Meet the Irish curator of the Christian Dior exhibition about to open at London’s V&A museum

A Christian Dior retrospective opens at London’s V&A this week. Rachel Marie Walsh meets the Irish curator, Oriole Cullen.

Meet the Irish curator of the Christian Dior exhibition about to open at London’s V&A museum

A Christian Dior retrospective opens at London’s V&A this week. Rachel Marie Walsh meets the Irish curator, Oriole Cullen.

Fashion-lovers have a new reason to choose London for their next city break: the Victoria & Albert museum is holding the UK’s biggest ever Christian Dior exhibition.

If the title Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams sounds familiar it is because ‘Christian Dior: Couturier dû Reve,’ the house’s 70th-anniversary retrospective, closed in Paris just last year.

The déjà vu does not linger, however, as senior fashion curator Oriole Cullen and her team have gone to great lengths to give visitors a unique experience in London, reconfiguring what they’ve sourced from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and adding 50% new material across the exhibition.

Two major differences are a strong fashion focus (MAD made much of Dior’s passion for fine art and included work by Le Corbusier, Picasso and others) and a section dedicated to Dior’s britophilia.

London’s own fashion archives provide plenty of fresh treasure.

“We have spectacular 1950s garments that haven’t been seen since The Golden Age of Couture exhibition [2008], “ says Ms Cullen, originally from Dublin, who studied History of Art and English Literature at UCD.

“We take you through the house’s 70-year history right up to pieces by [current creative director] Maria Grazia Chiuri.”

The new Sainsbury’s Gallery, this exhibition’s home within the museum, is a very cool addition to the V&A’s Grade I-listed buildings and also deserves a shout-out for the forward-looking, accessible feel it affords chiefly 20th-century work.

“There is no other country in the world, besides my own, whose way of life I like so much.

“I love English traditions, English politeness, English architecture,” Christian Dior wrote in Dior by Dior, his autobiography.

The exhibition looks at the opening of his London headquarters in 1952 and early shows at The Savoy and Claridges, as well as at stately homes around the country.

Like so many of the great couturiers, he also had a fondness for titles. Princess Margaret’s relatively early adoption of his post-war ‘New Look’ (which she wore to Prince Charles’ christening) helped to boost her reputation as a style icon.

Choosing a Dior ballgown (exhibited at the V&A) for her official 21st birthday portraits was another fashion moment. One such Cecil Beaton portrait is part of the exhibition.

Her visits to the French fashion house in Paris, the ordering of couture gowns, and her presence at Dior fashion shows at Blenheim Palace, were all unusual for a member of the British Royal family.

“While the close association between the princess and Christian Dior was relatively short-lived, it was mutually beneficial and important to the public image of both royal patron and couturier,” writes Beatrice Behlen, senior fashion and decorative arts curator at the Museum of London, in the March 2016 edition of Costume. Dior himself wrote that he secretly presented his second collection to a gathering that included Queen Elizabeth II at the French Embassy in 1947, recalling that guests were “devoured with curiosity to see the ‘New Look’ dresses, of which they had heard so much”.

It is interesting that Dior was something of a royalist, thought English women specifically “the most beautiful and distinguished in the world” and even enjoyed British cuisine (he “worshipped” an English breakfast), but I think most of us attend these exhibitions for the clothes. There is so much gorgeous couture you can see up close here and each creative director that succeeded the founder — Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Bill Gaytten, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri — is represented.

Charlize Theron’s gold J’adore gown, custom designed by John Galliano in 2008 and studded with Swarovski, is perhaps the most recognisable piece.

There is also as a gloriously over-the-top, fur-trimmed piece from Galliano’s Autumn 2004 couture show (a collection of gowns so dramatic that Karolina Kurkova’s got her wedged in the exit) to magpie-eye, and a striking but simple red coat-dress from Raf Simons first couture collection makes you wonder how he and Galliano ever worked at the same house.

A crocodile leather jacket from Yves Saint Laurent’s 1960 collection and a dramatic Gianfranco Ferré gown inspired by La Scala show the archive at two more extremes.

Two Maria Grazia Chiuri’s designs that Lupita Nyong’o and Elle Fanning wore to the Cannes Film Festival, plus an extravagant pink chiffon number she did for the brand’s Shanghai show last year, are more easily traced to the pretty organdie dresses Dior himself did in the 1950s.

Ms Cullen loves an early gold Marc Bohan dress with crystal detailing. “It is breathtaking and one of the more unexpected pieces, something we’ve never shown before. Photos don’t really capture it.”

My favourite exhibit is Junon, from the Autumn 1949 collection, which has a full skirt of overlapping tulle petals embroidered with thousands of blue and clear crystal sequins.

Moving behind the scenes, there is a space celebrating les petites mains (anyone whose seen the 2014 documentary Dior and I knows these people are a crucial part of the Dior story), which showcase a typical workspace and video footage of their day.

It wouldn’t be a retrospective without a focus on early history, including personal sketches, talismans (Dior was famously superstitious) and photos of UK store openings and private client fittings. The Bar Suit, that first famous silhouette, will be on display, as well as examples of his Vertical line, Tulip and Arrow. His prescient contribution to beauty began with Miss Dior, his first perfume. “He always said a woman wasn’t properly dressed without her fragrance,” notes the curator.

It was named for his little sister Catherine, a member of the French Resistance who was captured by the Gestapo, tortured and imprisoned in a concentration camp until liberation.

The original Baccarat crystal amphora, curvaceous and fiercely blue, is one for beauty junkies.

This is not the official line but it seems like an ideal moment to reinforce the Franco-British fashion connection.

Beyond the founder’s affection for British royalty, women and culture, there’s been extensive creative influence on the brand by Brits themselves. Bill Gaytten and John Galliano contributed 15 years as creative director between them. Marc Bohan, while French, started off designing Dior’s ‘London Line’ and went to London to work for Norman Hartnell after leaving the brand.

British muses like Kate Moss, Annabelle Neilson and Daphne Guinness played a part, as did as the numerous atelier staff whose names don’t make it into show notes.

London, often referred to as fashion’s creative capital, sends the industry’s city of cities unquantifiable talent, not least because they lack fitting opportunities at home. Paris is to fashion as Wall St is to finance, what happens there ripples around the world and affects culture from high-end to high-street.

British influence on French couture pre-dates 1973 for sure, but here’s hoping that Brexiting won’t stem it by cutting freedom of movement.

Coinciding with the exhibition is a more intimate photography event at Proud Central Gallery in Covent Garden. This explores Dior’s revolutionary beginnings with images by Norman Parkinson, Bert Stern and others and is a nice way to wind-up a fashionable weekend.

The exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams will run from February 2 – July 14 in the V&A’s Sainsbury Gallery

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