Tracing the history and impact of the celebrated couturier, Adrian Gibson gives The Cultured Traveller a tour of the V&A’s sell-out exhibition, CHRISTIAN DIOR: DESIGNER OF DREAMS
“There is no other country in the world, beside my own, whose way of life I like so much. I love English traditions, English politeness, English architecture. I even like English cooking,” said the creative genius and founder of one of the world’s most influential fashion houses, Christian Dior.
As a child, Dior sold sketches on the street to make pocket money. Soon after leaving school, he persuaded his father to fund the acquisition of a small gallery where he and a friend sold art by then relative unknowns, which included Pablo Picasso.
Following the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, the collapse of the family business and the death of his father, Dior was forced to close the gallery but managed to get a job working for Swiss-born fashion designer Robert Piguet. Dior was able to put his creative mind and sketching talents to good use at Piguet’s atelier on Paris’ Rue du Cirque, and worked with Piguet until he was conscripted in 1940. Hence Piguet is ostensibly credited with training Dior, not to mention a host of other renowned couturiers including Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Balmain. Dior would later say, “Robert Piguet taught me the virtues of simplicity through which true elegance must come.”
After two years of military service, Dior became a primary designer (alongside Balmain) for couturier Lucien Long. Long is credited with the saving the French fashion industry from being moved to Berlin by the occupying wartime German forces.
When the war was over there were opportunities for many, including Dior, who was invited to become the artistic director of struggling fashion house Philippe et Gaston, which ten years earlier had ranked alongside the likes of Chanel. But Dior had his own ideas, believing that women were looking for something new and inspiring now that the war was over. Backed by cotton-fabric magnate Marcel Boussac, the house of Dior was founded in December 1946 in a Parisian townhouse at 30 Avenue Montaigne, with new employees and a new mentality. Out went the stark wartime style of sharp-shouldered suits. In came luxurious garments with cinched waists and generous skirts.
Dior showed his first impressive collection of 90 pieces in February 1947. Silhouettes were structured, waists defined and skirts billowing, with each piece designed to enhance the curvaceous figure of a woman and made using many yards of fabric, which was in stark and indulgent contrast to economical and cautious wartime fashions. Dior’s first collection deftly captured the enthusiastic mood of the time, as well as the attention of stars Rita Hayworth and Margot Fonteyn and the British royal family, the latter inviting the designer to privately present his garments at the Palace. So began the relationship between the British royal family and Christian Dior.
The following year, Dior established a luxury ready-to-wear house on the corner of 5th Avenue and 57th Street in New York. It was the first of its kind in the world. The very same year he launched Dior Parfums, naming the first fragrance Miss Dior after his younger sister Catherine who survived the Nazi’s Ravensbrück concentration camp for women. In 1949, Dior was the first couturier to arrange the licensed production of his designs. The rest, as they say, is fashion history.
Whilst the V&A’s exhibition is based upon major 2017 exhibition Christian Dior: Couturier du Réve staged at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, 60% of the London exhibits are different to those shown in Paris, and the London exhibition includes an additional section referencing the designer’s love for the British Capital and G.B.
Not only did Dior stage his first U.K. fashion show at London’s famous Savoy hotel in 1950, but he also admired the grandeur of Britain’s great houses, grand hotels and gardens, not to mention British-designed ocean liners including the Queen Mary.
Overseen by the V&A’s curator of modern textiles and fashion, Oriole Cullen, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams traces the history and impact of the fashion house’s founder and the six artistic directors who succeeded him.
The exhibition is housed within the stunning Amanda Levete-designed subterranean Sainsbury Gallery, opened in 2017 and approached through the arches of Sir Aston Webb’s beautiful 19th century screen at street level. Divided into eleven themed rooms, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams charts the history of the brand from its creation to the present day.
The exhibition boasts more than 500 objects, including 200 haute-couture garments exhibited alongside accessories, photography, perfume, make-up, illustrations and magazines. A selection of Christian Dior’s personal possessions is also on show. While the prospect of seeing so many items may be a little daunting for some, Cullen’s skilful curation of Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, married with installations by Paris-based interiors studio Agence NC, make viewing the exhibition relatively easy via the individually themed rooms, each of which focuses on different aspects of the fashion house.
Moving from the designer’s early life to his Belle Époque-inspired couture gowns and onwards, important pieces worn by ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn and actress Jennifer Lawrence are on display, as are unique exhibits showcasing some of Dior’s collaborations with British manufacturers, including Dents (gloves), Rayne (shoes), Lyle and Scott (knitwear) and Mitchel Maer (costume jewellery). The museum was also able to draw upon its own, extensive Christian Dior archive, to show pieces such as the iconic ‘Bar’ suit, which was one of the most popular items in Dior’s first ever collection and is the focus of the exhibition’s opening room, The New Look.
The Dior Line room charts the brand’s inaugural decade via ten, key garments, individually displayed in mirrored boxes, which were designed between 1947 and 1957 when Christian Dior was at the helm of his house.
The museum is particularly proud of the Dior in Britain room, which showcases the designer’s love for the nation and how his British clients reciprocated by loving his designs, including the romantic off-white gown Dior created for young Princess Margaret for 21st birthday, in which she was famously photographed by Cecil Beaton for her official birthday portrait.
The Historicism room follows the influence of historic dress and decorative arts on Dior’s creations from 1947 to today, encompassing Dior’s passion for the 18th century, and the Belle Époque fashions worn by his mother, Madeleine Dior.
In the Garden Room, faux hanging flowers surrounding a selection of beautiful gowns displayed behind curved glass, highlight the importance of florals and botanicals as a source of inspiration.
Designers of Dior features work by the brand’s six subsequent artistic directors post Dior’s death in 1957: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri. Saint Laurent’s designs were somewhat daring for the early 1960s. Bohan helmed the brand for 29 years, updating many of Dior’s iconic designs during his long tenure. Ferré’s designs reflect his architecturally-inspired aesthetic. Enfant terrible John Galliano’s creations for Dior were daring and exuberant. Simons’ twenty collections for Dior were signified by minimalist, sharp tailoring and creative colour combinations. And lastly Chiuri – the first woman at the head of the house – who put the femininity back into Dior.
The final space is a lavish Ballroom, recreated from one of Britain’s great country piles where Dior staged many shows in the 1950s. On display are more than fifty spectacular evening gowns spanning the brand’s 70-year history and every creative force, against a glamorous backdrop of glittering walls, huge mirrors and crystal chandeliers. Dior said in 1954, “the ballgown is your dream and it must make your dream” and so, to this day, the house continues to attire celebrities on red carpets around the world.
To see Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams in supremely chic style, book a “Christian Dior at the Berkeley” overnight stay at The Berkeley hotel, which is five minutes in a taxi from the V&A. Including a pair of exhibition tickets, a deluxe room and breakfast in bed, the package also includes a hardback copy of the 192-page book produced to accompany the V&A’s retrospective, plus a bottle of Laurent-Perrier and Prêt-à-Portea Dior-themed catwalk cakes on arrival. After all, one can never have too much Dior! (www.the-berkeley.co.uk)
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams runs at London’s V&A until 1st September 2019