From Issue 62: As ‘Designer of Dreams’ Opens At The V&A, Here’s Claudia Croft’s Take On Christian Dior’s Biggest UK Exhibition
Deep in the heart of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London’s Knightsbridge, is the conservation room. A vast, light- filled hangar, it is crowded with mannequins dressed in Dior couture, each shrouded in protective tissue paper, like ghosts of fashion past. In just a few short weeks they will be unwrapped and put on display in Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. The biggest Dior exhibition ever staged in the UK, it opens in February and spans seven decades of the house’s history.
Preparations are in full swing. Bar jackets and ball gowns, day suits and wedding dresses are being readied. There are gowns once danced in by Margot Fonteyn and Princess Margaret, and Nancy Mitford’s coat. The exhibition is based on the huge retrospective staged at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris until the beginning of last year, but with 60% new content, to focus on Dior’s British clients, suppliers and inspirations. More than 500 objects, including perfume bottles and stockings, will be on show in 11 specially designed rooms, alongside 230 couture ensembles from all seven Dior designers. To say it’s big is an understatement.
“You know, Christian Dior absolutely changed the course of fashion,” says the exhibition’s curator Oriole Cullen, who wears her academic seriousness with the elegance of a Hitchcock blonde. “He’s not the typical idea of a fashion designer, really. He was in his forties when he established his house.” Dior studied architecture and his well-to-do family wanted him to be a diplomat, but Dior was artistic and prior to his fashion career he ran an art gallery and moved in the same circles as Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti and Alexander Calder.
Dior sold his fashion sketches as a sideline and when the gallery closed, he went to work for Robert Piguet in 1938, where his design-room colleagues included Pierre Balmain and Marc Bohan. He joined the army at the start of the war and worked for Lucien Lelong during the occupation. After the war, Dior secured backing from Marcel Boussac, France’s richest industrialist, for his own house and showed his debut collection in February 1947. With its nipped-in waists, full skirts (one made from 80yd of fabric) and exaggerated padded hips, the lavishness of the silhouettes shocked a world still reeling from the privations of war.
It was such a departure from the boxy clothes that came before that the Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow dubbed it, “The New Look.” With that one collection, Dior relaunched haute couture and in the tumultuous postwar period, where a triumphant America had its eyes on the fashion prize, cemented Paris at the centre of fashion. Its impact was felt way beyond the closed fashion world. The New Look was discussed at the highest level. The British government, still dealing with postwar fabric shortages, disapproved. Fashion journalists were called to meetings at the board of trade and asked to ignore or report negatively on the New Look, for the sake of national interest. They refused. Dior’s seductive silhouettes were impossible to resist.
“Really, he crystallises that mid-century moment, because it’s a global phenomenon,” says Cullen, “and he’s very clever because, although he said initially he just wanted to open a small house, with maybe 60 or so special clients, he realises that the future also lies in ready-to-wear and that’s what he does. With his New York and London branches [opened in 1949 and 1952 respectively], he sets out a high-end ready-to-wear version but retains this wonderful palace of haute couture in Paris. The dream is still there, at 30 Avenue Montaigne, it’s still there and it’s still as fabulous to walk through the door today and see the famous staircase.”
As we talk, the team of conservators and dress managers who have built individual mannequins for each couture piece are working on garments for the show. It’s hard to believe that a vast red satin ball gown from 1954 (which once belonged to the wife of Nicholas “Miki” Sekers, who owned the West Cumberland Silk Mills and supplied Dior), was found in the basement of a house near the Seine and came to the museum as a crumpled wreck. It now looks pristine. Every piece has a story.
We stand next to a black wool dress called Maxim’s from the original 1947 New Look collection. The woman who donated it remained a lifelong Dior client and also donated some of the Gianfranco Ferré-designed pieces seen in the exhibition. A pink silk 1965 minidress designed by Bohan as a going-away outfit for British client Jill Ritblat shows how the house embraced 1960s youthquake aesthetics. “That sensibility, that young way of dressing is very different from what had been going on just five years before. It’s a world of difference,” says Cullen.
Dior’s current womenswear creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, is particularly drawn to Bohan’s designs. “Out of all of Dior’s creative directors, the public is possibly least familiar with Marc Bohan, but he headed the house the longest,” she says. “Rediscovering his work and approach to projects was fascinating, because we have similar sensibilities. Bohan had a lot of artistic friends and a pragmatic sensibility. He paid a lot of attention to society and the street. It was Bohan who launched the Miss Dior line, and he was a ‘silent revolutionary’, precisely because he contributed to achieving change through steady, considered action.”
Cullen expects the V&A’s Dior show to draw record audiences. “We can’t produce them fast enough,” she says of the public’s appetite for fashion exhibitions. It usually takes two years to prepare a major show. Cullen put this one together in 10 months. “Fashion itself has just blown open in the past decade and now everyone has an opinion, a platform, which is great, you know. Everyone is able to express their thoughts and engage, become experts, whereas before it was quite closed-doors, quite exclusive, and only certain people got to see the shows. I think it’s become much more of a conversation and it’s not so much a niche interest. It’s just really exploded the interest.”
“Seeing the real garments is very different from looking at them in books, when you see the materials, construction and manufacture,” says Chiuri. The first thing she did when arriving at the house was visit the archive, which she describes as a “living entity that is constantly rejuvenating and evolving”. She talks about being shown around by the team of archivists “who had intimate knowledge of all its peculiarities and secrets. I approached it cautiously, like when you handle something very precious, and then I let myself be guided and transported by the stories that the archive was telling me. It was very moving. Having the history of a charismatic fashion house like Dior at my fingertips and being able to touch it and see it in the flesh was incredible. I had an opportunity to compare my own experience with the story to which I was about to add my own, new chapter.
Dior, says Cullen, has a special place in the fashion imagination. At The Clothworkers’ Centre, in Kensington Olympia, where the V&A stores its vast fashion and textile collection, any member of the public can book an appointment to see the fashion collections. “The most popular piece that everyone wants to see – bearing in mind, we have nearly 100,000 objects in the dress and fashion collection – is the Bar suit,” she says. For Chiuri, too, the Bar suit loomed large and was the first piece she asked to see from the archive.
The iconic look, with its 19in waist, cream shantung-silk jacket and full pleated wool skirt is here in the conservation room, too. “I just think it’s so beautifully tailored,” says Cullen, surveying the extreme curves of the shoulders and waist. “It’s incredible how well made it is. It’s really such an amazing piece. It’s got this padding to push the coat out at the front. The lines and the volumes are very thought through. He’s really concentrating on that. And the weight of the skirt, too – it’s made from the most beautiful wool and it has a huge number of pleats in it. You can imagine, in the miserable post- war period, how that felt. It knocked everything sideways, it’s really quite amazing.”
It was acquired by the museum in 1960, 13 years after being first shown in Paris and at a time when fashion was beginning to be a serious part of the museum’s remit. “The letters are interesting. The museum approached Dior and asked for an original piece. Dior said, ‘We’ve got some originals but they’re all looking a bit sad, so we could remake something for you.’ And the museum said, ‘No, don’t remake anything. We want the originals.’”
Ten years after he’d launched the New Look, the house of Dior had become entwined with France’s reputation – by the end of 1949, Dior fashions were making up 75% of Paris’s fashion exports and 5% of France’s total export revenue. When Monsieur Dior died suddenly of a heart attack in 1957, the existential crisis into which the house was plunged reverberated far beyond fashion.
“Nobody expected Dior to suddenly drop dead aged 52 and for Yves Saint Laurent, at 21, to be thrown into the limelight. It was a huge panic – would the house continue? Nowadays, we expect things to go on and on, but at the time it was a shock. There was talk of it closing down and of course it was so important at the time in terms of French exports and prestige,” says Cullen. The house not only survived but, under its six successive creative directors, has remained at the heart of French fashion.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams opens at the V&A tomorrow and goes until June 14th. Find out more information here.
Editorial images taken from archive Dior shoot for Issue 62 of 10 Magazine, shot by Lukasz Pukowiec and styled by Vincent Levy.
DIOR: HEAVENLY CREATURES
Photographer Lukasz Pukowiec
Fashion Editor Vincent Levy
Text Claudia Croft
Hair Chiao Chenet at Atomo Management using Mr Smith
Makeup Min Kim at The Wall Group
Model Evelyn Nagy at Oui
Casting Arianna Pradarelli
Photographer’s Assistant Michal Czech
Fashion Assistant Joel Traptow
Makeup Assistant Sara Steiner
Production Western Promises