Christian Dior was undoubtedly a fashion legend—but did his clothes perpetuate troubling aspects of the male gaze or provide women with an empowering (and magnificent) armour? Muriel Zagha heads to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where sumptuous designs from the fashion house, from 1947 until the present day, are housed in a monumental show.

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams Atelier section. All images courtesy of the V&A and Adrien Dirand

Never before had I been surrounded by so many sighing women as when walking through the other-worldly dream machine of Dior Designer of Dreams. Visitors were sighing and pointing—at cascading acres of velvet and organza, at boots clad in soft feathers, at glittering beaded hats and richly embroidered gloves—or simply sighing and gazing.

The largest and most comprehensive ever retrospective devoted to the house of Dior, the show spans the period from the label’s birth in 1947 to the present day, tracing the history and enduring influence of Christian Dior himself and of the six distinguished artistic directors who have succeeded him. Over five hundred objects are on show, with over two hundred haute couture garments displayed alongside accessories, fashion photography and illustrations, film, magazines, original make-up and vintage perfume, as well as some of Christian Dior’s personal possessions. It is a (fashion) fetishist’s dream.

Royal Portrait of Princess Margareton her twenty-first birthday. Photo by Cecil Beaton (1904–1980) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Royal Portrait of Princess Margareton her twenty-first birthday. Photo by Cecil Beaton (1904–1980) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Though based on the Paris Musée des Arts Décoratifs show Christian Dior Couturier du Rêve, this retrospective has been curated by Oriole Cullen, fashion and textiles curator at the V&A, and, with new content from the museum’s own collection and a section devoted to Dior’s personal love of England, its elegance and traditions, it feels quite different from its Paris originator and certainly continuous with other ones of the V&A’s vast, ambitious fashion shows, such as Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion, and Fashioned from Nature.

“The dresses look to me, powerfully, like armour”

From the iconic 1947 “Bar” suit, a minimalist tailored white jacket and pleated black skirt (gifted to the museum by the House of Dior in 1960 with the help of Cecil Beaton) to “Junon”, a sumptuous 1959 ballgown featuring overlapping petals of tulle embroidered with thousands of sequins, the clothes on display have such definitive authority and poise that it is difficult to remember just how scandalous and wasteful they once appeared in the wake of the privations of the war-time years. In 1947, an early adopter of Dior’s New Look walking down the rue Lepic in Paris in one of those forty-yard skirts was attacked by some French housewives, who physically tore her clothes off her.

French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent (1936 - 2008) in London, 11th November 1958. He is preparing for the following day's Dior Autumn collection show to an audience including Princess Margaret, at Blenheim Palace. Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images
French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent (1936 – 2008) in London, 11 November 1958. He is preparing for the following day’s Dior Autumn collection show to an audience including Princess Margaret, at Blenheim Palace. Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images

The immediately post-war historical context of Dior’s blossoming is crucial: his opulent elegance was pitted against the boxy fashions made necessary by the war and came as a voluptuous sigh of relief. However, the show, cleverly designed by Nathalie Criniere, isn’t chronological: rather, the garments are staged according to a series of themes. The Historicism section illustrates, with judicious use of mirrored walls and neo-classical columns, the influence on Dior’s graceful designs of his nostalgia for the eighteenth century and for the Belle-Epoque fashions worn by his mother. The Garden section has illuminated paper flowers cascading from the ceiling above an array of lighter-than-air, sugared-almond coloured dresses. Dark, moody spaces alternate with rooms filled with light, so that there a continuing sense of surprise and drama: after walking through the darkened corridor of the Diorama section, with its rainbow-like cabinet de curiosités of costume jewellery, hats, shoes, bags, perfume bottles and my favourite thing of all, a vial of Dior artificial blood for use in film and theatre, you exit into the exhilarating Ateliers section, with floor-to-ceiling vitrines of white toiles (early versions of garments made of calico), like a collection of ghostly origami, suggestive all at once of the hands (“petites mains”) that made them in the atelier, and of the human figures they were designed for.

Sketch by Christian Dior for model Oxford, Haute Couture, Spring/Summer 1947 © Christian Dior
Sketch by Christian Dior for model Oxford, Haute Couture, Spring/Summer 1947 © Christian Dior

The totality of Dior’s vision is impressive. He was a fan of such examples of total art works or concepts as French and Italian opera and the Art Nouveau movement and through his fashion aesthetics created his own Gesamtkunstwerk, complete with scent. Is there, perhaps out of necessity, a whiff of totalitarianism about such completeness of design, such driven single-mindedness? Dior, who drew hundreds of preliminary sketches for his garments, said: “I scribble everywhere, in bed, in my bath, at meals, in my car, on foot, in the sun, in electric light, by day and by night.” I found it hard not to think, while looking through the exhibition, of Daniel Day Lewis’s performance (as a highly controlling couture designer in the 1950s) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Phantom Thread.

  • V&A_Christian Dior Designer of Dreams exhibition_The Dior Line section (c) ADRIEN DIRAND (7)
  • V&A_Christian Dior Designer of Dreams exhibition_Historicism section (c) ADRIEN DIRAND (5)
  • Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. Left: The Dior Line section. Right: Christian Dior: Historicism section

On the one hand of course, Dior’s version of the male gaze is bound to raise some eyebrows. The designer liked to equate women with flowers; the New Look referenced the corolla, the shape of an inverted flower, and it is impossible not to notice the nineteen-inch waists of his garments. Were women being dictated to by “a bland country curate made out of pink marzipan” (to use Cecil Beaton’s waspish characterization)? I’m not so sure. The dresses also look to me, powerfully, like armour.

“Is there, perhaps out of necessity, a whiff of totalitarianism about such completeness of design, such driven single-mindedness?”

Novelist Emma Tennant described the daring Dior ball gown she wore in 1953 to be presented at court as: “scarlet organza […] easily fastened and almost indestructible, being built of whalebones and further strengthened with what appeared to be a beige baize stiffened with wire.” I thought of Audrey Hepburn’s quote about Hubert de Givenchy’s beautiful clothes granting her “protection from evil”. Dior clothing was (and remains) out of the price range of most women and as such is mainly enjoyed as spectacle, and as shorthand (or fetish) for other things: elegance, chic, Parisian flair, Frenchness, perhaps also the illusion of immortality. Besides, Marc Bohan, who succeeded Christian Dior as the house’s creative director, used to have as his design motto: “N’oubliez pas la femme” (don’t forget the woman): these were clothes designed to be enjoyed by the wearer.

Christian Dior with model Sylvie, circa 1948. Courtesy of Christian Dior

“I think of my work as ephemeral architecture, dedicated to the beauty of the female body,” Dior said in 1957. Certainly structure looms large, and Dior lines were given sculptural names like Zig-Zag, Verticale, Sinueuse, Tulipe, Flèche (“arrow”) and Fuseau (“spindle”). As for “ephemeral”, that has turned out not to be true. I played “spot the designer” while visiting the show, as most sections show a mix of creations by the house’s different successive creative directors. All are distinctive: the pizzazz of Gianfranco Ferré, Raf Simons’s spindly minimalism, Galliano’s extravagant theatricality… Invariably, the most modern and pared-down garments turned out to have been Dior’s own. He endures.

 

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams

Until 14 July at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

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