If we’re calling fashion exhibitions at museums “blockbusters”, a term coined when Met’s 2011 Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty broke all visitor records at the time, then trailers must be warranted. Consider this to be a bumper trailer for a bumper exhibition. Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams at the Museé Arts Décoratifs is big. 3,000 square metres big. The biggest fashion exhibition Paris has ever staged and of course the biggest retrospective Dior has ever seen, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the house. It’s not quite enough just to scroll through the pictures because the scale of the exhibition is such that requires in-depth and multiple viewing to really grasp everything you’re seeing. Co-curators Florence Muller and Olivier Gabet have succeeded in amassing a vast amount of artefacts – the clothes of course taking centre stage with over 300 haute couture frocks on show, in addition to sketches, photographs, hats, shoes, bags, jewellery that complete the Dior megabrand universe that was put in motion very soon after Christian Dior debuted his New Look in 1947. And add to that, the paintings, furniture and objets d’art, the Dior archives are given an enriched contextual background.
We begin with a room that charts the making of Christian Dior as a young man, through letters, photographs, video clips and trinkets, all compiling a a visual digest of a man who grew up in Granville, and immersed himself in the world of avant garde art in the roaring twenties in Paris. In fact, that’s the main starting point of the exhibition, where a Salvador Dali bust confronts you alongside a photographic recreation of the progressive art gallery, Christian Dior ran in Paris with his friend Jacques Bonjean, exhibiting works by the likes of Calder, Man Ray and Giacometti. In turn those artists also attended Christian Dior’s fashion debut in 1947, eager to see what this man of eclectic and on-point artistic taste would do for what was then a down-and-out fashion industry. The point of colliding Dior with Dali is that whilst they both pushed boundaries in their respective fields, they would also share tastes for something as out-moded as art nouveau. The onus of being a “revolutionary” is a bit of a misnomer. In the introduction to the accompanying catalogue, Dior is described as seeing himself as a reactionary, and by bringing his romantic and dreamer influences from his youth to his work as a fashion designer, it was a reaction to wartime frugality that was incidentally innovative.
One of the oldest pieces on show in the exhibition – the Diablesse dress from the fall/winter 1947 collection, the second after Dior’s debut
In the next room, the iconic imagery of Dior is brought to life with images such as Richard Avedon’s 1955 Harper’s Bazaar photograph of Dovima and an elephant, fading in and out on a screen, to reveal the original black velvet dress adorned with a white sash. This is where Nathalie Crinièr’s scenography design really comes into play. Rarities such as a sumptuous dress, constructed with seven layers of silk, net and organza, created for Princess Margaret in 1951 are also on display, loaned from the Museum of London, representative of the significant and slightly controversial relationship between a French couturier and a British royal (it was an unwritten rule that royal women should patronise British fashion houses).
Dior’s affinity with artists – both contemporary and historical – are further underlined in the work of successors, who picked up on those inspirations of Christian Dior, when he died in 1957 of a heart attack. Whilst Monsieur Dior might have ventured to a retrospective exhibition on the Ballets Russes at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 1939, decades later, John Galliano would create his outfit for Shéhérazade in his Opera Garnier collection in 1998. It is here that you discover that the works of all of Christian Dior’s successors are given equal billing, which is a real strongpoint of the retrospective. You have Gianfranco Ferré’s 1995 couture interpretation of Cézanne’s harlequin character as well as Marc Bohan’s 1984 take on Jackson Pollock’s paint splatterings. And of course more recently, Raf Simons’ collaboration with Sterling Ruby on a series of couture dresses that pitted shadowy paintings with printed satin.
The impressive visual onslaught begins to build, as we enter a winding room dubbed, “Colorama” – a rainbow gradiated arrangement of dresses, shoes, hats, bags, perfume bottles and sketches. It’s a technicolour representation of the world that Christian Dior set into motion quite rapidly, with his agreement to begin licensing out the Dior name around the world and the creation of Miss Dior perfume as early as 1947. Dior was arguably the first mega fashion maison that became a globally recognised household name through these enterprises.
All roads lead back to Paris, as two fur ensembles created by Frédéric Castet as a tribute to Paris monuments in 1988 are on display alongside a vitrine of robe noir. Not long after Dior showed his New Look, the House of Dior accounted for half of France’s haute couture exports and it revived Paris as the beating centre of fashion.
Just outside of Paris, Versailles comes calling as 18th century rococo is evident throughout Dior’s output. Christian Dior’s own Trianon gowns recalled the pannier dresses of the eighteenth century as did Raf Simons’ fall 2014 couture collection. Those colours dubbed by Monsieur Dior as “Marie Antoinette blue”, “dauphin green” and “Bertin pink” (named after the milliner to Marie Antoinette) crop up, time and time again. John Galliano’s fall/winter 2004 moiré bustier gown with gold embroidery is another standout piece with its exacting corset contrasted with a rebellious draped bustle of gold embroidery. A portrait of the Duchesse de Polignac anchors this Petit Trianon passage, where decadence and opulence are indulged upon.
The thematic catalogue of inspirations continues into a global journey where you can quibble with the modern day catcalls of cultural appropriation. This is where “impressions” of China, Japan, Spain and Africa are formed by extreme abstraction. From Christian Dior’s 1955 silk brocade tunic and skirt made for the Duchess of Windsor to John Galliano’s epic spring summer 2003 haute couture collection to Maria Grazia Chiuri’s sakura embroidered dresses for a special haute couture redux show in Tokyo in April – chinoiserie and japanaiserie are on display in abundance. Travelling in the mind spans from Ancient Egypt artefacts to Goya’s depiction of flamenco to Masai tribe masks, eliciting interpretations of these cultures, and what strikes you is how different the interpretations are, depending on the creative director at helm.
Dior’s love of flowers is of course well-documented. “After woman, flowers are the most lovely things god has given the world,” said the couturier, who would go on to create his flower women with corolla-shaped skirts and calyx-esque bodies. An intricate paper flower installation created by Barcelona-based paper artists Wanda forms the backdrop to the keen gardeners of Dior, who have all taken Christian Dior’s original love of nature and created their own creations in bloom. A beautiful Monet hangs on the wall as a reminder of the impressionistic approach Christian Dior and his successors took towards interpreting flowers as seen in a Yves Saint Laurent dip dyed tulip dress, in Raf Simons’ haute couture pieces for Dior that focused on abstracted floral embroidery and Maria Grazia Chiuri’s enchanted garden gowns of embroidered tulle.
On the opposite side of the museum (all of the above was only half of the exhibition…), this is where the physical height of the museum is used to superb effect. A vast display of iterations of Dior’s New Look – specifically, the Bar jacket – that towers over you like a monument of iconoclastic fashion with its rigorous wasp-wasited cut, often paired with a skirt that celebrated an excess of fabric. The “Bars” of every decade don’t waver too far from this undulating silhouette and it’s that continuity, which is the main takeaway from the exhibition.
Galleries dedicated to the creative directors that helmed the house after Christian Dior’s death – Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and presently, Maria Grazia Chiuri – also seek to emphasise the way Dior has moved through the decades and through stylistic time epochs, as well as being reactions to each predecessor. Saint Laurent’s youthquake-fuelled radicalism (well, radical in the context of haute couture) was followed up by a more polite and steady offering from Bohan. Ferré’s Italian flamboyance came to shake things up at the house, quickly followed by the theatrics of British enfant terrible Galliano. And then Raf Simons came to offer his clean break from the past, wiping the slate with his purist vision. And finally, Grazia Chiuri – the first female to steer the Dior ship – into an ever fractured fashion landscape where it’s not quite enough to just simply make pretty clothes. You need to stand for something too, and her “women for women” messaging does just that.
Yves Saint Laurent for Dior
Marc Bohan for Dior
Gianfranco Ferré for Dior
John Galliano for Dior
Raf Simons for Dior
Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior
A hall of toiles (where artisans from the Dior atelier will be demonstrating their skills throughout the exhibition) and an illuminated linear display of the Dior “Allure” all seek to impress upon you that above any one creative director’s vision, the spirit of the house must always be present and codes adhered to. The changes to the fundamental silhouette from decade to decade, illustrated in a neon-tubed line-up of tailored ensembles, appear to be subtle.
By the time you hit the incredible room of the Dior Ball, dedicated to the gowns that have graced many a star over the years and Christian Dior’s own love of a lavish soirée, you give up looking at captions. Most of the dresses are so recognisable and iconic in their own right that they stand twenty metres above you, defying the need for labels. Like John Galliano’s sphinx line dress from his Egyptian collection in 2004, which sits on top of yet another height-driven display. Other instant stand-outs include Christian Dior’s 1949 Junon gown with its skirt of sequinned ombréed petals and then Maria Grazia Chiuri’s re-interpretion of that gown in diaphanous tulle.
This is the room where I was lucky enough to witness at a press preview without a single person in it. Maybe a late-night opening of the museum at an unsociable hour might yield the same thing. I stood there for at least half an hour, taking in the looped video projection, that takes this illuminated nave from day to night, basking these gowns in sunrise, dusk and midnight hues. The experience was, and I’m going to cheese it up here, moving. Some might accuse the exhibition of employing Disney-fication tactics but for the non-fashion onlooker, this sort of atmospheric razz-ma-tazz is what is required, to well and truly animate these dresses and make them seem tantalising to the uninitiated. This room is the culmination point of an exhibition that will surely encourage future fashion enthusiasts, as it dazzles the young to sketch, sew and yes, dream.