This year, the House of Dior is celebrating its 70th anniversary. In honour of its founder, the Royal Ontario Museum is presenting Christian Dior, a much awaited exhibition featuring signature pieces and accessories from 1947 to 1957, the golden years of haute couture. Drawn from ROM’s permanent collection of Textiles and Fashions, and supported by loans of accessories, the show explores Dior’s creative process, showcases the House of Dior’s exquisite craftsmanship, and reflects on the lasting legacy of this grand couturier.
Dior was both an artist and innovator. Not only did he change the post-war aesthetic but he also single-handedly revived the ailing French fashion industry and restored Paris as the capital of luxury. France had suffered tremendously from the wartime occupation, privation and austerity. Textile shortages and clothes rationing had limited women’s fashion to long jackets, squared shoulders, and narrow knee-length skirts. The colours were drab, the look very masculine.
Dior’s genius lay in his ability to seize the mood of the times. He understood instinctively women’s desire for colour, femininity and glamour, in other words, for dramatic change. ‘‘Europe”, wrote Dior, “was tired of dropping bombs, and now only wanted to let off fireworks.”
And that is exactly what Dior did; he gave them fireworks. On February 12th, 1947, Dior presented his debut haute couture collection and with it, his vision of the ideal woman – deeply feminine, youthful, elegant and seductive. The ninety models of morning, afternoon and evening wear, featured a very different silhouette - soft shoulders, full busts, rounded hips, tiny waists (a mere fifty-five centimetres!) and long hemlines. This was a totally new look, one that took the fashion world by storm.
Dior’s revolutionary ‘New Look’ was inspired to a large extent by flowers. “After woman”, declared Dior in his autobiography, “flowers are the most lovely thing God has given the world… I design clothes for flower-like women.” Indeed, the floral motif recurs throughout Dior’s designs, in the cuts, lines, shapes, embroideries, colours, fabric textures and prints. The two principal lines of his manifesto collection were Corolle (petal) and En huite (figureof- eight). The first, featured full skirts spreading like petals from fitted bodices; the second, a more slender line with accentuated hips.
For Dior his creations were ‘ephemeral pieces of architecture destined to glorify the proportion of the female body.’ To achieve the desired ethereal effect, Dior moulded his dresses, suites, and evening gowns ‘on the natural curves of the female body and stylized its contours’. This required long-forgotten, elaborate haute couture techniques such as the confection of corsets, bustiers, waist ribbons, peplums, crinolines, warp printing and the practice of lining fabrics with cambric or taffeta. Once the ‘interior armature’ was constructed, metres upon metres of luxurious textiles were shaped to present a stunning exterior garment. The ROM exhibition is unique in that it showcases this exquisite workmanship. The samples of embroidery on display are amazing in their detail and beauty.
On a number of occasions Dior was motivated by a particular flower; for his 1953 Spring- Summer collection he designed the Tulipe line. The silhouette formed a tulip flower - the body mimicked the long stalk, while the petals spread to the bust and shoulders -upward and outwards.
Roses were also a dominant theme. Over fifty of Dior’s creations between 1947 and 1957 were named after roses. Roses adorned many of his garments, as well as his accessories. Unsurprisingly, Dior’s colour of preference was rose. In his Little Dictionary of Fashion, the couturier advised every woman to “have something pink in her wardrobe. It's the colour of happiness and femininity.” Andreé Brossin de Méré, a close friend and textile designer, created an array of magnificent rose prints for the House of Dior.
Dior’s favourite flower however, was the lily of the valley or muguet in French. It had special significance to him. Highly superstitious by nature, Dior would slip a sprig of lily of the valley into the hem of a design before a show to bring good luck. On May 1st, as is the tradition in France, Dior gave his employees, lily of the valley bouquets, as a token of appreciation and prosperity for the coming year.
In honour of his good luck charm, Dior devoted his 1954 Spring-Summer collection. One of the most beautiful Muguet dresses was from the 1957 Libre line. The white organdy dress had nine cascades of lily of the valley garlands, each encircling its skirt. To ensure that the tiny bells evoked the trembling movement of the real flower, a thirty-year old silk thread was used in its confection, such was the perfectionism of Dior.
Dior had a life-long passion for flowers and gardens. As a child he spent hours with his mother Madeleine designing and tending their English garden at Les Rhumbs, the family villa in Granville, Normandy. When designing a new collection Dior often retreated to his garden to sketch. Many of his evening dresses evoke the gardens of impressionist painters such as Monet, Renoir or Morisot. The evening dress Miss Dior (1949), which is embellished with one thousand white, pastel pink, mauve, violet and lilac silk flowers, echoes such an impressionist’s garden.
“Fashion” observed Dr. Alexandra Palmer the exhibition’s Senior Curator, “does not work unless it goes into the world”. In a mere ten years Dior had created a global brand. Through a system of licensing agreements the Dior name soon appeared on furs, stockings, lingerie, gloves, scarves, handbags, shoes, and ties. Holt Renfrew secured the sole right to sell Dior’s haute couture in Canada. All of Dior’s New Look collections were critically and commercially successful, an exceptional achievement. In fact, the House of Dior had twice as many orders as any other fashion house and produced more than fifty percent of French haute couture exports.
By 1957 the foundations of the Dior Empire was firmly established. The designer was now eager to retire. His plan was set in motion. The young and dynamic Yves St. Laurent would succeed him and Dior would move to his beloved property Le Colle Noire in Provence, to cultivate aromatic plants.
“This house”, he wrote, “I wanted it to be my real home. The one where I complete the circle of my existence and get back, in a different climate then the closed garden that sheltered my childhood, the home where I could finally live quietly, forgetting about Christian Dior Couturier and return to being simply Christian, private individual.”
On October 24th, 1957 Dior died unexpectedly at the age of 52. His impact on the fashion industry has been profound and long lasting. Today the House of Dior is one of the few remaining haute couture houses in France and undeniably one of the grandest in the industry. Dior’s New Look continues to influence the fashion world, and inspire new generations of designers.
The Christian Dior exhibit is presented by Holt Renfrew at the Royal Ontario Museum, Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles & Costumes from November 25, 2017 – March 18, 2018.
© 2017 Christine Medycky