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LEAH GOUGET-LEVY // Nothing Changes yet Everything Changes. Temporality and Couture in La Mode Rêvée (1939)


Nothing Changes yet Everything Changes. Temporality and Couture in La Mode Rêvée (1939): A Bergsonian Analysis

Fig. 1. Antoine Watteau, Embarquement pour Cythère, 1717, 129 x 194cm, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Copyright © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) /Stéphane Maréchalle.

An American film star falls asleep in front of Antoine Watteau’s famous painting, The Embarkation for Cythera (1717), in the Musée du Louvre in Paris (Fig. 1). As she dreams, the graceful women in Watteau’s pastoral idyll leave behind their painted surroundings after a rain shower soaks them through. In need of a change of clothes they escape into modern day Paris, seeking the creations of the city’s great couturiers: Lanvin, Germaine Lecomte, Lucien Lelong, Paquin, Patou, Nina Ricci, Schiaparelli, and Worth. Watteau’s beauties exchange old fashions for new. When the film star awakes, she too finds herself leaving the Musée in search of couture.

This is the narrative of La Mode rêvée, a short black and white film commissioned by the French government for the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Part of a series of films concerning aspects of French life and culture, it was directed by Marcel L’Herbier (1888–1979).[1] One of France’s leading filmmakers of the period, L’Herbier’s prolific career has been somewhat overlooked in critical accounts of French cinema, particularly in the English-speaking world. Best known for his experimental silent films, such as L’Inhumaine (1924) and L’Argent (1928), he is sometimes referred to as a narrative avant-garde or Impressionist filmmaker.[2]

This article explores the way in which La Mode rêvée promoted Parisian couture in the context of 1939 and the New York World’s Fair, as an example of French cultural propaganda directed at America. According to L’Herbier’s own definition, La Mode rêvée can be characterised as féerie-réaliste (realist-fantasy), a genre in which the dream features as the key narrative device. As suggested by the film’s title, dream is central in La Mode rêvée (‘Dreamed Fashion’). It is via the principal dream sequence that the film achieves its promotional purpose, through the playful representation of the temporality of couture as Watteau’s women emerge into 1930s Paris. This article focuses on the way in which La Mode rêvée represents the temporality of couture specifically in relation to 1930s fashion. The film documents contemporary fashion; the couture dresses into which Watteau’s women change are created by leading couturiers and correspond in style to their 1939 collections.

Time is often referred to as one of fashion’s key features. Barbara Vinken comments that ‘Fashion’s most intimate relationship is its relation to time’.[3] However, the nature of the relationship is a continued source of scholarly debate.[4] This article will introduce Henri Bergson’s theory of duration (durée) to suggest a new way in which the temporality of fashion, and its representation, might be considered in terms of simultaneity. Conceived in opposition to mathematic and scientific notions of linear, chronological time, duration is an experiential ‘theory of knowledge in the wider context of a theory of life’, concerned with the workings of the conscious.[5] Whereas mathematic time is spatialized, conceived as a series of temporal points arranged in succession along a line in space, duration is ‘succession without distinction’.[6] Although Bergson’s theory has been applied to certain creative practices, such as art and cinema, it does not appear to have been discussed as yet in relation to fashion.[7]


The temporal theme in La Mode rêvée aligns with that of the 1939 New York World’s Fair itself. Under the banner of ‘The World of Tomorrow’, the Fair was a celebration of exciting possibilities for the future, in particular for America. With exhibits such as ‘Democracity’, a meticulously planned society of the future, it presented both an entertaining and practical vision of tomorrow’s utopia. France’s contribution to the Fair, in the form of its Pavilion and related exhibits, engaged with the temporal theme in a complex way. This reflects the way in which France sought to frame its national identity, both in the context of the Fair and with regards to its relationship with America more generally.

The interwar years marked a period of notable cultural exchange between France and America. However, the relationship between the two countries was far from straightforward, as characterised by a combination of admiration, competition and distrust.[8] Between 1936 and 1939 France was making new efforts to target America with cultural propaganda in the hope of gaining a sympathetic commercial and political ally that was increasingly powerful on the world stage.[9] Its propaganda was directed especially at east-coast elites and tended to be focused on promoting its cultural assets, a strategy with which France was perceived to be particularly successful at the time.[10] French participation in the New York World’s Fair is a characteristic example of this strategy. Promotional documents about the French Pavilion reveal the complex negotiations on the part of the French to cultivate friendship whilst maintaining national, and especially cultural, superiority and prestige.[11]

The relationship between France and America in terms of fashion might be said to exemplify the conflicted affiliation of the two countries in the interwar years. Until the 1930s Parisian fashion had dominated American tastes and markets, enjoying a privileged status as ‘the sole arbiter of style’.[12] America was a vital supporter of French couture, and the two had enjoyed a relationship of mutual dependence over a long period. However, in the 1930s Parisian couture was facing a number of challenges from America. Key among these was the growth of the American fashion industry, and the rise of ready-to-wear markets.[13] These presented direct competition to Parisian couture, which also had been impacted by the Great Depression.[14] France’s promotion of couture at the New York World’s Fair reflects its attempt to prove and maintain its dominance in matters of fashion. The way in which France engaged with the Fair’s temporal theme was crucial to this.

Despite the Fair’s forward-looking theme, the French Pavilion placed unmistakable emphasis on France’s cultural past rather than on imagining its possible future. Exhibits illustrated the history of France as reflected in its art, and included recreations of traditional French interiors. France’s luxury industries played a significant role in the Pavilion display. Haute Couture and Fur was the largest display among these, which also included jewellery and perfume. The Haute Couture and Fur exhibit was organised by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the regulatory body responsible for representing its select group of couturier members at prestigious events such as the World’s Fair.[15] In 1939 its president was Lucien Lelong and preparation for the Pavilion display was directed by Jeanne Lanvin. It seems almost certain that La Mode rêvée was conceived in direct relation to this exhibit. The eight couturiers whose designs feature in the film also participated in the Pavilion display; in an interview for Le Figaro on 13 August 1939, L’Herbier reported that it was the Chambre Syndicale’s president and its general secretary, Jean Labusquière, who proposed the idea for the film, for which he then created the script.[16] The film, however, was screened in the Pavilion’s theatre, rather than as part of the exhibit.[17]

The Haute Couture and Fur display reflected France’s emphasis on its cultural past, in lieu of imagining an ideal future. Twenty couturiers participated in total, each exhibiting a dress representing their ideal silhouette. The dresses were displayed in niches; some were created in fabric and draped over plaster sculptures, others were sculpted into the plaster itself. They were intended to demonstrate the inspiration and style particular to each couturier, and together they were to reveal the vital qualities of couture: ‘The aim was to show to the United States a general overview, evoking the core values from which French fashion draws its international prestige.’[18] In attempting to formulate an ideal representation of couture, the couturiers claimed to eschew contemporary fashions which, it was argued, soon would have been outdated, and instead sought to demonstrate the ‘achievement of the great Paris dressmaking houses as inspired by an art that outlasts a moment’.[19] In order to do so, they referred to the past. The artistic past was evoked through the classicising architectural scheme and the sculptural figures which were grouped around a statue of Phidias in the middle of the room. It also emerged through the couturier’s inspirations in several of the dresses themselves. For example, the full skirted looks of Paquin, Buryere, Marcel Dormoy and Nina Ricci, and the figure-hugging fishtail designs of Maggy Rouff and Worth displayed eighteenth and nineteenth century influences.

Despite the couturiers’ claims that the display surpassed the contemporary, their designs are, in fact, characteristically 1930s in style. Fashion historians traditionally have described the 1930s as a decade in which fashion looked to the past for inspiration, and the dresses on display in the French Pavilion were an example of this trend.[20] The couturiers referenced a range of period and historical influences. In general terms, 1930s fashion was characterised by a return to pre-1920s longer length skirts and traditionally more feminine styles. However, 1930s fashion can broadly be described in terms of two stylistic themes, both of which are rooted in historical influences.[21] The first is Classicism, which was enjoying a widespread revival in the arts, and can be identified in Alix’s draped design in the Pavilion display.[22] The second is Romanticism, exemplified by the Paquin gown, with its nipped waist and full skirt.

Far from foregoing the contemporary through focus on the past, the Haute Couture and Fur display testifies to the interconnectedness of the past and present. Indeed, contemporary accounts were at pains to emphasise that the French Pavilion was not merely looking back for the sake of the past itself. One article explains that the Pavilion shows what ‘the contribution of France today, which is explained by yesterday’s France, can bring to the World of Tomorrow’.[23] This suggests that the emphasis on the past was part of a notion of temporality which conceived of past, present and future as interrelated. The couture display was said to show ‘Parisian high couture, inspired by art, nourished on culture and submitting its most diverse fantasies or its transformations and the novelty of its nuances’.[24] The couturiers’ designs, although inspired by France’s artistic and cultural past, were crucially also novel and therefore of the present. The past, then, was (re)interpreted through novelty. The novelty of contemporary France is explained by the influence of the past, and shows what French couture can bring to the future: to The World of Tomorrow.

France’s approach to the theme of the Fair presents a more complex narrative of temporality than might initially be suggested by the theme of ‘The World of Tomorrow’. In an effort to assert its cultural prowess, France emphasised its glorious past as the source of its national identity and prestige. In so doing, France sought to express a notion of temporality in which past, present and future were mutually (inter)dependent. This conception is represented as an integral quality of French culture and couture, and is also at the heart of the representation of the temporality of 1930s couture in La Mode rêvée.


The plastic arts, as the mise-en-scène (or, to use L’Herbier’s terminology, mise-en-film), possess a particular significance in L’Herbier’s films. According to the director, the mise-en-film act as carriers of meaning, revealing the interior reality of things, which he describes as the ‘psychological’.[25] In an interview in which L’Herbier describes mise-en-film as the language of cinema, he explains that ‘the use of certain visual elements, makes us understand that it is a psychological situation or a psychological drama’.[26] In La Mode rêvée, the dresses are the primary mise-en-film and the principal container and conveyer of ‘psychological’ meaning. The ‘psychological situation’ in the film pertains to temporality, which is conveyed through the dresses as carriers of temporal meaning.

Couture’s past is at the centre of La Mode rêvée’s representation of its temporality. The central scenes of the film are those in which, in the American film star’s dream, Watteau’s women, one-by-one, visit a different couturier’s salon. The crucial moment comes as each woman appears dressed in her new, 1930s, gown. In most cases, this takes place after she is depicted arriving in her original dress, allowing for direct visual and verbal comparison with the new. Assessment by the viewer is actively encouraged and demonstrated through careful staging and dialogue. This is how the temporal theme begins to play out.

Fig. 2. Marcel L’Herbier, La Mode Rêvée, 1939, film, Gaumont Pathé archives, St Ouen. © Gaumont Pathé.

The first woman arrives at Paquin in an eighteenth-century ‘open robe’, a style that consisted of a bodice joined to an overskirt left open at the front to reveal an underskirt; the silhouette features a defined waist and a full skirt (Fig. 2).[27] Once the woman is dressed in her new Paquin creation, the camera tilts up the cascading length of the skirt as the couturier’s assistant holds out its mass of light, gauzy fabric embellished with dark lace panels. The shape of the new dress is undeniably similar to the woman’s original one. If this has escaped the notice of the viewer, it has not escaped that of the woman, and she exclaims, ‘It looks like my old dress. Nothing changes!’ (Fig. 3).[28]

Fig. 3. Marcel L’Herbier, La Mode Rêvée, 1939, film, Gaumont Pathé archives, St Ouen. © Gaumont Pathé.

The past was often an inspiration for 1930s fashion and this is central to the representation of couture in La Mode rêvée. The neo-romantic trend gained prominence around 1938 and in 1939, with a move towards a silhouette that privileged soft curves created by a high bust, slim, defined waist and accentuated hips.[29] This can be seen in a photograph of a Paquin gown in French Vogue in March 1939 (Fig. 4). The model holds out the skirt which billows to one side, trimmed with satin bows. The v-neckline of her bodice skims her shoulders and draws attention to her neat waist.

Fig. 4. André, Une Pastorale Anglaise A La Manière de Romney: Tulle et Rubans de Satin,
1939, black and white photograph, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Copyright Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The Paquin gown in La Mode rêvée can be identified as an example of the same ‘romantic’ style. The scene at Paquin emphasises that the new dress embodies the same qualities as the original one, and therefore initially seems to suggest that the two are analogous. The film thus makes links between the late 1930s designs of the couturiers and the fashion of the 1700s as depicted by Watteau. Of course, the reality of these historical linkages is more complex than the film depicts. The ‘romantic’ style of the late 1930s was directly inspired by the fashions of the mid 1800s, not the 1700s (although connections can be made between the latter two). In the film, historical accuracy is not of central concern. Rather, what is at stake is the way in which fashion’s temporal links are depicted in order to promote contemporary couture. By connecting fashions of the 1700s and 1930s, the film promotes contemporary French couture’s superiority as a direct consequence of its illustrious heritage. La Mode rêvée explicitly suggests that fashion’s present is crucially connected to its past; that the character of contemporary couture is (in)formed by its antecedents. The film promotes couture through representation of the relationship between couture’s present and past.

The question of fashion’s relationship with its past is a central theme of scholarly debate concerning its temporality. One conception is that fashion is cyclical. Fashion historians such as Agnes Brooks Young and Barbara Burman Baines explain fashion as a series of cycles: repeating styles that reappear at intervals through history.[30] Brooks Young connects successive styles to previous iterations. Fashion’s present is connected directly to the past through repetition. However, fashion’s present is not merely composed of reiterations of the past. Brooks Young also argues that the turnover of cycles is a consequence of fashion’s need for continuous change.[31] Similarly, Burman Baines emphasises that revivals are never a perfect recreation of the past, as these are overlaid with new styles.[32] The cyclical conception, therefore, recognises that fashion of the present is related to fashion of the past, privileging the notion of structured repetitions, yet also acknowledges fashion’s impulse to the new and to change.

In recent years, the relationship between fashion’s past and present has been conceived in terms of a less mechanical formulation. Ulrich Lehmann and Caroline Evans both have discussed Walter Benjamin’s concept of fashion as the ‘Tigersprung’ (tiger’s leap).[33] Benjamin described the Tigersprung as a leap through which the present joins with the past: ‘fashion is able to jump from the contemporary to the ancient and back without resting solely in one temporal or aesthetic configuration’.[34] Evans uses the Tigersprung and similar spatial metaphors to juxtapose nineteenth with twentieth century fashion and suggest how fashion’s past resonates in its present.[35] She quotes Lehmann saying, ‘“in order to become the new, fashion always cites the old – not simply the ancient or classical, but their reflection within its own sartorial past.” Yet what is interesting in such citations is not the similarities but the differences between them’.[36] She makes it clear that although she discusses fashion’s relationship with the past in her study, she does so ultimately to ‘illuminate the present’.[37]

Brooks Young and Benjamin were writing in the 1930s and it is notable that during this period not only were designers looking to fashion’s past for inspiration, but also theorists attempting to determine the nature of fashion’s relationship with its past. This can be associated with a widespread cultural interest in issues concerning time and temporality at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. These themes were explored across several disciplines, including in science by Albert Einstein, history of art by Aby Warburg, literature by H.G Wells, as well as in philosophy by Bergson.

Although both the cyclical and Tigersprung models focus on the relationship between fashion’s past and present, they also recognise, and even emphasise, the oft-professed notion that fashion is defined by its continuous drive towards novelty. In the scene at Paquin, La Mode rêvée initially seems to represent couture’s past and present as identical. As the film progresses, however, this relationship is revealed to be more complex. Although the women’s new couture gowns are in many ways re-makes of their original ones, the new dresses are defined by an essential quality of difference. This is what makes them so desirable.


The quality of difference demands a more complex consideration of the temporality of fashion than merely interpreting the present as a re-make of the past. In La Mode rêvée the difference between the original and new gowns is most clearly represented through a series of allusions that are made to corsets. The film plays on the idea that Watteau’s women, after escaping from the painting in which they have been trapped in a stagnant, oppressive atmosphere for two hundred years, finally are able to breathe fresh air. At the beginning of the dream sequence, they leap down the stairs of the Musée du Louvre. As they take their first steps into 1939 Paris, they cry ‘some (fresh) air, at last, some air, some air!’[38] Still wearing their original dresses, this moment of contact is emphasised by their billowing skirts as they skip and jump at the prospect of freedom. Their dresses quite literally are receiving a breath of fresh air, but liberation is something that is only fully realised when the women change into their new couture gowns.

This play on the constraint of the painting versus the freedom of contemporary Paris mirrors the way in which the film expresses the differences between the original dresses and the new couture. Although the styles of the couture gowns reference their link with the past, the past is revealed to have produced something new through its materialisation in the present. At Paquin, Watteau’s woman is asked whether she feels comfortable in her new dress. She answers ‘Without my corset, yes!’[39] Similarly, at Lucien Lelong, the couturier’s assistant explains to Watteau’s woman that in the contemporary period dresses could not be as restrictive as they once had been. The woman replies ‘It became so bad. The body needs to breathe’.[40] The film implies that the dresses of the 1700s were just as restrictive and uncomfortable as the painting from which the women had escaped. Whilst still retaining the silhouette of their predecessors, the new couture gowns are by contrast represented as easy to wear and as giving freedom to the body.

Fashion’s present is inextricably bound to its past. Yet, fashion’s present is also defined by its novelty. This dynamic is at the heart of the representation of couture in La Mode rêvée. The question is: how can both of these statements be reconciled in a theory of the temporality of fashion? Bergson’s theory of duration offers a theoretical perspective through which to understand this, by way of simultaneity.

L’Herbier was certainly familiar with Bergson’s theories and he most notably referenced the philosopher in ‘Hermes and Silence’ (1918). This early text was written in response to an ongoing debate between critics Émile Vuillermoz and Paul Souday concerning cinema’s claim to the title of ‘art’. Both drew on Bergson to support their conflicting arguments. For his part, L’Herbier argues that contemporary cinema can be characterised as Bergsonian in nature.[41] L’Herbier’s text is convoluted and frequently opaque. He does not elaborate on the relationship between cinema and Bergsonism other than to suggest that both are concerned with matters of the soul and emotion. However, despite the cryptic nature of L’Herbier’s reference to Bergson’s theories, this does suggest compatibility between the ideas of the film director and the philosopher. Bergson’s theory of duration is a perspective that chimes well with the representation of couture in La Mode rêvée, particularly in relation to the quality of simultaneity. Whereas the cyclical and Tigersprung are models conceptualising fashion’s relationship with its past, Bergson’s theory of duration is one of time itself, and therefore offers a way in which to consider the ontological nature of fashion’s temporality as it is represented in the film.

As noted, Bergson considers duration in terms of the conscious, of which perception and memory are key features. Perception is composed of two elements: actual perception, equating to the present, and memory, equating to the past. The role of memory, therefore, is fundamental to duration. Perception always comprises elements of memory, meaning that the past always permeates the present. Bergson describes two different kinds of memory: ‘pure’ memory which is the ‘virtual existence of the past’ in its most essential sense that always remains apart from the present, and memory-images which are the ‘actualisations of the past in the present’.[42]

                 Bergson uses a diagram of a cone to illustrate his theory. He argues that while ‘pure’ memory is the motionless base, the present is the peak that is forever advancing into the future.[43] Between these two limits exist different ‘planes of consciousness’.[44] The self is constantly moving in the space between the pure past and the present which tends to the future.[45] The manifestation of the past in the present is the progression in which the past, as memory-image, moves through different planes of consciousness. This materialises in the present as part of perception.[46] The experience of temporality, as duration, consists of a continuous contraction and expansion of the different ways in which the past and present come into contact through the planes of consciousness.[47] But the past can only become active once it is inserted into the present, when memory-image joins actual perception.[48] The present, then, is at the intersection between past and future, and the location where the two meet and coalesce.[49] Bergson’s theory thus proposes that duration, as lived experience of time, is the constant interaction between past, present and future. The cyclical model of fashion is always bound to mechanical repetition, and the Tigersprung presents a spatialized and ultimately always disjointed notion of fashion’s past and present through the ‘leap’. In contrast, Bergson’s duration offers a more flexible model, of simultaneity.

Considered through the lens of duration, the relationship between fashion’s past and present, as depicted in the film, can be understood as co-existence. In La Mode rêvée the new couture gowns are represented as embodying couture’s past, through direct comparison with the past itself. Indeed, as Bergson’s theory suggests, the past always manifests in the present. However, this does not mean that the couture gowns represent a direct return to the past. The couture gowns are not simply remakes or straight copies of their eighteenth-century predecessors. As Bergson’s theory indicates, duration is not a question of the past simply becoming duplicated in the present: ‘In life we never simply relive the past, that is, it is not a question of rendering actual what is simply virtual and making the two identical. Being is always the order of difference’.[50] Rather, when the past actualises in the present, it becomes a part of the present (whilst always maintaining its link with the past), which is new, as it always pushes towards the future. As Bergson writes, ‘The more we study the nature of time, the more we shall comprehend that duration means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new’.[51]

As already discussed, the relation with the past has long been recognised as a feature of the fashion of the 1930s. Mary Lynn Stewart, however, argues against characterisations of 1930s fashion as a mere reversion to the past. Using the term ‘hybrid modern’ she explains how the couture industry promoted its designs in the interwar years in part through combining traditional and modern influences.[52] She suggests that rather than representing a step back, the 1930s continued the contemporary trend for simpler and more comfortable designs:

If the couturiers revived the curves and decorative lines in the 1930s dresses, they did not revert to the S-shaped silhouette, flowing skirts, elaborate bodices and ostentatious display of Belle Époque couture. ‘Simple’ and ‘practical’ remained the bywords for modern women.[53]

She thus identifies the past in the present, yet notes the essential quality of difference that is so crucial to Bergson’s theory of duration. Although Stewart discusses 1930s fashion in relation to late nineteenth-century influences, her analysis chimes with the representation of the temporality of couture in La Mode rêvée in relation to the corset or, more precisely, the implied lack of corset (of course, corsets, bras and girdles were worn in this period). If dressing in a modern manner meant to dress simply and comfortably, as Stewart suggests, then the film’s representation of couture in this way perhaps sought to illustrate how the more constrained styles of the past could manifest as part of the present, which pushes towards the future, with the result being the creation of the new. The film’s emphasis on the easy wearability of the couture gowns suggests an attempt to express their modernity. Such qualities were perhaps especially important for the film’s American audience; America was the home of sportswear in the period and particularly valued easy practicality in fashion.[54] In the context of the film’s promotional purpose, the film was an attempt to demonstrate that contemporary couture embodied both the prestigious elegance of France’s past and the practical ease necessary for the present.

These themes are expressed in a short sequence towards the end of the American film star’s dream when several of Watteau’s women escape into Paris in their new couture dresses. The gowns in this short sequence all are modelled along the same general silhouette, suggestive of the romantic style that Guillaume Garnier describes as ‘Dresses which somehow flow around the body, creating a mesmerising softness, whether in the movement of the drape, or the transparency of tulles and lace’.[55] They are the creations of Paquin, Lucien Lelong and Worth. L’Herbier’s depiction of the dresses in movement expresses their temporal quality of simultaneity of past and present.

The sequence begins with the Lucien Lelong beauty majestically posed under a stone statue, its drapery mirroring that of her artfully arranged dress. The next shot opens with a close-up of undulating fabric. The woman wearing Worth runs away from the camera. As it pans to the left, capturing in slow motion the flowing movement of the dress, she escapes into the city and turns to throw a delighted, mischievous smile at the audience. The camera returns to the woman wearing Lucien Lelong, whose skirts cascade behind her as she stands. The sequence ends as the women dressed by Paquin and Worth are chased up a flight of steps by a policeman. The Eiffel Tower can be spotted in the distance as the slow-motion effect exaggerates and highlights every bounce and sway of the fabric around their bodies. The viewer’s gaze delights in the lingering focus on the silk, tulle and lace concoctions. By animating the dresses in this way, using a range of cinematic techniques, L’Herbier shows off to best advantage the nature of their silhouettes and the volume of their full skirts which contrasts so elegantly with their nipped waists.

This sequence recalls the scene at the beginning of the dream, when the women run down the steps of the Musée du Louvre, still in their original dresses. In both scenes, L’Herbier uses the filmic techniques of slow-motion and fades in order to reflect the ‘flow’ of fabric. The comparison suggested between the two scenes, which highlights the similarity of the silhouettes of the original and new dresses, makes clear how the fashion of the past manifests in the couture of the present. However, the sequence exhibiting the new couture extends the display of movement. The fabric of the couture gowns is shown in a spectacular way that is never achieved in the first scene when the women are still in their original dresses. This has much to do with the fabric itself. In comparison with the original dresses, the new couture gowns are made of much lighter-weight silks and frothy tulle. This implies a new freedom of movement for Watteau’s women. Following Stewart’s argument, by emphasising the flow of the gowns, the film suggests that fashion’s past coalesces with its present.

Thus far, analysis has focused on the representation of the relationship between couture’s past and present in La Mode rêvée. However, duration and ‘the order of difference’ can only be fully explained by recognising the role of the future. As the past actualises in the present, the present continuously expands into the future. Thus the past, present and future intersect, to form a simultaneous relationship. It would be tempting to suggest that the future in the film might be evident in the couture styles themselves; for example the ‘romantic’ silhouette is suggestive of Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947.[56] However, this is only identifiable from a historicising perspective. In terms of Bergson’s theory of duration the future cannot be considered self-evident.[57] Indeed, La Mode rêvée never attempts to depict (or predict) the future in its representation of couture. Rather, if we consider the film’s representation of the temporality of couture as duration, then the future is that which the past and the present push against in the creation of the new. Novelty is created as the past actualises in different ways in couture’s ever-advancing present. Therefore, the presence of the future is crucial in the creation of novelty. In La Mode rêvée, beneath the layers of past and present, is the inevitable force of the future.

To bring the discussion in this article full circle, the concept of the future was, of course, the central message of the New York World’s Fair. In relation to this temporal theme, La Mode rêvée was an attempt to promote couture through the depiction of its complex temporal simultaneity. By demonstrating the correlation between couture’s prestigious past and its present, La Mode rêvée implied a vision of couture’s future which was informed by and included the past. This reflects France’s approach to the Fair’s theme of ‘The World of Tomorrow’ more generally. In its Pavilion, France sought to demonstrate how a cultural past was vital in any concept of a cultural future. In the almost Bergsonian words of Léon Perrier, President of the High Administrative Council of the French section of the New York World’s Fair, writing about the Pavilion, ‘It is impossible to divorce the past from the present. And it points, indisputably, to the future.’[58] By suggesting the interlinked relationship between the past, present and future, the French were promoting a vision of the future in which France would continue be a dominant cultural force. According to Bergson’s theory of duration, the future cannot be predicted quite in the way that Perrier seems to imply. However, the French did recognise and attempt to demonstrate in their Pavilion at the World’s Fair, in the Haute Couture and Fur section and, most importantly for this article, in La Mode rêvée, that to understand the nature of the future one must understand the interrelation between the future, the past, and the present. Perhaps, according to Bergson’s theory of duration, Perrier’s words, therefore, would better read, ‘It is impossible to divorce the past from the present. And it forges, indisputably, toward the future.’


This article has proposed that Bergson’s theory of duration offers a lens through which to conceptualise the nature of the temporality of couture as this is represented in L’Herbier’s film. By representing the relationship between couture’s past, present and future as interconnected and simultaneous, La Mode rêvée harnessed the durational quality of couture as a promotional tool. In the context of the Fair’s ‘World of Tomorrow’, the film sought to ensure the authority of French couture by representing duration itself as an alluring quality. By introducing just a few key features of Bergson’s theory, it is hoped that the article suggests how further exploration of the concept of duration may have relevance to the theorisation of the temporality of fashion more generally, and offer a fruitful perspective for future work.

To return to Watteau’s woman in the Paquin gown: she remarks, ‘It looks like my old dress. Nothing changes!’.[59] Nothing changes, yet everything changes. La Mode rêvée emphasises both the continuities and differences between past and present. The film represents the temporality of fashion in terms of a simultaneity where the manifestation of the past in the present, driving towards the future, creates the crucial quality of difference. Fashion as duration is about change and the new, and about a connection with the past. This is the beauty of Bergson’s theory. Duration enables both to be true at once, and to coexist simultaneously. It suggests that embedded in the designs of the new couture dresses themselves, there exists a complex intermingling of temporalities. This is the nature of fashion as the carrier of temporal meaning in the film.


[1] Cri de Paris (13/05/1939), in Document concernant le film ‘La Mode rêvée, 1939. Press Cuttings, 8-RK-6488. Fonds Marcel L’Herbier 1910-1990, Département des arts du spectacle, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; Georges Lourau to Marcel L’Herbier (22/11/1938), in La Mode rêvée. Production Documents, Fol.21. Dossier n.50, 4-COL-198(47). Fonds Marcel L’Herbier 1910-1990, Département des arts du spectacle, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

[2] For example, see Richard Abel, French Cinema: the first wave, 1915–1929 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984), 279.

[3] Barbara Vinken, ‘Eternity – a frill on the dress’, Fashion Theory, 1, 1 (1997), 59.

[4] For example, see Barbara Vinken, Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System, Mark Hewson trans. (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005); Ulrich Lehmann, Tigersprung. Fashion in Modernity (Massachusetts and London: MIT Press, 2000); Philipp Ekardt, ‘Fashion/Time-Differentials: From Simmel’s Philosophie der Mode to Benjamin’ in David D. Kim ed., Georg Simmel in Translation: Interdisciplinary boarder-crossings in culture and modernity (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2006).

[5] Keith Ansell Pearson and John Mullarkey, introduction to Henri Bergson in Keith Ansell Pearson and John Mullarkey eds. Henri Bergson. Key Writings (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 1.

[6] Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will. An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, F.L Pogson trans. (London: Swan Sonnenschein & co, 1910), 101.

[7] For example, see the influence of Bergson in Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image, Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta trans. (London: A&C Black, 2013).

[8] For example, see Robert. J Young, Marketing Marianne: French Propaganda in America, 1900–1940 (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 2004).

[9] Young, xii.

[10] Young, 171, 175.

[11] For example, see Jean Mistler, ‘To Our Readers’, in France. New York World’s Fair 1939 (Paris: Art Printing and Packaging Works, 1939), n.p.; Plaisir de France. Le Pavillon Français à L’Exposition Internationale de New-York, July, (1939).

[12] Phyllis Magidson, ‘Fashion Showdown: New York Versus Paris 1914–1941’, in Donald Albrecht ed. Paris-New York: design, fashion, culture, 1925–1940 (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2008), 104.

[13] Magidson, 107.

[14] Guillaume Garnier, ‘Le Milieu de la Mode’, in Guillaume Garnier ed. Paris-Couture – Années Trente (Paris: Edition Paris-Musées et Societe de l’Histoire du Costume, 1987a), 100.

[15] Garnier (1987a), 75.

[16] Le Figaro (13/08/1939), in Document concernant le film ‘La Mode rêvée’, 1939. Press Cuttings. 8-RK-6488. Fonds Marcel L’Herbier 1910–1990, Département des arts du spectacle, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

[17] The Daily Mail (09/06/1939), in Document concernant le film ‘La Mode rêvée’, 1939. Press Cuttings. 8-RK-6488. Fonds Marcel L’Herbier 1910–1990, Département des arts du spectacle, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

[18] Léandre Vaillat, ‘Le Palais de la France’, L’Illustration. Numéro consacré à la New York World’s Fair 1939, (10/06/1939), n.p. Vaillat, n.p: Le but était de montrer aux États-Unis un tableau d’ensemble évoquant les valeurs essentielles auxquelles la mode française doit son prestige international’, my translation.

[19] Andre Maurois, ‘The French Pavilion’, in France. New York World’s Fair 1939 (Paris: Art Printing and Packaging Works, 1939), 45.

[20] For example, see Barbara Burman Baines, Fashion Revivals from the Elizabethan Age to the Present Day (London: B.T. Batsford, 1981), 134; Guillaume Garnier, ‘Quelques couturiers quelques modes’, in Guillaume Garnier ed., Paris-Couture-Années Trente (Paris: Edition Paris-Musées et Société de l’Histoire du Costume, 1987b), 46.

[21] Patricia Mears, ‘The Arc of Modernity 1: Women’s Couture in the 1930s’, in Patricia Mears and G Bruce Boyer eds., Elegance in an age of crisis: Fashions of the 1930s (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and Fashion Institute of Technology, 2014), 62.

[22] Mears, 63.

[23] Russell. B Porter, ‘France’s Impressive Pavilion Is Dedicated by Officials at Ceremony at the Fair’, The New York Times (25/05/1939), 22.

[24] Vaillat, n.p: ‘la grande couture Parisienne inspirée par l’art, nourrie de culture et soumettant ses fantaisies ou ses transpositions les plus diverses et la nouveauté de leurs nuances’, my emphasis, my translation.

[25] Qu’est-ce que la Mise En Scène? Interview de Marcel L’Herbier, NUMAV-185801, Audiovisual, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; Marie Martin, ‘Féerie réaliste, onirisme et pratiques maniéristes dans l’œuvre de Marcel L’Herbier de Rose-France (1918) a La Nuit Fantastique (1942)’, in Laurent Véray ed., Marcel LHerbier: lart du cinéma (Paris: Association Français de Recherche sur L’Histoire du Cinéma, 2007), 173–176.

[26] Qu’est-ce que la Mise En Scène? Interview de Marcel L’Herbier: ‘une preparation de certains éléments visuels, nous fait comprendre que c’est une situation psychologique ou un drame psychologique’, my translation.

[27] Aileen Ribeiro, Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe 1715–1789 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), 33.

[28] Marcel L’Herbier, La Mode rêvée, 1939, black and white sound film, Gaumont Pathé archives, Paris. Accessed 06/06/2016, http://www.gaumontpathearchives.com/index.php?urlaction=doc&id_doc=158141&rang=1: ‘Elle ressemble à mon ancienne robe. Rien ne change!’, my translation.

[29] Garnier (1987b), 45–46.

[30] See, Burman Baines; Agnes Brooks Young, Recurring Cycles of Fashion: 1760–1937 (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1937); Vinken.

[31] Brooks Young, 133.

[32] Burman Baines, 13.

[33] Lehmann; Caroline Evans, Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, modernity and deathliness (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003).

[34] Lehmann, xviii.

[35] Evans, 9, 22.

[36] Evans, 27 quoting Lehmann, xx.

[37] Evans, 13.

[38] L’Herbier, La Mode rêvée: ‘de l’air, enfin, de l’air, de l’air…!’, my translation.

[39] L’Herbier, La Mode rêvée: ‘Sans mon corset, oui!’, my translation.

[40] L’Herbier, La Mode rêvée: ‘Il est devenu si mauvais. Il faut que le corps respire’, my translation.

[41] See, Marcel L’Herbier, ‘Hermes and Silence’, in Richard Abel ed. French Film Theory and Criticism. Volume 1: 1907–1929 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988), 147–155; Sarah Cooper, The Soul of Film Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).  

[42] Heath Massey, ‘Bergson on memory’, in Paul Ardoin, S.E. Gontarski and Laci Mattison eds., Understanding Bergson, Understanding Modernism (New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 326.

[43] Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer trans. (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 239.

[44] Bergson (1988), 241.

[45] Bergson (1988), 243.

[46] Bergson (1988), 239.

[47] Ansell Pearson and Mullarkey, 23.

[48] Bergson (1988), 240.

[49] Bergson, (1988), 138.

[50] Ansell Pearson and Mullarkey, 26.

[51] Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, A. Mitchell trans. (Lanham: University Press of America, 1983), 11.

[52] Mary Lynn Stewart, Dressing Modern Frenchwomen: Marketing haute couture, 1919–1939 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 231.

[53] Stewart, 231.

[54] Rebecca Arnold, The American Look: Sportswear, fashion and the image of women in 1930s and 1940s New York (London: I.B.Tauris, 2009), 199.

[55] Garnier (1987b), 40: ‘des robes qui d’une façon ou d’une autre flottent autour du corps, en créant un flou envoûtant, qu’il s’agisse du mouvement des drapés, de la transparence des tulles et dentelles’, original emphasis, my translation.

[56] Guillaume Garnier, ‘Chronologie: Paris-couture… À Vol d’oiseau’, in Guillaume Garnier ed., Paris-Couture-Années Trente (Paris: Edition Paris-Musées et Société de l’Histoire du Costume, 1987c), 241.

[57] Henri Bergson (1983), 55.

[58] Léon Perrier, in France. New York World’s Fair 1939 (Paris: Art Printing and Packaging Works, 1939), 28.

[59] L’Herbier, La Mode rêvée: ‘Elle ressemble à mon ancienne robe. Rien ne change’, my translation.

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