In his autobiography Christian Dior tells the story of a fortune teller he met at a 1919 charity event for veterans of the Great War. He was an impressionable, imaginative young man. The fortune teller told him that he would suffer poverty earlier on in his life but that his luck would change and that he would make ‘a great deal of money out of women’. Needless to say, he ran home to tell his family. His father, Maurice, an affluent industrialist, laughed the loudest.
His childhood spent in Normandy by the sea with his brothers and sisters was happy. Life was full of parties and friends. Despite being shy and reserved, Christian knew how to make good friends.
In 1931 disaster struck. Christian’s father’s enterprise went bust and Christian lost both his brother and beloved mother, Madeleine. Penniless, Christian wound up the art gallery he had set up with a friend and fell gravely ill with TB. If it hadn’t been for the friends rallying round to raise money for the sanatorium, we would have probably been deprived of one of the greatest dress designers of the twentieth century. Dior recovered and returned to Paris to embark on a career in haute couture.
In 1946, aged forty-one, Maison Christian Dior was born, thanks to the financial backing of an important French industrialist named Marcel Boussac. Nicknamed ‘the cotton king’, Boussac had made money out of two world wars and had become the richest man in France.
At the V and A’s exhibition: Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams. I joined a traffic jam of people and circumvented the cameras, a television presenter and a small army of photographers, who had parked their tripods in front of the choicest Dior creations and were refusing to budge!
I imagined Christian Dior peering down at us from his cloud, in his habitual grey suit, looking every bit the plump French priest, shaking his head and floating off into oblivion. He cherished his privacy and was happiest sketching at a café table, well away from the fashion circus.
I finally slipped into Room 1 of the exhibition, which is devoted to Christian Dior, the man. The display cabinet was full of photographs of his childhood. Dior as a boy in a sailor suit. We have a portrait of Christian as a young man. He has bright, sensitive, kind eyes and he’s sitting on a divan with an open book. Like Proust, he was a great watcher. A watcher of women at the balls and parties his mother and others held in his circle. When she died so suddenly something must have broken inside of him. He consciously strove to recreate her world, her liking for the eighteenth century furniture and dress.
All these things are implied and shown in the ball gowns in the Historicism room. Christian Dior was drawn to the sinuous lines of the Belle Epoque dress (late 1880s), the sumptuous silks, and the tightly waisted mid-19thcentury fashion. His fashion showroom at 30 Rue Montaigne was made up in the same style – but in muted grey, so that the furniture and soft furnishings wouldn’t detract from the beautiful models circling the drawing room.
A crazy John Galliano gown embroidered with aqua marine flowers dominates the room. In the background stands an 18thcentury folly with formal garden. Galliano was the great-great grandson in the Dior designer dynasty if we are to view it as a family. I overheard someone say: ‘Galliano is not necessarily the best but he is the most interesting after Dior.’ There is no doubt, Galliano’s theatricality and his exuberance and colour brought magic to the show.
For me, the real highlights were Dior’s impeccably tailored suits of the early nineteen fifties, the cinched waists, soft shoulders, the skirts coming down below the knee moulded to the figure were the height of femininity and sophistication.
Memories of a Dior-inspired Agnes B suit I had bought in the early nighties surfaced. Charcoal grey, fashioned in flannel with fitted jacket, lots of buttons, and figure-hugging skirt. With it, I had positively sailed into business meetings. My Agnes B suit was my lucky suit. The one that pulled in the big contracts – strict but feminine, professional but comfortable. It lasted me ten years and I am so sorry I didn’t have a copy made of it!
Aside from the tailored suits, tailored dresses, such as Dior’s Tulip Dress from the Spring 1953 collection or the chic H-line dress, sheathed at the chest of Autumn 1954, stopped me in my tracks. They are still so timeless, so beautiful.
There are five hundred objects on display in this exhibition but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by them. This is all due to Oriole Cullen’s careful curating and also Nathalie Crinière’s artful exhibition design. The themed rooms, eleven in all, showed off the clothes to their best advantage in their different settings. The labelling meanwhile provided just enough information to retain our interest.
Most memorable was The Garden Room,which draws on Dior’s passion for flowers and gardens. There is a touching story about Dior’s youngest sister, Catherine Dior, who joined the resistance during World War II and was interned at Ravensbruck concentration camp. Christian was so relieved when she returned safely that he named his Miss Dior perfume after her. The stunning Baccarat bottles containing the original perfume are on display. He also designed a Miss Dior dress with tiny silk flowers in her honour knowing that she loved gardens as much as him. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s (Dior’s present Creative director) Garden in Bloom dress from the Dior Spring-Summer collection of 2017 is also worth lingering over. The petal-like flowers ornamenting the gown are in fact cut and dyed feathers.
I finally entered the Ateliers room with great anticipation for I was setting foot into Dior’s inner sanctum, the workroom. It was filled with dummies in glass cases. They were clothed in white cotton toiles, the test garments made up from Christian Dior’s sketches. Admiring them in turn, I began to appreciate the different panels of a jacket, a dress or skirt, the layering, the stitching and sheathing. Here I started to really see how one hundred hours could be spent hand producing one of these garments.
Christian valued his seamstresses or petites mains for good reason for he was no technician. They cried when he died so suddenly, aged fifty-two. During his ten-year tenure he produced seventy collections. He was an inspiration for the artistic directors who followed. I wonder however whether any of his successors came through the tradesmen entrance as he liked to do at 30 rue Montaigne. I somehow doubt it.
Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams runs from 2 February – 14 July 2019
The very readable, Dior by Dior (The Autobiography of Christian Dior) is on sale at the V and A priced £9.99