Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams

“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. I even love English cooking.” Christian Dior

Back in April 2019, I got a chance to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. Spanning 1947 to the present day, this exhibition traces the history and impact of one of the 20th century’s most influential couturiers, exploring the enduring influence of the fashion house, and Dior’s relationship with Britain.

The exhibition was divided into several sections:

  • The New Look
  • The Dior Line
  • Dior in Britain
  • Historicism
  • Travels
  • The Garden
  • Designers for Dior
  • The Ateliers
  • The Ballroom

The exhibition was pure joy. I spent hours wandering around and, as always, I took many photos.


THE NEW LOOK:

Christian Dior unveiled his first haute couture collection on 12 February 1947, amid excited anticipation within fashion circles. A stylish crowd gathered outside 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris, eager to witness the designer’s debut. Offering a radical alternative to the boxy, masculine style of women’s fashion after the Second World War, Dior’s designs caused a sensation. Carmel Snow, editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, declared: ‘It’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look!”

The term stuck. The New Look was adopted as the name for the collection and its two stand-out silhouettes, Corolle and En 8. The Corolle shape featured full skirts echoing the petals, or corolla, of flowers. En 8 was characterized by hip-hugging pencil skirts. Beth featured ample busts, nipped-in waists, soft shoulders and shaped hips.

The Bar suit became the emblem of the New Look. Its exquisitely sculpted jacket and richly pleated, full skirt epitomized the fashionable new silhouette. The creations of Christian Dior’s contemporaries and subsequent designers worldwide are a testament to the New Look’s lasting influence. Successive creative directors at the House of Dior have each reinterpreted the Bar suit in homage to the house’s founder.

* The description of The New Look above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.


THE DIOR LINE:

Following the triumph of Dior’s first collection in 1947, the world press eagerly anticipated each new collection, speculating at length about what Monsieur Dior would present next. His placing of hemlines, waists and busts was hotly debated in the fashion media each season.

Anchored by the curves of the female figure, Christian Dior’s designs played with structure and proportion to create clothes that powerfully expressed an attitude. He considered carefully the effect of movement, acknowledging that even the most ethereal garment relied on meticulous construction and elaborate workmanship.

From the launch 10 his death 10 years later, Christian Dior designed 22 collections, each comprising over 90 looks. The names he chose for each new line reflected the dominant silhouette, from Zig-Zag, Verticale and Sinueuse to more concrete suggestions of Tulipe, Fléche (‘arrow’) and Fuseau (‘spindle’).

Continuity between collections alongside headline-grabbing looks maintained both the awe and regular custom required to sustain the success of the house.

* The description of The Dior Line above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.


DIOR IN BRITAIN:

Christian Dior was a confirmed Anglophile. From his first visit to Britain in 1926, he was Charmed by the country in which ‘the past lies so vividly around’. As a couturier, he was delighted to dress English debutantes and the young Princess Margaret.

Following his first British fashion show at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1950, Dior began showing his collections in grand country houses such as Blenheim Palace. Frequently held in aid of charity, the shows provided great publicity, with crowds of guests eager to see the latest Dior designs.

In 1952 Dior established C.D. Models. The London business provided ready-to-wear versions of his haute couture garments through exclusive department stores such as Harrods and Kendal Milne in Manchester. Renamed Christian Dior Ltd London at the end of 1954, the company established licensing deals with numerous British manufacturers, such as Symington’s corsets and Dent’s gloves. Dior often used fabrics designed and made by British companies such as Ascher and the Cumberland mills.

* The description of Dior in Britain above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.


HISTORICISM:

Christian Dior often cited historic periods in his designs – the sinuous lines of Belle Epoque dresses from the late 1800s and early 1900s; the tightly waisted mid-nineteenth-century styles worn by the French Empress Eugenie, Napoleon III’s wife. The sumptuous silks and dramatic silhouettes of the eighteenth century held a particular fascination. Dior’s premises at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris had a neo-classical facade, medallion-backed chairs, and white and grey panelling like that of the Petit Trianon at Versailles, a colour Dior is said to have revived.

The couturier created this setting with his friend Victor Grandpierre. The decor recalled Dior’s childhood home in Granville, and the Louis XVI style of the family’s Parisian apartment. To display Dior perfumes, Grandpierre devised a stand based on the Temple of Love at Versailles, built for the French queen Marie Antoinette in 1778, Louis XVI’s wife. Dior‘s ground floor boutique, Colifichets (‘Trinkets’), decorated by Christian Bérard, was covered in Toile de Jouy – a fabric printed with pastoral scenes of gentlefolk at play.

Numerous references to the eighteenth century can be found in the dresses created by Dior and his successors. They draw on the lavish style of the court dress worn at Versailles and the decor and decorative arts of the period.

* The description of Historicism above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.


TRAVELS:

As a young man Christian Dior was drawn to travel. In his twenties, he ventured to London, Athens, lstanbul and Leningrad. He spent nearly a year in the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean recuperating from an illness. From the launch of his first collection, Dior took inspiration from the architecture, landscapes, art and textiles of different countries and cities, naming his dresses after the places that inspired him.

These creative influences grew as Dior expanded his business around the world. He created a fashion realm that stretched from South America to Japan.

This section focuses on five of the countries that provided a source of reference for Christian Dior and his successors at the House Of Dior: Mexico, India, Egypt, Japan and China. Each of Dior’s later creative directors interpreted ideas of world travel in their own unique way. Art, architecture and decorative motifs can inspire innovative embellishment. A seam detail, fold, or trim found on regional dress can encourage new ways of thinking about cut and construction.

* The description of Travels above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.


THE GARDEN:

From early childhood Christian Dior was fascinated by gardens. His mother Madeleine created and cultivated the family garden that overlooked the sea at Granville, and as a small boy, he loved to study her Vilmorin-Andrieux plant catalogues. In later years he designed a pergola for the garden as a shelter from the sea breeze.

Dior enjoyed sketching his dresses outside in his garden at the Moulin du Coudret (his property in Milly-la-Foret) and La Colle Noire (his property near Grasse, in the south of France). He purchased La Colle Noir for its abundant fields of jasmine flowers and roses, ingredients used in the creation of his perfumes. His New Look was inspired by the shape of an inverted flower, and Dior salons were decorated with large floral arrangements by Parisian florist Lachaume and then Madame Dedeban. Flowers abound in Dior’s work from single silk flower decorations to decorative prints and intricate , embroideries.

The garden remains a theme to which successive designers at the House of Dior return. Yves Saint Laurent frequently inserted the rose motif into his designs for Dior. Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré and John Galliano, all keen gardeners, often adorned their collections with floral embroideries. Raf Simons’s first Dior collection was presented against a backdrop of a million fresh flowers. For her first haute couture collection for Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri created dresses with hand-dyed silk petals. They resembled delicately pressed flowers trapped between layers of silk tulle.

* The description of The Garden above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.


DESIGNERS FOR DIOR:

YVES SAINT LAURENT, 1957-60

Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent, former assistant to Christian Dior, was just 21 years old when he was appointed creative director at the house of Dior in 1957. His first collection for Spring-Summer 1958, titled Ligne Trapeze (Trapeze Line), was a phenomenal success, presenting a new silhouette for the house which moved the emphasis away from the waistline. Yves Saint Laurent’s designs for Dior had a youthful approach, echoing the style of his own generation. This preoccupation was evident in the names that he gave his collections. For Spring-Summer 1960 his collection was titled Silhouette de Demain (Silhouette of Tomorrow) and featured skirts worn over trousers and geometric cuts.

The following season his Autumn-Winter 1960 collection, Souplesse, Légéreté, Vie (Suppleness, Lightness, Liveliness) took inspiration from the street. Channelling the Beatnik aesthetic, the majority of the looks shown were black with slim elongated waistlines and turtlenecks worn with neat fitted hats and black leather coats. It was a radical move at this time to create couture inspired by the street and the collection caused much comment. This was to be Saint Laurent’s last collection for the house as he was subsequently called up for National Army Service.

* The description of Designers for Dior above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.

MARC BOHAN, 1961-89

Marc Bohan was the House of Dior’s longest-serving creative director. He worked at several Parisian couture houses including Piguet, Molyneux and Patou before joining Dior in 1958. His initial role was to design the London collections. In 1961, he showed his first collection as Christian Dior’s creative director in Paris. Deemed a complete triumph by the press, the Slim look collection was favoured by key clients such as Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor, who ordered 12 dresses from it.

Bohan steered the house through the cultural shifts of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Characterized by sculpted silhouettes and a fluidity of form, his modern clothes maintained a distinct Dior style while evolving with the times. He achieved an elegant simplicity by a mastery of cut, creating accents with purposefully placed buttons or dense embellishment. His famous remark ‘N’oubliez pas la femme’ (‘Don’t forget the woman’) underlined Bohan’s creative ethos: he expressly designed clothes that women loved to wear. Bohan departed in 1989.

* The description of Designers for Dior above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.

GIANFRANCO FERRE, 1989-96

Gianfranco Ferré trained originally as an architect before establishing his own fashion line in 1978. He was appointed to the House of Dior in 1989, heralding in a new era as the first designer under the aegis of Bernard Arnault (who had purchased the company five years previously). One of the leading lights of the Milan fashion world, Ferré’s appointment came as something of a surprise in a period when there was much competition between Italian and French fashion. Speaking of his appointment in May 1989, Ferré told the Washington Post that he was ‘very proud that Dior chose me’.

With his deep appreciation of textiles and materials, Ferré’s work at Dior was extravagant and exuberant, and he was a natural fit to breathe new life and excitement into the world of Parisian haute couture. He crafted dramatic, structured silhouettes using the finest fabrics and rich embellishments. His strong lines frequently referenced the nipped-in waists and the large skirted ballgowns of Dior’s ‘New Look’. For his first haute couture collection at Dior, entitled ‘Ascot-Cecil Beaton’, Ferré was awarded the prestigious De D’Or (Golden Thimble).

* The description of Designers for Dior above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.

JOHN GALLIANO, 1996-2011

The House of Dior appointed Gibraltar-born Londoner John Galliano as creative director in 1996. His debut haute couture collection, falling on the fiftieth anniversary of the New Look, was hotly anticipated by the world of fashion. Delving into the world of Christian Dior, the dramatic Spring-Summer 1997 show drew on many of Dior’s own inspirations and designs. Greeted with great acclaim, the collection set the pace for a riotous 15-year tenure.

Galliano revelled in the possibilities presented by the skills of the Dior haute couture ateliers. He travelled extensively with his design team and researched voraciously, creating eclectic narratives for his shows that drew on varied sources. Through innovative set design, he transported his audiences to entirely new immersive worlds, populated with imaginary characters attired in exquisite and extraordinary designs. Galliano pushed the definition of haute couture, mixing subversive social themes with a vast range of fashion content, from contemporary sportswear to lavish embroidery hand-worked at the Dior ateliers. The results were, in every sense, spectacular. Departing the House of Dior amid controversy in 2011, Galliano represents an era of unparalleled creative excess.

* The description of Designers for Dior above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.

RAF SIMONS, 2012-15

A graduate of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Raf Simons joined the House of Dior as creative director in 2012. Known as a master of minimalism, Simons maintained a focus on cut and line merged with touches of the romanticism and femininity as favoured by Christian Dior. Simons continually referenced the codes of the house alongside an abstract and architectural approach. For his first haute couture collection, he reinterpreted the New Look silhouette, injecting a streamlined modernity that reflected the practicalities of clothing for the contemporary woman.

Echoing Christian Dior’s own interest in contemporary art, Simons often took inspiration from the art world. He printed a work by artist Sterling Ruby on silk for several dresses in his debut collection for Dior.

Simons’ designs show an obsession for detail. He pushed the technical skills of the ateliers with his immaculate tailoring, innovative beadwork and experimental structural pleating. Despite the intricate haute couture methods used in their construction, Simons’ designs for Dior remained eminently wearable and attracted a new, younger generation of clients. He left the house in 2015, after seven couture collections at Dior, in order to focus on his own label.

* The description of Designers for Dior above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.

MARIA GRAZIA CHIURI, since 2016

Maria Grazia Chiuri is the first female creative director to take the helm at the House of Dior. She caused much comment with her debut ready-to-wear collection of Spring-Summer 2017, particularly her slogan t-shirts including one which referenced Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ (2014).

Chiuri feels that the role of a designer today is about an awareness of connecting with people and about having a voice, stating ‘I strive to be attentive and open to the world and to create fashion that resembles the women of today’. Comparing her role to that of a curator, her debut haute couture show of Spring-Summer 2017 referenced designs from across the history of the house acknowledging the ingenuity of the previous creative directors.

Chiuri aims to put the woman front and centre, reinterpreting the codes of the house with a view to addressing the varied needs and desires of the contemporary client. She has drawn inspiration from female characters from the past, such as explorer Freya Stark, author Virginia Woolf and artist Leonor Fini. The idea of femininity as shaped by Christian Dior is reimagined in her mix of modern tailoring and ethereal romantic evening gowns. Keeping the notion of a youthful attitude at the heart of her designs Maria Grazia Chiuri has ensured that Christian Dior remains at the forefront of the world of haute couture.

* The description of Designers for Dior above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.


THE ATELIERS:

The ateliers are the heart of the house of Dior. It is in these workrooms that ‘Petites mains’, or seamstresses, turn ideas into exquisite haute couture garments. The tradition of haute couture demands that garments are almost entirely made by hand, often taking hundreds of hours to complete.

When Christian Dior set up his house in 1946, be hired three formidable women to help him oversee the making of his collections. Marguerite Carré, a skilled maker, became the technical director, ensuring high standards and overseeing the distribution of designs to the tailleur (tailoring) and flou (dressmaking) ateliers. Mitzah Brieard, frequently referred to as Dior‘s muse, oversaw the millinery workrooms, and Raymonde Zehnaeker was the studio director: ‘holding the reigns of the business firmly in her grasp’, according to Dior. These women oversaw the process of turning designs into finished collections.

Once one of Dior‘s designs had been selected, it was taken to the ateliers to be turned into a toile. This test garment, usually made in white cotton fabric, allowed for the fit, construction and shape of the design to be checked. Once a toile was satisfactorily adjusted, fabric and embellishments were chosen, and the garment could be made, fitted to a model and shown on the catwalk.

Specialist work, such as embroidery and beading, was commissioned from artisans and craftspeople, the Arts et Metiers of Paris. Embroidery houses such as Lesage, Re’be and Andree Bressin de Mere and pleaters such as Gerard Lognon worked to the specifications of Dior’s designs. These exacting processes continue unchanged today.

* The description of The Ateliers above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.



THE BALLROOM:

Drawing on his love of costume, it was in his evening dresses and ball gowns that Dior could indulge his imagination and showcase the diverse skills of the haute couture ateliers. Revelling in splendour and extravagance, his spectacular creations featured skilful draping, intricate embroidery and magnificent embellishment with the most luxurious of materials.

Dior enthused that ‘evening clothes are the most glamorous and fascinating things a woman can have’ as ‘the evening is the time when you escape from the realities of life’. Just as his New Look had proposed a break from wartime austerity, Dior’s evening gowns often took finery and excess to the extreme. One of his most spectacular creations, Junon, from the autumn-winter 1949 collection, featured overlapping petals of tulle that were meticulously embroidered with thousands of shimmering sequins to create a gradient from white in the centre to deep blue at the edges.

Successive creative directors at the house have continued Christian Dior’s enthusiasm for the fantastical and the fairytale. A Dior gown, synonymous with allure and opulence, demonstrates the formidable talents and techniques of Parisian haute couture. It is no wonder that such striking creations have graced numerous red carpets as the choice of film stars and prominent personalities over the past seven decades.

* The description of The Ateliers above was taken from “Christian Dior” book by V&A Publishing.


* If you’d like to get the book I used to write this post, follow the link here.

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