Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Designer of Dreams

His name has just four letters -- D-I-O-R -- but when read or spoken aloud, thousands of images immediately flood your brain: dresses, suits, hats, coats, ball gowns, shoes, gloves, jewelry, perfume. The list is endless. A testament to the vast richness of Christian Dior's world. And here in Paris, where it all began, the Musée des Arts Decoratifs is currently celebrating 70 years of the work of his fashion house. Needless to say, it's a "hot ticket" to grab, and it's a sturdy soul who braves the dense crowds that are crammed into the galleries at all hours. Never one to shrink from such a challenge, I was one of those souls, although the following is just a sketch of this extensive, overwhelming show.

Born to a wealthy Normandy family in 1905, Dior grew up in a beautiful, tastefully decorated home, filled with flowers from the gardens surrounding it. His mother's artistic temperament created and maintained this world,  the memories of which stayed with Dior his whole life.  In 1910, the family moved to Paris where the exciting cultural life of the city lay at his doorstep. At age 14, Dior went to see a palm reader who predicted his future: "You will be penniless, but women will be good to you and it is thanks to them that you will succeed." 

Dior's plans to become an architect were dashed when his conservative parents refused to endorse him going to the École Beaux-Arts.  Instead, he opened an art gallery, which his father helped fund (as long as the family name did not appear on the front of the gallery!). Teaming up with a friend, Jacques Bonjean, they opened a small gallery in 1928, where they showed works by well known artists and young artists of their own generation.  This painting by the cubist painter Louis Marcoussis, "Les 3 Poètes", particularly caught my eye.

By 1931, Dior's father had lost his entire fortune, following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Dior himself ended his partnership with Bonjean, but two years later, opened another gallery with Pierre Colle, where they showed mostly surrealist and abstract artists. Salvador Dali's,"Buste de Femme Rétrospectif" had its first showing at the Colle Gallery in 1933...

 ...as did this work by Man Ray, "Perpetual Motive". It was an exciting time as this close-knit world of artists like Dali, Max Jacob, Giacometti, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau, and gallerists like Dior and Pierre Colle spent time together, sharing their ideas and hopes and dreams for the future. Before long though, the effects of the Depression began to be felt, clients became scarce, businesses closed. Including the Galerie Pierre Colle. Dior lost his own personal collection. The palm reader's prediction seemed to be coming true!

To keep the wolf from the door, in 1935 Dior studied fashion drawing, and signed on as a fashion illustrator with people like Claude Saint Cyr for whom he drew these hats in 1937...

...and with Lucien Lelong where he made many fashion drawings, including this one in 1942. The lines of this dress give us a hint of what is to come!

In 1946, backed by a wealthy textile manufacturer, Dior opened his own fashion studio on Avenue Montaigne. One of his earliest designs, "The Bar Suit" became a featured garment when Christian Dior presented his first haute couture show in February 1947. He was completely unknown to the public, but that would not last long.

This was the "New Look" that revolutionized the world of fashion, and thrust Dior into the stratosphere. After all the years of war and rationing, he created a world where women could once again have a supple and elegant look. Shoulders were soft, waists well-defined, skirts below the knee and flared, creating a swirling, dancing effect. Carmel Snow, the editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar christened this movement: "It's quite a revolution dear Christian, your dresses have such a new look!"

Along with exquisite day dresses, Dior designed voluptuous evening gowns. This shimmering wonder is called the "Junon" dress, part of the 1949 collection. "Junon" is the French word for Juno, the ancient Roman goddess, wife of Jupiter and patroness of Rome. Juno is often associated with the peacock, which explains, perhaps, the petal shaped layers of the skirt, dotted with sequins, that almost resemble peacock feathers.

From the same year, this flowing velvet wonder is known as the "Sargent" dress.

Two years later, Princess Margaret wore another sumptuous gown from the House of Dior for her official 21st birthday photograph by Cecil Beaton. She was a devoted Dior client.

The fashion house at 30 Avenue Montaigne has a neo-classical facade, white and Trianon grey panelling, and a large selection of neo-Louis XVI chairs and furnishings, all reflecting Dior's love of the 18th Century. Here, Dior supervised a devoted staff. He was generous, touching and much loved. Here he is with his florist, Madame Dedebon, putting the final touches to a floor-to-ceiling arrangement of lilies...

...here, he gently adjusts the model Renée's collar before she takes to the runway...

...and here he sits with his close colleagues and collaborators, most of whom, it should be noted, are women. He was known to be extremely polite with everybody, always finding time for a kind word, no matter how busy he was.

The 1950s saw the rise of fashion photography, something Dior took great advantage of.  This "Day Dress" from 1950 was photographed by Henry Clarke...

...whilst in 1955, the glamorous model, Dovima, happily allowed herself to be  posed with elephants from the Cirque d'Hiver by Richard Avedon. Dovima is wearing the first evening dress designed by Dior's new assistant, Yves Saint Laurent!

Dior's love of gardens and flowers from his early childhood is reflected in one whole section of the exhibition called "Gardens", devoted to dresses and gowns with a floral connection. I especially loved this 1956 satin bustier evening dress, decorated with lily of the valley flowers and embroidered with Swarovski crystals, which was designed for Françoise Arnoul in Henri Vermeuil's film "Paris, Palace Hotel" from 1956. So pretty!

One more from this section that caught my eye was this 1960 faille bustier cocktail dress from Yves Saint Laurent.

This portrait by Bernard Buffet in 1954, shows Dior at the height of his powers and influence. People flocked to his fashion house on Avenue Montaigne. His business expanded globally, and by the following year accounted for over 50% of French haute couture items exported abroad.

Sometime in early 1957, Dior graced the cover of Time magazine, wielding a large pair of scissors. The leader of Paris designers. Then, without warning, in October of that year, he died suddenly of a heart attack, struck down at the very height of his success. He was 52 years old. At his request, Yves Saint Laurent took over his empire, followed in later years by Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and the current head of the House of Dior, -- and the first woman to hold the position --  Maria Grazia Chiuri.

Over the years, these designers have continued to bring breathtaking fashion to runways throughout the world, building on Dior's unique vision: his love of women, of beauty, of art. The exhibition has many rooms devoted to examples of their work -- many are flamboyant, tribal, some derivative of the works of modern artists like Jackson Pollock or André Derain, some highly decorative --  all seeking to have the same impact as when Christian Dior first stepped onto the stage in 1947. Although, to be honest, my eyes always seem to drift back to Dior's early work, with its fresh, clean and really quite simple approach to the art of fashion.

Because what I loved most about this show was the uncomplicated vision that Christian Dior held to throughout his life:  elegance. To him, this elegance was not limited to one particular garment. His aim was to dress a woman from head to toe. He insisted that everything from hats to shoes, jewelry to bags, perfume to make-up all had a part to play in the final perfect picture of this much-desired "elegance". This little flask of Miss Dior perfume (first introduced in 1950), displayed in a cabinet inspired by the "Temple of Love" at Le Petit Trianon at Versailles, pretty much sums that up. It's simple, it's elegant, it's classy (and I always did like the perfume!).

À bientôt!


  1. Wow fantastic blog!!! I want all those dresses now!!!!

  2. How fab was "The new look". I remember Val in exactly that outfit photographed with the bicycle. I still wear Miss Dior too......best ever!

  3. Had to look again at those dresses!!! Defo want them all um ok Santa been very good girl this year can I have them all thank you Santa x

  4. Gorgeous apparel, wonderful photos, a narrative well told...Aaah, a delightful distraction from the terrifying trinity of Trump, Weinstein and the North Korean adolescent!

    1. Thanks, Rick. Yes, we're also trying to be distracted, even at a distance!