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God + Gold = Dior

Christian Dior’s “Junon” gown (FW 1949) is the Belle of the Ball. Photos by Ricky Toledo

It was Jean Cocteau who conjured the meaning of Christian Dior’s name when he referred to the French couturier as “that nimble genius unique to our age with the magical name combining God and gold (dieu and or).” 

He was indeed a god who revolutionized fashion in 1947 with his “New Look,” which made post-war women feel beautiful again and placed France firmly back in its place as the capital of haute couture and luxury.  His name became the gold standard of impeccably designed and executed dresses, making fashion a profitable enterprise by offering his clothes and accessories to the world through boutiques and licenses. 

Dior’s new silhouette was ultra-feminine:  A nipped-in waist and full skirt emphasized the bust and hips, an antithesis to the existing boxy and masculine fashion.  Requiring up to 20 yards of luxury fabric, it was a scandal during the post-war rationing era.  King George forbade his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret from wearing them even if he had requested a private show of the collection in England.  But there was no stopping the rise of Dior who captured the imagination of women all over the world and inspired other designers to adopt the look.  At the height of his success, the couturier could only look back to the time when he was 14 and a fortuneteller told him, “You will be penniless but women will be good to you and it is thanks to them that you will succeed.” 

Superstitious as he was, he would thereafter consult his tarot reader every time he started a new collection and would make sure one dress was named Granville, his place of birth, and that the lily-of-the-valley, his favorite flower, would be an accent in one of the creations.  But make no mistake, it was not all lucky charms — there was a lot of hard work into the late hours, following a solid business model provided by his partner, the cotton magnate Marcel Boussac.   Dior had business practices that were not common to other fashion firms then, like statistical surveys, control of costs and revenue and a program against copying that facilitated immediate identification of dresses sold in France and abroad.  With Dior, French fashion became a top export, an achievement recognized by the French government by awarding him the Legion of Honor. 

Seventy years hence, the House of Dior has maintained its cachet and eminent status, a milestone that the Musée Des Arts Décoratifs has chosen to celebrate with a lavish and comprehensive exhibition that opened last July but is still packing them in with two-hour lines of fashion aficionados.  To highlight the fact that Dior was a knowledgeable art lover, there is the added bonus of his and his successors’ designs interacting with paintings, furniture and objets d’art sourced from the Louvre and other great museums of the world. 

 The first part of the exhibit, in fact, is Dior as galeriste, recreating an exhibit in his gallery which he opened in 1928 with the financial support of his father who agreed to help only if the family name did not appear on the façade.  Dior wanted to be an architect or a composer but his father, a fertilizer manufacturer, enrolled him in political science. After graduation, though, his artistic inclinations brought him to the art world where he met all the established as well as up and coming artists of surrealism who are featured in the tableau.

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Dior actually cultivated friendships with artists all his life and one can see the ties he forged between couture and all forms of art, defining the House’s enduring influence and legacy which his successors honored with their own versions: Marc Bohan’s beaded drippings inspired by Jackson Pollock, John Galliano’s  tribute to Léon Bakst and the Ballets Russes, Gianfranco Ferre’s riffs on the harlequins of Cezanne, and Raf Simons’ revisiting of the Spray paintings series of Sterling Ruby. 

Photography was also an important component in the development of the House of Dior.  “The weeks which follow the first showing have a decisive influence on the collection which is yet to be born. It is then that I perform my ritual self-criticism, in which I am assisted by the photographs published in the papers which often present me with an entirely new light on my creations,” shared the designer in an interview. The house’s photogenic style caught the eye of magazine editors and top photographers like Irving Penn and Horst whom Dior regarded as partners in promoting the themes of his collections. It was the golden age of fashion photography, producing iconic photographs like the soignée Dovima with elephants by Avedon and Cecil Beaton’s portrait of Princess Margaret who chose a Dior creation for her twenty-first birthday.

In the Colorama section one can see the whole range of the house through its color palette: From pink, “the color of happiness and femininity” and grey, “the most elegant neutral color” to red “that dresses women’s smiles” and black “the most elegant of colors.” It was the dream in Dior’s mind ever since he opened his atelier:  To dress a woman from head to toe “in a meticulously composed elegance.”

 

 

 

 

A tableau reminiscent of the Avenue Montaigne couture house decorated in a neoclassical façade, Trianon grey paneling and neo-Leo XVI medallion chairs reveals Dior’s fascination with the 18th century.  For him, this style, influenced by the way the Belle Époque viewed the Enlightenment, was perfect for an uncluttered setting needed to set off his creations. The refinement of the women of that era and their gentle lifestyle formed the designer’s conception of femininity.  Naturally, the influence can be seen in his ensembles as well as in the collections of his successors, inspired by the opulence of the court dresses worn at Versailles or the simple dresses of Marie-Antoinette at the Petit Trianon. 

But Dior would also find inspiration beyond the shores of France. The art and culture of the world’s continents provided a wealth of material to inform his work.  The succeeding designers likewise mined these riches:  Bohan and Galliano put a spin on Egyptian breastplates and effigies of the gods of Ancient Egypt.  After exploring the treasures of China, Galliano’s entire summer 2003 collection was dedicated to the encounters of East and West.  Dior, Simons and Maria Grazia Chiuri could never get enough of Japan, from kimonos, shiburi and fukusa to Hokusai paintings and cherry blossoms.

Back in Paris, while designing for a collection, Dior’s mind would always wander back to the garden of his youth, a sanctuary created by his mother Madeleine in Granville, overlooking the sea. “After women, flowers are the most divine of creations,” he once said.  It is no wonder that his New Look was a flower-woman with the full skirt in the form of a corolla contrasting with a calyx-like bodice.  A stunning white garden with sculptured paper foliage and wisteria dripping from the ceiling is a high point in the show, setting off all the flower-inspired dresses like his Operá Bouffe gown draped in the shape of a rose.  Bohan, Ferré and Galliano who all dabbled in gardening, also have many floral fantasies on exhibit. 

Most unforgettable is the very first collection of Simons where his runway had walls of freshly picked flowers.  Chiuri, on the other hand, created exquisite embroideries made of delicate hand-dyed petals reminiscent of flowers from a herbarium.

As far as construction of dresses go, Dior always designed based on his observation of the female body and a desire to idealize its proportions and stylize its curves.   Each design was created “keeping in mind both its structure and the effect its movements would produce once on a body.”   This is what produced “The Dior Allure,” the title of the section dedicated to a chronological presentation of how Dior and his successors created innovative constructions, making them “true architects of clothing.” 

But probably the most exuberant part of the couturier’s oeuvre is Le Bal, which is the fitting finale for the show.  The extravagant post-war balls gave Dior the chance to create the most splendid gowns. As a tribute to Dior’s love of balls, Galliano organized the Artist’s Ball at the Versailles Orangery in 2007.   For her first couture show, Chiuri created a fairy-tale ball in an enchanted forest.  These gowns and more are magnificently displayed at the nave of the museum, comprising the largest section of the exhibit with “ball attendees” congregating in “party islands” wearing the most sumptuous creations, all under the gaze of the legendary beauties of the past as immortalized in portraits by artists like Thomas Gainsborough and Auguste Renoir.  The setting also recalls all the stars and celebrities that dressed in Dior, from Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich to the more current Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence and Rihanna; from the Duchess of Windsor and Princess Grace of Monaco to Lady Diana and Carla Bruni-Satkozy.  After scrutinizing each gown, you just have to make time to look up at the ceiling and enjoy the fabulous son et lumiere with flakes of gold leaf falling from the sky. Look out the windows the way Dior did, watching the seasons change, the flowers blooming and wilting.  It is pure magic, pure poetry — the very essence of Dior.

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Log on to www.lesartsdecoratifs.fr for details.  Follow the authors on Instagram @ rickytchitov ; Twitter @RickyToledo23 Facebook - Ricky Toledo Chito Vijandre

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