Christian Dior exerts such a complex allure after 70 years that no two visitors will enter the Musée de Arts Décoratifs retrospective for the same reason.
Its image has been shaped by six different designers since the founder’s death in 1957. Each responded to contemporary events and incorporated Dior’s legacy differently. The label’s influence is maintained by consistently generating fashion moments.
The first Dior fashion moment happened in 1947. His New Look, as Harper’s Bazaar called it, featured soft shoulders, an accentuated bust, a neat waist and hips amplified by corolla-like skirts. Christian Dior insisted on using great swaths of fabric — a controversial move after the years of shortage under the occupation during the Second World War — but one that sped the textile industry’s revival. He resuscitated couture, giving a central role to embroiderers and craftspeople making costume jewellery and accessories. These efforts were esteem-boosting, demanding that the world once again admire Paris, and especially Parisian women.
Dior’s successors impose a little of his vision on all that comes afterwards, not to ossify the present but to honour the inception.
Christian Dior was originally a wannabe artist and opened a gallery in 1928 to host talents he recognised as vastly superior. He also kept fine art in his homes and atelier. His gilded frustration is represented by exhibits from Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Monet, Salvador Dalí, and many other bold-face names, some of whom were personal friends.
“The exhibition is focused on couture, because it is the most perfect expression of fashion’s artistic background and Dior came to fashion through art,” says museum director and curator Olivier Gabet. “It was important throughout to stress that art informed his couture, that of every Dior designer.”
Both Galliano and Marc Bohan incorporated Egyptian and Chinese art, and Gabet borrowed relevant pieces from the Louvre. Dior had a penchant for British art and there is a Gainsborough on display that would be jaw-dropping if your face weren’t already slack at everything else. Dior designers also borrow artistic techniques to keep their work current, as when Marc Bohan emulated Jackson Pollock’s dripping technique for dresses in 1984. Raf Simons superimposed Sterling Ruby’s paintings on Bucol silk for his first collection. Galliano’s artistic references are too numerous to list but among the exhibits I like his harlequin suit, from a collection indebted to Picasso’s blue period. The elephant in the gallery rooms is that couture has yet to achieve fine art status (a debate that would be merely intellectual if art didn’t tend to get more support from state culture and education departments worldwide). The exhibition includes over 300 couture pieces, a mix of the iconic and some never-before-seen archive finds.
Gabet and co-curator Florence Müller dedicated individual rooms to showcasing each creative director’s contribution to the house and many more to how all six harmonise in the great man’s name. They flesh out couture stories with objets d’art, photography, jewellery, film clips of collaborator interviews (such as that with beauty expert Serge Lutens), cosmetics and academic texts. Christian Dior is of course the ‘dream-couturier’ of the event’s title, and though his own work runs through it, the rooms walled with his images, maxims and biography mark the entrance. His design decade (1947-57) is what he modestly dubbed ‘The Golden Age of Couture,’ a title given to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2007 celebration of this period in fashion. The house sent just two of John Galliano’s couture gowns to London for that exhibition but they took up an entire room.
Galliano shaped my generation’s vision of Dior and I went to the Rue Rivoli today looking for him, honestly. Big romance, big bombast and the biggest platform heels outside of Tokyo sprung from Dior’s Avenue Montaigne atelier when Galliano was around. The historical events he chose made for extravagant shows but there was always a clear narrative (down to the character he had models play), and enough modern elements to trickle down to ready-to-wear bags and front-of-store tchotchkes. The work of all those who went before fortified his 19-year contribution. He needed their strengths for the increasing, punishing number of collections he had to produce annually.
The most visually-arresting couture exhibits are still his, from those worn on the red carpet to what you thought would be confined to editorial images.
I suspect the longest-serving Dior designer, Marc Bohan, is the least known. Promoted after Saint Laurent, who elongated the New Look, was called for military service in 1960, Bohan went on to produce 30 years of couture, all while overseeing the foundation of Baby Dior, the expansion of the bottom line-saving Christian Dior Parfums, the now defunct Miss Dior youth line and the brand’s first foray into menswear. His lesser fame reflects not his talent but a life of relative discretion: designs under his own name were not so famous as those of Gianfranco Ferré et al and he worked a period in which creative directors were not media-engaged ambassadors. Maria Grazia Chiuri, the current creative director and non brand-name, is an instructive contrast, as is the sheer volume of coverage Raf Simons’s appointment got before he’d even sent out his debut. Bohan was the last successor to have known and observed Christian Dior. He made the New Look lighter and even softer (the Slim Look) and found firm fans in Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy and Princesses Grace and Caroline of Monaco.
Thereafter, designers were hardly short of touchstones. Gianfranco Ferré, a trained architect, arrived in 1989 and could connect with Dior’s love of his discipline and of Parisian buildings in particular. The grey of Trianon panelling became Dior grey and the neo-18th century interiors of the couturier’s apartment were both a backdrop to client appointments and an enduring source of inspiration. Both Maria Grazia Chiuri and Raf Simons proved drawn to his passion for flowers and unadorned-but- sculpturally enhanced curves. A fashion house’s tenets or codes, as the haute couture community calls them, unify collections through time. Apart from art, architecture and elements of the New Look, Christian Dior’s are largely natural: flowers that grow at Granville, changing skies and the corresponding colour palette. There are also playful lingerie details, the contrast of traditionally masculine fabrics with silk and lace and an overriding devotion to projecting a complete look, whatever you’re up to. It was the couturier’s fondest wish that every item on a woman’s body bear his name, from heels to fragrance.
Alexander Fury, chief fashion correspondent at T: The New York Times Style Magazine, pores lovingly over 180 Dior collections in Dior Catwalk, a detail-heavy tome published for the anniversary celebration. The book is part of the exhibition and the profiles are as lively as his fashion features.
Those who saw Dior and I, Frédéric Tcheng’s 2015 documentary, will recognise the true stars behind Christian Dior couture. The expertise and techniques of the petits mains, the house’s lifeblood, are presented in an atelier installation where, I’m reliably informed, real seamstresses will work during the run, surrounded by sketches and toiles.
This gallery provides an overview of how the Dior line has developed since 1947, illustrated with gowns and film extracts from catwalk shows.
“This exhibition is as important to educating a new generation about Dior’s style and historical significance as it is to celebrating the anniversary,” says Gabet.
The last major Dior retrospective in Paris was in 1987. The new one promises to be fashion’s museum event of the year, and the space (3,000 square metres) and elaborate sets do so well to display the dialogue between the couturier and his faithful sextet. For its 60th, Christian Dior rented space at the Palace of Versailles, hired a sedge of supermodels past and present and rolled out a still-enchanting AW Haute Couture presentation.
Couture drama is so amplified by a hall of mirrors that Gabet and exhibition scenographer Nathalie Crinière were smart to echo the effect in the museum’s ballroom. This mirrored gallery is the real stand-and-gawp space: crowds of gowns worn on red carpets in New York, LA and Cannes. SJP’s mint Oscar gown, Diane Kruger’s Empire-line dress, Rihanna’s evening jacket… the mirrors emphasise how Dior’s star following goes on and on. A queue of wispy things Charlize Theron donned to promote J’Adore perfume face a simple column that facilitated Princess Diana’s ’Sexy Di’ evolution. Red carpet gowns in static settings can be underwhelming but a sparkling parade of them is tough to dismiss. So stands the perfect finale to a stunning show.