Christian Dior Through A British Lens
“There is no other country in the world – besides my own – whose way of life I like so much,” claimed Christian Dior about the United Kingdom. The French designer’s litany of enthusiasm ended with the claim that he even loved English cooking.
Was Monsieur Dior the most intelligent, business-aware designer, far ahead of his time in the 1950s? Or was he the romantic dreamer with an unending adoration of his mother and a passion for pretty things with teeny waists and fluttering skirts?
The answer is both of the above, claims Oriole Cullen, curator of “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams”, which opens this weekend at the Victoria and Albert Museum (until 14th July).
“Dior had a global outlook from very early on in terms of business – he had branches in Caracas in Venuzuala, and from Australia to Japan. He was travelling and utilising a business model that still works today,” the curator said. “Obviously the haute couture was the jewel in the crown, but he looked at licensing and wholesaling. He had a brilliant business mind and such an impact on fashion that he was really revered for that. He put Paris haute couture on the map in the post-war period and he also looked towards the future. And his idea of taking his business globally has really stood the test of time.”
The V&A show, displayed in what seems like an enfilade of rooms built into the lofty Sainsbury Wing of the museum, moves neatly from one story to another. It progresses from graceful, pale dresses through colourful outfits inspired by the wide world, to a long window of small-sized objects including miniature dresses, tiny shoes and fragrance. The pretty accessories then burst into flower in a ballroom filled with gowns, many of them for the famous.
Even with more limited space than the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, where the Dior exhibition was first shown in 2017, the London version has precise areas on different themes. And it also displays Dior clothes that have never been seen in public before.
“Working in the museum, we are very lucky to be contacted by people who have held on to things,” Cullen said. “That’s wonderful for us because, in this day and age, people don’t have the space and also there’s a market for these clothes now, so you can sell them.”
The curator was talking about private treasures – couture dresses, wedding gowns and accessories – now being offered from the attics of British women who know that personal clothes from the 1950s are now perfect for a museum.
The V&A has been able to pull together more than sixty Dior outfits that were not shown in the Paris blockbuster show. Dresses include those once worn by ballerina Margot Fonteyn and writer Nancy Mitford, and elegant outfits loaned from the Fashion Museum, Bath, which Dior himself supported.
Monsieur Dior, again ahead of his time, chose to show his haute couture at London’s Savoy Hotel or out in the country at the grandeur of Blenheim Palace. With that British background, this new show has been refined to the essence, explaining how the style of the founder, who died unexpectedly in 1957 after just 10 years at the helm, worked with those who came after him.
That gives the V&A the opportunity to show from the start of the exhibition how designers like the extravagant John Galliano, the grandiose Gianfranco Ferré, and current Creative Director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, each interpreted the famous curvy ‘Bar’ suit, which inevitably opens the exhibition.
The show displays then move from Dior’s early years as a gallerist to Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s late sister. The Dior gown she wore for her 21st birthday in 1951 reveals its yellowing reality as much less fairy-like than the photographic vision beside it, produced by court photographer Cecil Beaton, who lightened the colours in the days before Photoshop.
For Maria Grazia, who was at the London opening, the excitement was in discovering the unexpected – a collection shown by Monsieur Dior in Scotland, a line of underwear produced for the designer back in the 1950s, and pieces of jewellery were all previously unknown to her.
“A part of it is very severe, very modern. I am very curious now to discover more about the jewellery and about the idea that his pleats come in relation to Scotland. When I see those things I am excited,” said Maria Grazia, whose own pieces in the exhibition often stand out for their firm shapes with delicate handwork. That is especially evident in a room showing the founder’s celebration of floral effects, where fronds of wisteria hung over the work of today’s designer, who made her flowers out of feathers.
“After women, flowers are the most divine of creations,” Monsieur Dior said in 1954. It is smart of the curator to contrast the glamour of elegant evening clothes in pastel colours with the vivid shades that reflected a wanderlust for exotic travel.
Cullen also introduces with skill the six designers who avoided a couture apocalypse after Dior’s sudden death. They were, in order: Yves Saint Laurent; the long-serving Marc Bohan; Gianfranco Ferré; John Galliano; Raf Simons; and Maria Grazia.
There is no attempt to add the drama and emotional depth of “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty”, the V&A’s 2015 exhibition. But the Dior London edition does not present only the pretty, feminine side of fashion, even if that style clearly draws in museum visitors, since all the special presentations and most of the entry tickets are already sold out.
The wilder side comes in the travel-inspired collections, the most theatrical inventions naturally coming from Galliano, whose Egyptian looks are stunning. This section of the exhibition includes five countries: China, Egypt, India, Japan and Mexico, offering an attitude to worldwide inspiration that can seem uncomfortable today.
“We do touch on that idea today of cultural appropriation, but we really feel that if it’s done in an appropriate, considered, conscious and respectful way, then something that’s been going on for thousands of years is acceptable,” said the curator. “A good example is Maria Grazia’s recent Cruise collection, with Mexican horsewomen whom she invited to Paris.”
Cullen also pointed out a new perspective and focus on Mark Bohan’s work in the 1960s, when he modernised Dior without losing its heritage.
As someone who has studied the full history of Maison Dior, did she feel that all the following designers, who came from very different backgrounds, really did fit into the spirit of Christian Dior?
“They are incredibly different, and that’s why it’s exciting to see how they have taken these themes and done them in their very own way,” she explained. “It’s the themes themselves that tie it together, as opposed to each of the designers having the same way of working. We really want to introduce Dior as a brand, but it’s also about 70 years of the house and its legacy. We are introducing him and his background, but also the show is not just purely about that period. We are looking at all of the artistic directors, for the history of the house.”
“Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” is at the V&A until the 14th of July 2019; www.vam.ac.uk