Image of the Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams Exhibition. Image courtesy of the V&A © Adrien Dirand 2019.
For those lucky enough to have tickets (or able to snag some on the day), this is the final weekend in the V&A’s exhibition Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. This expansive exhibition paid homage to the legacy of Christian Dior, his innovative sense of silhouette, deep respect for the craft of haute couture, and the thematic threads that ran through his work. Through a series of themed rooms, the exhibition also explored how his successors interpreted these themes and his legacy in their own ways.
As is so often the case with fashion exhibitions, seeing the garments in real life reveals different qualities about the clothes, and about the designer’s working relationship with the clothes, to those we remember from iconic photographs.
What is striking about seeing the illustrations by Christian Dior near the start of the exhibition is not just that he was an expressive and romantic illustrator, but also that his team knew how to interpret each line of the sketch faithfully into silhouette. So often a designer’s sketch will only be translated by a team to a certain degree, perhaps focusing on the gist of the design but forcing certain details of the illustration into the background to conform to pre-existing pattern blocks. But in this case, you get the feeling that Dior’s team was able to rethink the construction of garments in a more holistic way to achieve exactly the feeling that Christian Dior wanted to convey. Happily moving seams or using the bias grain in a different way to mould the fabric to the body.
For example, the eye is drawn immediately to the tiny waists on the sketches and you can see the way this was replicated in the garments of Dior’s New Look. The feature of the narrow waist is the most eye-catching proof of how Dior reacted against the boxy styles of women’s tailoring in the 1940s. However, it is the line of the shoulders that deserve more recognition in Dior’s work.
Sketches by Christian Dior for model Londres, Autumn-Winter 1950 Haute Couture collection (top) and for model Oxford, Spring-Summer 1947 Haute Couture collection (bottom) © Christian Dior.
Some of the squared-off shoulder styles in 1940s womenwear were created by reworking unused men’s jackets, or shoulders on new womenswear were cut square to give a strong military edge to the clothing. In this sense, women would already have been able to take an existing jacket in at the waist to fit their figure, or would have worn newly designed utilitarian garments that were pronounced at the shoulders but nipped in at the waist. In contrast to this, for Dior’s New Look, the Bar suit is curved softly over the shoulders and split into careful panels that carve in towards the waist before the silhouette curves back out over the swollen hips. Seeing the illustrations and the garments side-by-side, it is clear that this silhouette would not be as exaggerated in the garment if his team hadn’t carefully replicated this exact expression from his drawings. To be able to achieve this silhouette, this also requires moving seam lines and constructing the garments in a way that would run like a thread through the work of successive designers at the house.
As you look at the images of the Bar suit below, look at how softly the shaping over the shoulders has been created, and how exaggerated the panelling is that curves in to create the narrow waist. Also, when viewed from the side, you can see how the waistline actually tilts up at the front, again reflecting the posture drawn in Christian Dior’s sketches and embodied by the postures of the models at the time.
After considering Dior’s different core design lines behind his collection, the exhibition moves through various themes such as his relationship with Britain, his love of flowers and travel, and the way he drew on historical details. These themes are fleshed out not only in terms of how he himself related to these concepts, but how those who followed him have worked these themes into their own work.
‘it’s quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look’ – Carmel Snow, Editor of Harper’s Bazaar
Le Tailleur Bar or Bar Suit featuring the Corolle line. Christian Dior Haute Couture, Spring-Summer 1947. Materials: Silk shantung, wool crepe and taffeta. In the book Dior Catwalk: The Complete Collection (2017) this skirt is described by Alexander Fury in the introduction as being pleated from 4 metres of wool.
Nonette, skirt and bodice, featuring the Verticale line. Christian Dior Haute Couture, Spring-Summer 1950.
Christian Dior, Haute Couture, Spring-Summer 1947. Maxim’s ensemble designed by Christian Dior and named after the fashionable Parisian café. This dress was featured in British Vogue’s first coverage of Christian Dior.
Christian Dior, Haute Couture, création spéciale, 1951. Dress designed for Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday by Christian Dior. Materials: Silk organza, straw, mother-of-pearl and sequins.
Walking through the garments designed by successive generations of designers, it acted as a timeline. A timeline, not just of the history of the Dior house, but also of the different waves of expectations on designers at various moments in history. While everyone will have their personal favourites, each designer was operating in a unique bubble. Each operating within different contexts and sets of expectations for what would thrill the fashion audience.
This is not to say that the garments across the whole exhibition were arranged chronologically. But by seeing side-by-side how Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano and Raf Simons all interpreted historical references from the 18th century, you got a sense of how each designer interpreted a particular point of inspiration to be modern and exciting within their own time, and for their own perceived customer.
For example, it’s impossible seeing the tiers of ruffles on a Galliano dress, not to be reminded that his time at Dior was an era where more theatre was expected from fashion. In 1996, John Galliano was appointed creative director at Dior, while simultaneously, Alexander McQueen was made the head designer at Givenchy, and both presented their first collections at their respective houses in 1997. This was an era where showmanship was not the hype designed to gloss over any cracks in the collection, instead, this was a time where the creativity and sense of theatre were underscored by deep technical ability. Wielding a pair of tailoring scissors or cutting a pattern felt like an act of rebellion. And ultimately, on the haute couture catwalk creativity was prized over wearability.
In contrast, there is a cleaner approach to the Dior codes by a designer like Raf Simons, who was operating within a very different era of haute couture and who was interpreting how couture could be modern for a very different type of Dior woman. Essentially you can see how the different designers – Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri – have traded off (or pushed against) ideas of theatre vs. wearability, or design innovation vs. stability depending on the expectations and limitations of the time.
Of course, under the helm of any of the designers, it is clear that the level of craft shines through, and is ultimately the constant that ties the work of all the disparate designers together. As you wander through the exhibition and see a certain oversized flap pocket reappear, or mist up the glass of an exhibition case trying to get closer to the embroidery, the skill of the haute couture petite mains is clearly on show and there is a depth of construction knowledge that runs like an undercurrent beneath all the different themes. And that is without even talking about the toile room at the heart of the exhibition, which is a topic for another time.
Dress by Maria Grazia Chiuri for Christian Dior, Haute Couture, Autumn-Winter 2018. Featuring toile de jouy print as used by Christian Bérard to decorate Christian Dior’s first boutique. Materials: Silk organza and knotted silk fly-braid embroidery. Fly braiding was a popular embroidery from the 1750s to 1770s.
Christian Dior by Raf Simons, Haute Couture, AW14. Pale pink coat referencing 18th-century court attire through the cut and embellishment. Materials: Silk, wool and Swarovski crystals.
Christian Dior by John Galliano, Haute Couture, Spring-Summer 2005. Materials: Silk satin, gilded thread and Swarovski crystals.
Christian Dior by John Galliano, Haute Couture, Autumn-Winter 2004. Materials: Silk moiré and gilded thread.
Christian Dior by Gianfranco Ferré, Ready-to-wear, Spring-Summer 1993. White and blue jacket reminiscent of a women’s riding habit of the 1700s. Materials: Silk, metal and Swarovski crystals.
Christian Dior by Raf Simons, Haute Couture, AW14. Pale blue dress with floral sprays with an 18th-century inspired silhouette. Materials: Silk façonné.
Image courtesy of the V&A. © Adrien Dirand 2019.
Jardin Fleuri Dress ‘Garden in Bloom’ designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri for Christian Dior, Haute Couture, Spring-Summer 2017. Materials: Silk embellished with cut and dyed feathers to resemble petals.
Christian Dior by John Galliano, Haute Couture, Autumn-Winter 2010. Materials: Wool felt and silk organza.
Dress (left) Christian Dior by Raf Simons, Haute Couture, Spring-Summer 2013. Materials: Silk tulle, embellished with beads and sequins. Almée dress aka ‘Egyptian Dancer’ (right) Christian Dior, Spring-Summer 1955. Materials: Silk organza and gilded thread.
Christian Dior by Raf Simons, Haute Couture, Autumn-Winter 2012. Materials: Silk organza and chiffon. The dress was worn by actor Natalie Portman, the face of Miss Dior perfume. The dress is embellished with silk chiffon buds arranged in the style of a pointillist painting with matching silk thread.
Designs inspired by travel featured as part of the exhibition. The red look is the Amour Soleil ensemble designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri for Christian Dior, Haute Couture, Spring-Summer 2018. Wool mask created by Stephen Jones. Materials: Wool and silk satin.
Designers of Dior: Yves Saint Laurent (1958-60)
Christian Dior by Yves Saint Laurent. Black Bal Masqué dress or Masked Ball dress (left), Haute Couture, Spring-Summer 1958. Green Soirée Intime or Private Party dress, Christian Dior London, Autumn-Winter 1960.
Christian Dior by Yves Saint Laurent. Collection Chart, Haute Couture, Spring-Summer 1958, Trapèze line.
Designers of Dior: Marc Bohan (1960-89)
Designs by Marc Bohan for Christian Dior.
‘Noubliez pas la femme’ – ‘Don’t forget the woman’ – Bohan told Vogue in 1963.
Designers of Dior: Gianfranco Ferré (1989-96)
Designs by Gianfranco Ferré for Christian Dior.
Designers of Dior: John Galliano (1996-2011)
Designs by John Galliano for Christian Dior.
Designers of Dior: Raf Simons (2012-15)
Christian Dior by Raf Simons. Haute Couture, Autumn-Winter 2012. Materials: Wool cashmere and metal.
Christian Dior by Raf Simons. Haute Couture, Spring-Summer 2015. Details of the making of these dresses were included in the articles Ribboned Pleats at Dior Haute Couture» and Bust Shaping with Panel Lines at Dior».
Christian Dior by Raf Simons. Haute Couture, Autumn-Winter 2012. More fabric details from this collection were included in the article Ethereal Fabrics at Dior Couture».
Designers of Dior: Maria Grazia Chiuri (2016 to Present)
Designs by Maria Grazia Chiuri for Christian Dior.
Image courtesy of the V&A. © Adrien Dirand 2019.
Examples of Christian Dior beauty product packaging.
Detail of orange wool dress by Raf Simons for Christian Dior, Haute Couture, Spring-Summer 2013.
Examples of magazine covers featuring Christian Dior.
The Dior Ball
Image courtesy of the V&A. © Adrien Dirand 2019.
Christian Dior by Raf Simons. Haute Couture, Autumn-Winter 2012. Materials: Silk organza and chiffon.
Christian Dior by Gianfranco Ferré. Haute Couture, Spring-Summer 1995. Materials: Silk organza and chiffon.
Images as captioned courtesy of the V&A / © Adrien Dirand 2019.
All other images are © The Cutting Class 2019.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams
Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)
London, United Kingdom
2 February – 1 September 2019
Curator: Oriole Cullen
Exhibition Designer: Nathalie Crinière
Based on the exhibition Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve, organised by the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, curated by Olivier Gabet and Florence Mϋller.