radio personality voiced the idea that America should come to the aid of war-torn France and Italy. As word spread across the country the project grew until seven hundred boxcars were filled with forty million dollars' worth of supplies, far exceeding the original goal of eighty cars. After traveling across the county to gather individual contributions, the boxcars were shipped out of New York, arriving in Le Havre on December 18, 1947.

The following year the people of France, moved to action by this goodwill, wished to express their gratitude. A veteran and railroad worker named Andre Picard had the idea for the Gratitude Train. Like the American Friendship Train, the project relied on the generosity of individuals who arrived in droves to donation centers bearing gifts of art, food, wine, needlework, children's mannequins, letters, war medals, books, furniture, and homemade toys. The project was soon taken over by the French War Veteran's Association. It was decided that forty-nine boxcars would be sent full of gifts. Each state would receive one car, with Washington D.C. and the Territory of Hawaii sharing the forty-ninth car. Each boxcar and every gift inside it was labeled with the emblem of the Gratitude Train, an image of the front of a train with flowers representing Flanders Field. Individuals were encouraged to donate anything they could give; children made drawings, or sacrificed beloved toys; people gave hand-crocheted doilies and ashtrays made from broken mirror. However, with the humble gifts from individuals, priceless works of art and historical artifacts were included. Among these treasure were a bust of Benjamin Franklin by Jean Antoine Houdon, a Légion d’Honneur insignia presented to Napoleon, a Louis XV carriage, the first motorcycle ever built, live trees, and fifty rare paintings. The President of France, Vincent Auriol donated forty-nine Sévres vases, and a walking stick belonging to the Marquis de Lafayette was given by one of his ancestors. The city of Lyon provided dozens of silk wedding dresses, and an anonymous man gave a set of black lingerie he intended for "a beautiful blonde." According to newspaper reports, one woman, too poor to provide anything of material value, rushed to one of the freshly painted cars saying, "I have nothing else to send, I will send them my fingerprints" as she pressed her fingers into the wet paint.

The donations were so abundant that over nine thousand gifts had to be left behind. The boxcars were loaded on the merchant ship Magellan, leaving Havre and arriving in New York Harbor in February of 1949. Over two hundred thousand people attended the New York celebration welcoming the train which included a ticker-tape parade as the New York box car was taken up Broadway in Manhattan.

Once the forty-and-eights arrived in the United States they were divided into direction to the South, West, and New England and placed on flatcars, as they were too wide for American rails. Each state organized committees to catalog the contents of their cars. Many of the gifts were auctioned for charity, while others were given to museums and libraries. Some gifts, such as an engraved Joan of Arc bell included instructions for distribution. The city of Annecy cast the 500-pound bell as a gift to Cardinal Spillman with the inscription, "I am the ambassadress that sings of gratitude and friendship." Cardinal Spillmen gave the bell to Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Unfortunately Hawaii, at the time still a territory, which had donated two carloads full of sugar on the American Friendship Train, shared a car with Washington D.C. When the Hawaiians received their shared forty-and-eight they were surprised to find it full only of packing straw; the car had been completely emptied in Washington D.C., leaving only the car itself as a gift.

The Chambre Syndicale de la Couture de Parisienne, who to raise money for the French people, had two years prior organized the Theatre de la Mode, a group of fashion mannequins dressed in clothing from the 1947 couture collections, chose to create a new set of fashion mannequins, this time representing the evolution of French fashion rather than the current season. Once again, the Syndicale tapped the most talented and well-known fashion designers, hairstylists, and accessory designers of the time to create these miniature masterpieces.

While the purpose of Theatre de la Mode was to reinvigorate the French fashion industry by showing contemporary designs by each couture house, The Gratitude Train mannequins were created to celebrate the past two hundred years of French fashion. Each house which participated designed one ensemble representing an era in fashion from 1715 to 1906. The inspiration for these historic fashions came from fine art as well as contemporaneous fashion plates. Fabrics used to create the mannequins were donated by the Union des Industries Textile, the Fédération de la Soire, the Comité Central de la Laine, the Syndicale Général de l’Industrie Cotonnière, and the Négociants en tissus speciaux pour la Haute Couture.

Though the original intention was to include a mannequin in each boxcar, it soon became evident that this was impractical, and that the set belonged together. In 1948 the Brooklyn Museum had opened the Edward C. Blum Design Laboratory, making it the center for study for fashion design professionals in the United States. The Design Lab provided the design community with an opportunity to exchange ideas and draw inspiration from the vast collections of the Brooklyn Museum. For this reason Brooklyn was chosen as the permanent home for the entire collection. Here the mannequins could be properly cared for and studied as a complete series representing the progression of French fashion. Arriving in March of 1949, an exhibition of the mannequins was planned immediately.

The date of the first mannequin, 1715 also marks the death of Louis XIV (1638–1715). The reign of the Sun King brought about significant changes in the cultural landscape of France as well as its political standing within Europe. Some of the greatest artists and authors, from Molière to Rigaud thrived under Louis XIV's rule. His actions led the dominance of the French fashion industry through the encouragement of tapestry producers and the Lyon silk industry. Louis' patronage of visual artists and literary figures placed France in a position of cultural dominance that continued well past his seventy-two–year reign.

Marcel Rochas took inspiration for his 1715 dress from the painting L'Enseigne de Gersaint by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684–1721). Watteau's signature was the fête galante, a genre characterized by outdoor parties and bucolic scenes. This work was created for the shop of his friend and art dealer, Gersaint, where it is believed to have hung in the window as a sign. In addition to being an interesting study of everyday life in an art dealer's shop, it highlights the artist's favored style of female dress. The fashionable women in Watteau's fêtes galantes were so often depicted wearing this style, that they became known as Watteau pleats.

Molyneux's contribution (BM 49.139.14), representing 1762 was inspired by a portrait of Madame de Pompadour by de la Tour. Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704–1788) was the French portrait artist to King Louis XV of France from 1750 to 1773. During his tenure, one of his many subjects was that of Madame de Pompadour (1721–1764), the famous courtesan and official mistress of Louis XV. Madame Pompadour (1755) depicts her in her home surrounded by books and works of art, alluding to her desire to enlighten the French court with the intellectual developments of Parisian culture at the time.

Les Adieux by Jean-Michel Moreau le jeune provided the inspiration for the 1774 dress by Jean Dessès (BM 49.139.12). Moreau le jeune (1741–1814) was a French artist best known for his illustrations recording fashionable dress and interiors in the Monument de costume physique et morale published by L. F. Prault in 1776–1783. The original etching and engraving is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. Moreau le jeune's painting Le Rendez-vous was the inspiration for the 1779 mannequin (BM 49.139.36) by Lucille Manguin.

The art of Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) provided the inspiration for the house of Lanvin's contribution to the Gratitude Train. Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), was a Dutch-born painter who later settled in England was one of the most renowned artists of the late nineteenth century. He painted classical subjects, most often scenes of the luxurious Roman Empire. Known for his meticulous research, Alma-Tadema's paintings were used in the twentieth century as source material for several Hollywood movies including, Ben Hur, Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments, and Gladiator. The classical draping and brilliant colors evoke not only Alma Tadema's style but also that of Lanvin.

The designers and dressmakers took great care and went to considerable trouble to make these creations. But it was not only the couturiers who contributed to their creation. The mannequin by Elsa Schiaparelli, representing the year 1906 featured high-heeled calfskin boots with functional jet button closures made by Perugia, Schiaparelli's favored shoemaker. Galinkas and Berger showed incredible care and attention to detail in their shoes for the 1855 mannequin. The suede wingtip foxing is rendered in minute detail on the boots for the ensemble by Vera Borea.

Many of the seamstresses also went above and beyond in their construction. The 1774 mannequin by Dessès wears a cream taffeta petticoat under her skirt, with steel pannier hoops trimmed in black velvet ribbon over cotton drawers, a detail that would have gone unnoticed to most viewers. Under the gown by Marcelle Dormoy the mannequin wears finely crafted mull pantaloons trimmed in a double layer of Valenciennes lace. The exquisite construction of the Gratitude Train mannequins is a testament to the French legacy of superior craftsmanship as well as design.

The Brooklyn Museum was chosen as the repository for the Gratitude Train mannequins because of its contribution to the design industry. The year before in 1948, the Edward C. Blum Design Lab was opened, creating a center of study for fashion design professionals. The Design Lab provided the design community with an opportunity to exchange ideas and draw inspiration from the vast collections of the Brooklyn Museum. Their transfer now to The Metropolitan Museum of Art signifies new opportunities for the study and appreciation of these miniature masterpieces.

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