In 1949, a train arrived in the USA from France with forty-nine boxcars for each state. Termed the “Gratitude” or “Merci” train, this festive locomotive was sent in response to a large-scale American relief package sent to France in 1947.
The boxcars arrived on the ship Magellan in New York Harbor in February 1949. The celebration was attended by over two hundred thousand people and included a ticker-tape parade as the New York boxcar traveled up Broadway.
Filled with gifts of gratitude, the treasures included a collection of forty-nine dolls dressed in French fashions designed by prominent couturiers of the time reflecting French dress from the early seventeenth century through the early twentieth-century. Each doll, measuring approximately 24″ tall and made of open wire, was outfitted by a different designer to represent the evolution of French fashion. The figures, which are in the Costume Institute collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, have been photographed by the Museum and have accompanying descriptions for each figurine summarizing the designers and their influences.
The design of the doll itself, originally created for Théâtre de la Mode, was conceived by Eileen Bonabel. The head, made of plaster, was created by the artist Rebull; and the hairstyles are made of human hair. Each designer selected a year between 1715 and 1906 to fashion their doll. Their sources of inspiration included art, literature and historic fashion plates. As summarized on the Met’s website: “The Gratitude Train fashion dolls represent a unique moment in the history of couture as they represent not only creative interpretations of historic fashions by the greatest designers of the period, but also are infused with the unparalleled skill, care, and attention to detail that would have been applied in their full-size counterparts.”
For example, the 1715 Marcel Rochas doll was inspired by Jean-Antoine Watteau’s (1684-1721) painting L’Enseigne de Gersaint (1720) featuring a particular style of dress – a gown arranged in the back with loose box pleats which became known as Watteau pleats.
Jean-Michael Moreau le Jeune‘s (1741-1814) painting “Le Rendez-vous” was the inspiration for the 1779 doll designed by Lucille Manguin. Moreau le Jeune was best known as an illustrator capturing “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” (see more on this doll here).
The dolls are part of the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Syndicat de la Couture de Paris, 1949.