Earlier this week I was lucky enough to go with my daughter to the Christian Dior exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. All I can say is that it is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Not only is it way larger than I was expecting, it is presented in a such magical way that carries you away into the very special world of couture clothing.
Christian Dior (1905 - 1957) lived a short but influential life. I use Dior mascara almost everyday, but I knew nothing about him before this day and was amazed to read his story. Born into a wealthy family, with a natural artistic flare, his father initially financed a small art gallery for him to run. However with the ‘great depression’ of the 1930’s the family fortunes waned and he was forced to seek employment. In 1937 he worked for the fashion designer Robert Piguet who taught him the basis of dress construction. One of his designs ‘Cafe Anglais’, a day dress with a full skirt was the beginnings of his style emerging. However his aspirations were cut down by the advent of war and he served in the army for the duration. Determined to make a new start in the post war economy, in 1946 with the help of some financial backing from one of the richest business men in France, Marcel Boussac, the House of Dior was born. His sudden death 10 years later meant that he didn’t have that much time to establish his brand, but intact it is testament to his skill that the brand has in fact endured and flourished.
When you arrive at the exhibition, you are greeted with some classic outfits in the ‘New Look’ style which exploded on to the scene in the post war years. After the austerity of the war time life women were ready for a new beginning and Dior stepped into the breach with full swirling skirts that were a breath of fresh air. They were not without controversy. Apparently the President of the Board of Trade in the UK was actively trying to discourage journalists from promoting fashions which require so much fabric - remember clothing coupons were still in place until 1950. However the public were hungry for a new style and Dior’s nipped in waist lines and exuberant swishing skirts caught the imagination of women everywhere. The style quickly filtered down the clothing chain from Haute Couture to high street and a new fashion was born.
I loved this red coat (of course….very Ruby!).
One of the first things that struck me about this collection of gowns was the sheer femininity of them. There was just an abundance of ‘prettiness’ everywhere.
There were gowns that took their outlines from historical costumes……it is easy to say that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ but probably it is so. The trick is to make the idea your own and of course the house of Dior has no problem with that idea at all.
There were embroidered creations….. all hand stitched with exquisite precision and immaculate colour choices.
There were ethereal floaty affairs….
There was the gown that was designed for Princess Margaret for her 21st birthday….with fabulous gold straw embroidery swirling across the skirt. When you see this gown you start to understand what ‘haute couture’ really means. That one of a kind ‘experience’ of a dress that lifts the wearer above the crowds into an almost celestial orbit.
There were extraordinarily embellished gowns….. this one was a riot of appliquéd flowers. I cannot imagine how many hours that took to do (well perhaps I can!)
As you walk along this series of incredible rooms and are swept up with the sheer quality and finesse of such dresses, you come to a sort of internal chamber that has floor to ceiling ‘toiles’ of various designs. This shows you the complexity of the designs and gives you some idea of the construction process involved in making these creations.
“Everything created by humans hands expresses something - above all the personality of the creator. The same thing is true with a dress. But since so many people are working on it, the real job is to get all the hands that cut, sew, try on and embroider to express all I have felt.” Christian Dior 1954
Here for example you can see not only the plan for the suit, but the appliqué ideas as well. I loved this room because it brought both clarity and a sense of awe of the skill involved in fashion designing. I am a novice dressmaker and a more experienced friend of mine is always telling me…”make a toile“ …. well that really is how it’s done and of course in doing so you can see the flaws and the shaping emerge on the way.
It was a clever idea to illustrate the exhibition with these …. to highlight the sculptural effect that fabric can bring to the female form. It helps if you have a tiny waist of course…but it also made me think about the fabrics themselves and it is no surprise that this was a real treat. This pale blue creation is quite a mixture of soft and stiff fabrics layered with embroidery and braid and folds and darts and all with a little throw back to the 18th century.
There were displays for each creative director that has been at Dior since his death and you could plot the timeline ….. for me, the way was lost in the 70’s and 80’s but let’s face it, in terms of fashion, everyone was a bit lost! The dresses became brasher and more outrageous and for me less impressive - I prefer the more classical feminine look.
This dress below is by the most recent and first female creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri and I have to say it was incredibly striking.
Of course Dior is about more than just haute couture and the Diorama room, provided a rainbow of bags, hats, shoes, mini mannequins and a glimpse of the perfumes and cosmetics that are still core business today.
As you can see it was the most stunning exhibition and there was really so much to see. I have only put a few of the photos that I took and I bought the book home as well. It was a glimpse into a world that most of us don’t and never will inhabit, but like the allure of the red carpet, there is something marvellously fascinating about such an elite collection and it inspires you to add and adapt little bits of luxury into your own life. I came away thinking I should swap my jeans for a gloriously feminine dress - that can’t be a bad thing, can it? and my very favourite thing…. I think it might be this.
Although this was just a practice version of whatever it became - I love the ruffles and ruching - I’d wear that top anywhere. I’ll let Mr Dior have the final word…
“After women, flowers are the most divine of creations” Christian Dior 1954 ….. I can go with that.
oh and ps. If you can’t get to see the exhibition itself, you can always buy the book - the photos are way better than mine - it’s amazing and is available from the V&A.