Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams

Sandra Westbrooke is entranced by the largest exhibition about the House of Dior ever staged in the UK

“In the world today, haute couture is one of the last repositories of the marvellous.”

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So wrote Christian Dior, not long before his sudden death from a heart attack in 1957, and this exquisite exhibition at the V&A bears this out. It traces the history and impact of one of the 20th century’s most influential couturiers and the six artistic directors who have succeeded him, exploring his enduring influence.

Each of the eleven rooms is a jewel box, sparkling with colour and light. The story begins with an extended biography section exploring Dior’s early career running an art gallery and as a fashion illustrator. When he founded his couture house in 1946, Europe was starting to pick up the pieces after World War II, and Paris needed to regain its fashion pre-eminence. After years of austerity, clothes were boxy, utilitarian, and modelled on military uniforms. Fabric in the UK remained rationed.

So when his first collection was unveiled in the French capital in 1947, it provoked an uproar. Fashionistas rejoiced – femininity was back with a vengeance, make do and mend was dead. There were ballerina-length skirts using yards of precious material, nipped in waists, and chic hats to complement the outfits. Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief, Carmel Snow, is said to have exclaimed: “It’s such a new look”, and the term stuck.

In the UK, such profligate use of material brought official disapproval – the Board of Trade frowned on any mention of the Dior collection by the media. But there was no going back, and women embraced the return of romance. Taking pride of place in the exhibition is the iconic Bar Suit, with its soft shoulders, wasp waist and flowing, pleated skirt. Succeeding Dior designers have paid homage to it – some of their versions surround the original, on display at the start of the exhibition.

Born in 1905, from an early age Dior was an incurable Anglophile. He first visited Britain in 1926 and was charmed by the country “in which the past lies so vividly around”. He wrote: “When an English woman is pretty, she is prettier than a woman of any nationality. I adore the English, dressed not only in the tweeds, which suit them so well, but also in those flowing dresses, in subtle colours, which they have worn inimitably since the days of Gainsborough.”

His first British fashion show was at the Savoy in 1950. He then began showing his collections at grand country houses such as Blenheim Palace. Frequently held in aid of charity, these provided great publicity, with crowds of guests eager to see the latest Dior designs. His creations found a ready market among debutantes and society figures. The young Princess Margaret, along with her mother and sister, was treated to a special show at the French Embassy in London. One of the highlights of the British section of the exhibition is the fairytale tulle gown he designed for her 21st birthday. Well-worn, it’s been carefully restored by conservators at the Museum of London.

Although his creations were couture, and designed for the very rich, Dior launched his own ready-to-wear line in London, available through upmarket stores such as Harrods and Kendal Milne in Manchester. He frequently used British wools and silks, but his design vision also encompassed accessories, fragrances and even corsetry, to help customers achieve the desired shape.

The exhibition shows how his inspiration came from many sources, among them his love of the 18th century and flowers and gardens. One section, Diorama, brings together a glittering collection of costume jewellery, hats, shoes and bags, archive lipstick and, of course, his perfumes. Outstanding is a Baccarat blue crystal bottle of Miss Dior, named after his younger sister, Catherine, from 1947.

In his ten years at the helm, Dior launched 22 collections, each comprising over 150 looks. The show also pays homage to his successors: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri. One room is devoted to their most eye-catching creations. Says Oriole Cullen, the museum’s Fashion and Textiles Curator: “The influence of Christian Dior’s design was all-pervasive and helped to define an era. In their own individual ways, each of the House’s successive artistic directors have referenced and reinterpreted Dior’s own designs and continued the legacy of the founder, ensuring that the House of Christian Dior is at the forefront of fashion today.”

The work that went on behind the scenes, where seamstresses (or petites mains) turned the designers’ ideas into the magical creations that are on show, has a whole display to itself. Presented as a “cabinet of curiosity” style installation, you can see the prototypes – the toiles – usually of white cotton, and most with markings showing the adjustments and alterations needed to achieve the desired effect. Of particular interest is the toile of one extremely complicated evening gown by John Galliano. Look back into the previous room and you’ll see the finished garment, its skirt – pale blue morphing into lime green – resplendent with a myriad of pleats.

The grand finale of the exhibition is a stunning collection of extravagant evening wear, truly the stuff of dreams. It ranges from a strapless silk gown created for Margot Fonteyn in 1955 to a dress that Jennifer Lawrence wore to a film premiere in 2017. The last dress on view is by Dior’s current creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri. Her inspiration was a 1950 promotional fan for the House of Dior. She has translated its paper pleats into cascades of pleated tulle. The skirt bears the final touch: there, across the front, Dior’s signature is embroidered, underlining his enduring legacy.

Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams runs at the V&A in London until 14 July 2019. Tickets from £20. Concessions available.